In Business magazine, a business-to-business publication in the Greater Madison region published its most recent May 2021 issue featuring post-pandemic office insights from three panelists, including C.D. Smith Construction's SVP of Strategic Development and Marketing, Holly Brenner. Reference Holly's Q&A responses below to discover more about lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, recruiting with remote capabilities, new corporate commercial construction, the office of the future, manufacturing facilities in this era, Dane county's development hot spots and the future of downtown Madison.
The Q&A was moderated by In Business magazine's editorial director Joe Vanden Plas. Holly was in the company of panelists Tim Cleary (Ideal Builders' Executive Vice President) and Richard Schmidt (Attorney at Boardman & Clark LLP). To see responses from all three panelists, click the link for the full article: The Office is Not Dead in the May 2021 issue of In Business magazine.
VANDEN PLAS: The ﬁrst question pertains to the events of the past year. What lessons (good and bad) have been learned — for your company and the construction industry — from the COVID-19 pandemic?
BRENNER: I’ve thought about this quite a bit, and it’s been something we’ve thought about for the past year, really, but it’s amazing to me how much a company, a community, and even an industry can come together to overcome any obstacle. We’ve all seen this, I believe, throughout the pandemic and certainly it goes beyond our industry, but I would consider that to be one of the silver linings. We formed some terriﬁc alliances with other companies, including our competitors, and all in the name of safety. Being united against a common threat is something that tends to bond people, and it certainly has done that in a number of ways. We came together. We took off our competitive hats. We shared best practices. To me, it was very fulﬁlling to see people within our industry rally for the greater good.
Another thing in this category for us and many others is that we became very proﬁcient at being virtual. There are some parts of our business and our workﬂow that I believe will remain virtual, even for the long term. The use of technology really plays a main part in this topic. Through the use of technology, we have the ability to do many things virtually that we would normally do in person. Of course, there is less travel, and there is greater efﬁciency because of less travel. There are safer meetings, especially in light of the way COVID-19 is transmitted. Another big part of that is the greater ﬂexibility that we’re able to offer to our teams and still remain very highly productive.
That said, and probably like my colleague's companies here, we are all about building relationships and we value face-to-face interaction, and we still believe that face to face is best for many things, most things even, but we have found signiﬁcant value in our ability to connect differently through technology. This will beneﬁt us and be helpful to us in ways that we can’t even foresee today. I also believe it will be helpful in recruiting top talent, especially as we look to future generations and generations that have literally grown up with technology. It’s an expectation for them and this will help us be more prepared for that in the future.
Another thing is adaptability. It’s one of our core values and we have deﬁnitely leveraged that daily throughout the pandemic, whether it was navigating CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] rules and guidelines, customer preferences, jobsite demands, local and municipal requirements, and you name it. We have proven over and over again to ourselves and to our customers the importance of being able to adapt to a changing environment. It’s easy for me to think about the ofﬁce environment because I sit in an ofﬁce on most days, but when I think about the jobsite environment, we implemented many COVID prevention measures there as well. With everything from modifying the way and frequency with which we clean break areas and tools, to a reduction in carpooling, to minimizing jobsite tours, to reducing the amount of trafﬁc on the sites, we have taken many steps there and precautions to keep our teams in the ﬁeld safe and protected.
One thing that is a little bit more tangible is that we have seen a drop in other illnesses, things that were not COVID. This is largely a result of us staying home when we are not feeling 100%. How many of us, and I’ll raise my hand on this, but how many of us have felt a little under the weather and pushed through, just trudged into the ofﬁce anyway? That was probably how a lot of people ran prior to COVID-19, but we’re paying more attention to personal hygiene, hand-washing, sanitizing surfaces, masks, physical distancing, and all that. Over time, the masks probably will not be as prevalent, but I can see people continuing to keep a little distance, maybe continuing with ﬁst bumps rather than handshakes, and I’m hopeful that hand-washing will stay at the higher level. Maybe that’s my health care background coming out, but I hope that one sticks around. And there is less pressure to come into working environments when you’re not feeling well, especially now that the ability to work from home has been demonstrated successfully. Those trends will continue to contribute to an improvement in overall health and well-being.
One thing, in particular, that started out to be a bit difﬁcult for us, but we have certainly learned from, is that work-from-home culture early on. As ofﬁce activity was reduced to minimal levels and people were instructed to work from home, frequency of jobsite visits and nonessential team members being reduced — things like that — we were quick to try to adopt some, but the protocols and rules that we established were not super clear and they weren’t comprehensive enough. It was new territory for us. We learned very quickly and, thankfully, about the importance of increased communication. It was fairly easy for us for the normal interactions. They still went on strong.
The planned meetings and things like that, they just moved to [Microsoft] Teams or Zoom or Google Meet or whatever, but we found that we needed to do something to replace the impromptu hallway conversations, the water cooler conversations that happen very organically when you are working in close proximity to one another. So, we were intentional about setting up more frequent virtual communication methods and social opportunities for that employee connection and the management that happens outside of the formally scheduled meetings. So, it took a bit to work through that, but we’ve come a long way.
VANDEN PLAS: Holly, I wanted to go back to something you mentioned about recruiting with remote capabilities. Has that expanded your reach in terms of employee recruitment?
BRENNER: It’s just a cultural element that more people are looking for. Really, the word is ﬂexibility — a more ﬂexible culture, working from home remotely and using technology to facilitate that. Construction, as a whole, is very much about showing up and doing the work in person because of the nature of the work, and so the idea of working remotely and having that additional ﬂexibility, at least for us, is something that was a little different. Now, having been successful with this technology and working remotely, it makes us more attractive for job candidates.
OFFICE OF THE FUTURE
VANDEN PLAS: In COVID-19, some believe new commercial construction has met the ultimate opponent but has it? Even though some employees would prefer to return to the ofﬁce, a signiﬁcant segment of the workforce prefers to keep on working remotely. So, does this necessarily place limitations on the future of commercial construction, or does it create different growth opportunities?
BRENNER: I believe that the other panelists' comments are on point, at least with my experience both personally and just observing the activities of my colleagues here. There is value to having that focus time when you’re at home and presumably, you’re at home working and not like in the early days of COVID, when you might have had a child or two or more and a couple of pets zooming through your Zoom call. But when you can actually be there and focus, you can deﬁnitely be productive.
VANDEN PLAS: There may be some overlap here, but speaking of the ofﬁce of the future, including new construction and retroﬁtting/renovation trends, ien what other ways will the construction industry be part of the solution when it comes to protecting the workplace from COVID-19 and future viruses or variants of COVID-19?
BRENNER: Well, I do think the workplace of the future will deﬁnitely be different than what we’ve experienced over the past decade or so. We expect a heightened focus on collaboration areas and technology and ﬂexibility, as we’ve been discussing, and it’s clear to me that just as we, as individuals, have had to be ﬂexible and adapt, our workspaces will have to be designed and built that way as well. The growth of new commercial construction will need to support that, to support these functions and preferences. The key to making that all happen, and what our role will be in that, is to have a lot of open dialogue and collaboration. It probably goes without saying, but we’ll continue to work closely with our architectural partners, and our mechanical trade partners certainly will have a signiﬁcant role as we talk about air handling and things like that.
I think we start with evaluating what’s working. Some things that were working before will continue to work. They might need to be adjusted a little bit, but we’ll work toward creating cleaner, safer spaces. We’ll have to upgrade some systems. More robust mechanical systems will certainly be needed to accommodate the fresh air intake and air changes per hour, for example. Having our HVAC innovator partners heavily involved in planning is a must. They have been at the table with us almost always, but this is another level of that.
As for social, physical distancing and gathering spaces, I’m not sure that ofﬁces will necessarily be smaller because we’ll need more space per person to operate in. I guess we’ll see how that sorts itself out, but larger break rooms and outdoor amenity spaces will be needed. We actually today — what is it, about 60 degrees here? — we put our outdoor furniture out on our balcony so people can start heading out there. Yes, we’re hearty in Wisconsin, but we’re ready. People are ready to start gathering a little bit more for meetings in person. Outside, the masking rules are a little bit different. Point-of-entry conﬁguration is something we’ll have to talk more about. I have a fair amount of experience in health care and from day one of this, everyone going in and out the same door, there is a lot of potential for cross-contamination, so looking at that beyond health care, of course, in ofﬁce settings and beyond will be important. Think about not only the front-door access but trafﬁc patterns in general.
There are products now, including anti-microbial counters and artwork and other things that people touch that can be sanitized or are self-sanitizing in a sense. Those kinds of things will become more mainstream and will be required rather than be a nicety if you will.
VANDEN PLAS: When we think of manufacturing in this era, we think of clean manufacturing, especially in Dane County. I’d like to direct a question to the panel about how manufacturing facilities have changed and will continue to evolve with safety considerations, trafﬁc ﬂow, HVAC/clean-air requirements, and social/physical distancing (perhaps even on the plant ﬂoor) factored in?
BRENNER: I agree with the other panelists on so many of these points. In current times, the impact on the workforce is the most important factor to consider. Manufacturing facilities have changed quite a bit, signiﬁcantly even, over the past several decades with a focus on team member safety. We’ve had that in the past, but they continue to do that as the environment changes. So, what do I mean by that? In the past, the focus might have been on PPE or ergonomics. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, and as knowledge increased of how COVID-19 spreads, as we learn more about that, it becomes more important. That’s probably why a lot of my comments have been focused on the HVAC systems and clean air requirements and distancing because we’ll continue to focus on employee safety. We’re not going to stop using PPE. We know all these things, and hopefully, they are hard-wired, and so the next thing we approach is how to ﬁght a virus.
With anything that spreads through the air, you start to think about particulate size and ﬁltration requirements. However, just increasing the size of the unit ﬁlters can have an effect on the existing systems and energy usage. There are all kinds of ‘what happens if you do this?’ conversations that need to be had. At the end of the day, we’re looking for cleaner and safer spaces, and we know that improved HVAC systems can do that and help limit the spread of viruses. We also have to think about the budget for that. Upgrading to more efﬁcient systems comes with a cost, but are there operational savings that can offset that? That’s something that manufacturers and others — this goes beyond manufacturing — have to consider. Does it make sense?
Even further — identifying warning signs. Monitoring those systems allows us to identify early warning signs and to avoid costly, unexpected repairs. In general, it’s a great time to really look at how facilities are set up and whether these are changes that should and can be made.
ARE HOT SPOTS STILL HOT?
VANDEN PLAS: Has the pandemic altered Dane County’s development hot spots — either by geography or commercial building type — or has it reinforced them?
BRENNER: The pandemic has altered much of our normal lives, and we’re all looking at what we do through a different lens. If you think about demand and consumer trends, they are very different now than they were pre-pandemic. For one, we’ve noticed that more people are staying home. Home Depot stock is through the roof and things like that. People are revisiting what they want for their communities, and we’re seeing this as well with life, work, and play. Mixed-use developments in urban settings continue to grow in popularity and I don’t see that slowing down. As more businesses contemplate long-term, work-from-home strategies, as we’ve been discussing, professions like ours will look for more living environments with more at-home ofﬁce space and more common amenity spaces. We will see more people looking for what are called walkable living communities with amenities that are closer to home and have more green space to go along with that. It’s a positive that one byproduct of this pandemic is that more people are focusing on … health and well-being and improving their overall quality of life. So, that’s a positive and the pandemic has reinforced this as a direction that we’re heading in from a development standpoint.
VANDEN PLAS: Now about that last question, a parting shot of sorts. There is a lot of concern in the community about the future of downtown Madison. Thanks to the pandemic and the shelter-at-home orders and the social unrest of the past year, an area that was alive with ofﬁce, retail, restaurants, arts facilities, and pedestrian trafﬁc has been effectively shuttered. What will it take to return the area to the way it was on March 1, 2020? Is it simply a matter of putting the pandemic in the rearview mirror, or given the trauma of the past year, will it take more than that? If so, what exactly will it take?
BRENNER: Those are two excellent answers (from the other panelists) and very comprehensive, so I’ll just keep it pretty high level and say that much like we’ve been talking about people and businesses, I think cities and communities are also resilient and they evolved. It’s easy to forget about how certain things like the retail landscape was already changing prior to the pandemic. Yes, the pandemic fast-tracked some of that evolution and it will take some time, but I have no doubt that downtown Madison will once again thrive. We’ll probably see more restaurants than retail, more open-air gathering spaces, more housing, more permanent sanitizing stations, more personal care services, more salons and yoga studios, that kind of thing. We’re reinforcing the idea that people will be looking for places to live, work, and play that are close together and close in proximity. I do believe it will all come back strong. It just may take a little while.
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