The Post-Pandemic Workplace
With millions still working from home, what does the post-pandemic workplace look like, and how is the corporate interiors market preparing for this new normal? Join Executive VP of STO’s Global Services group, Robert Leon, and STO’s Director of Sustainability, Jennifer Taranto, as they discuss the pandemic’s impact on commercial real estate, design, and construction—from short-term infection control measures and tech solution to new sustainability, wellness, and safety standards.
Alison SmithDirector of Media Relations, STO Building Group
Rob LeonExecutive Vice President, STO Building Group
Jennifer TarantoDirector of Sustainability, STO Building Group
From mass shutdowns to jobsite safety concerns, the global pandemic has transformed construction as we know it. As the AEC community continues to navigate this unprecedented situation, we’re sitting down with construction leaders from around the globe to hear how they’re responding to these evolving circumstances. Welcome to STO Building Conversations and episode 5 of the COVID-19 series.
I am here with Rob Leon and Jennifer Toronto, who help lead our sustainability and wellness efforts at STO Building Group. And we’re here to talk today a little bit more about what the effect of COVID-19 has been when it comes to sustainability and wellness and what we’re seeing for the future of workplace and the built environment. So Rob, when all this first started happening, you led a taskforce here to help our organization better understand how the pandemic might affect design and construction, especially when it comes to commercial interiors. Can you talk about what was your approach to that? What were you guys trying to find out and why it was important to you to do that?
Sure, absolutely. So, you know, one of the things that I think is important to understand is that, you know, we have to heavily lean on our design partners when we talk about this aside from our clients. So our clients were looking for a way through what was going on and what is still going on. And the evolution of the workplace going from a very collaborative densified place, doesn’t really sit well with the new, issues that are going on with the pandemic and the guidelines by the CDC and the WHO. So what we wanted to do is we want it to be able to have answers for our clients when they call us and say, you know, what are the other clients doing? What do we see the industry, uh, leaning towards? And I think the things that we found were that, first of all, what’s happening now, like in the immediate future, what’s happening in the, in the near future, and then what is going to maybe happen in stick and be permanent into the design. So that was one of the things.
And the other thing that I think was a resounding information piece was that flexibility is very important. We’ve been talking about flexibility for a long, long time in the workplace, but now I think it’s even more relevant flexibility. Meaning how do you use space inside the physical workplace, whether it’s private versus communal, uh, and what does flexibility mean where you’re saying, do you even have to come to the office? Can you work remotely? What is that nice mix? So when you put all this together, you say there’s got to be a cultural shift because it’s both a behavioral change and it’s also a physical change of what’s happening. And again, we wanted to really look into this and do the study and do the research, not only our own sake, because we need to know how we’re going to work in our own environment, but how are we going to service our clients best and have some of the answers.
So of the, of that research that you did, or some of the things that you’re seeing in the design or design partners saying, do you anticipate those happening kind of no matter when people come back, whether it’s in a month or a year?
So again, I think it depends on when, right? So right now, I’m going to use our office as sort of a test case, right. And here in New York, you know, because we were in that phase one return to work. Essential workers, we had to be ready to occupy our space. So the things that we implemented, for example, we had a staggered workforce, right? Cause we were only allowed to have 50% of the workforce here in the offices, in New York. Uh, we had to have wayfinding. So we had directionals clicked in place. So paths of travel would be a one directional. So you wouldn’t cross paths with people. And a lot of signage explaining what we could do. For example, less seating in conference rooms to promote the social distancing. We put up plexiglass dividers between people in the workspaces, limitations on vertical transportation, for example, uh, temperature taking.
So, you know, when we talk about this, you can hear that it’s both physical and behavioral implementations that we had put in. So again, I think that it really depends on when the clients, when people go back to work, what is the state of the rest of the environment? Do we have a vaccine yet? Do we not? What are people’s anxietie/concerns of coming back to the workplace? Because a resounding amount of people do want to come back to the workplace, you know, working from home sounds like a great thing until you have to do it. People had to get their kids through school. So it’s more than just a work from home situation in a traditional sense.
Sure and for some places like New York and Boston, where Jenn and I sit, transportation is part of the problem—you know, getting to the office. The comfort level might be there once you’re in the office, it’s just getting to the office that can be the challenge and, and out of our control.
Yeah. And I think just to kind of reiterate to what Rob had mentioned about the employees coming back to the workplace, we’re dealing with existing buildings. And I think if we take a step back further, we’re talking about, people haven’t been in those buildings at all and buildings were meant to be operated with people inside them, right? So all of the settings, the HVAC settings, all of the, you know, stagnant water in buildings, right. So I think that it starts even when the client decides that they’re coming back into the office, what are the measures that they need to take to flush out the pipes, to do some filter changes just to make sure that there’s been no mold and mildew growth, no condensation in the amount of time that people have been gone. There’s a host of health issues beyond just the obvious.
And that’s a good point, Jenn, that the indoor air quality is sort of the number one focus area right now. What are you seeing as director of sustainability in terms of what that means for building sustainability overall and for upgrading a HVAC systems and all that kind of stuff.
So I think the easy one in the existing buildings scenario is people are looking to air filtration. Can they upgrade their air filters? If they’re at a, what we call a MER rating, minimum efficiency rating value, which talks about the size of particulate that gets captured in the filter. If they’re at a lower number, can they move to a higher number and capture more finer particles? There are obvious limitations for existing systems. And so we have to work with them to figure out what’s not going to overtax the motor or, you know, create other problems down the line. But I think that’s sort of one of the big, the big, quick hits. There’ve been other conversations about UV lighting in HVAC systems. And what we’re seeing is that the jury’s out, one day I’ll read an article that says we can make it work. And another day I’ll read an article that says there’s no way that this would ever work. So I think that everything is a case by case scenario everybody’s systems are different. That’s the other big challenge is that, you know, no two buildings are the same anywhere. So we’re really kind of having to take each client and doing a little due diligence and doing some research.
That’s been one of the challenges I think of this whole situation is it’s just, the word everyone keeps using is unprecedented. And it’s so hard to make decisions when you’re in the storm and that’s what’s happening is, we don’t know but we want to react. So given that, do you guys see code codes are going to change building codes or certifications like WELL, or LEED are going to start integrating these kinds of things into their programs?
You know, what we have to remember is fundamentally is codes move very slowly. Changing the building code is not going to happen overnight, even in the midst of a pandemic. And so, it’s really going to be best practices that we, as an industry, as a community, uh, design professionals put in place and figure out what works, you know, maybe in advance. I think we’re going to find that groups like ASHRAE are going to hesitate to fundamentally say anything until they have the science, right. And all of this takes time. So we’re leaning really heavily on some of our industry partners like the International WELL Building Institute and Delos and figuring out what they’re doing and, and they are creating a new health and safety standard that they’ve just released. So I think that what we’re going to see is that in some ways the industry is going to really innovate and move faster than code compliance.
Yeah. Jenn, I think that’s a great point. And when you think about it too, is that the organizations like the IWBI that Jenn was mentioning, it’s actually international, right? So I think that’s the other piece of the puzzle here. When we talk about consistency, it has to happen more on a global level, especially with the trade partners that we have in Europe and where are we doing a lot of business between ourselves and the other countries across the world, it’s got to be consistent.
And you both have mentioned some of the anxiety that comes into play for people. Are you seeing on the WELL side of things—you know, wellness is the focus of that—are you seeing any trends that you think are going to come through either certification or just wellness in general that will become the norm?
I think that, it’s starting with small things. Uh, Rob talked about the wayfinding for example, and there’ve been a lot of conversations about, you know, yes, you need the signage, but the colors matter and the language matters. It’s not like you must wear a mask. It’s more like pleasant. It’s like “let’s wear masks,” right? So you sort of entice people into this new culture of normality with ease, rather than hitting people over the head with a hammer. I think it eases that transition for a lot of people. And I think that just overly communicating, that’s the other thing we’re seeing that, you know, we’re doing it internally, our clients are doing it, is that the more information people have, the better they’re going to ultimately feel.
Without a doubt and, and to, you know, to build on that, it’s better to say what you can do instead of what you can’t do. Jenn ‘s right. It’s putting the right spin on it to alleviate anxiety instead of increasing the anxiety that people are coming to work with or staying home with. So, yeah, there’s, there’s a lot of that that has to happen. And again, consistency, it just hearkens back to like Safety360, right? We want to change the industry so Worker A doesn’t go on to our jobsite and have a different set of rules then the jobsite of our competitors or our colleagues, right? We want it to be consistent. And then it has to be the same thing in this situation that we’re in. Because, again, if there’s consistency, then when you get on a train with somebody else, you know, that there is a certain level of precautions that people are taking and that makes people feel okay. And I think back to the physical space, then we have to set aside some room where people can sort of just have a little bit of downtime, five minutes of just decompressing, so they can deal with whatever anxieties cause there’s a lot of things going on at home too, like we said before. So we have to be able to give the physical space support along with whatever kind of support systems that we can give to our employees. We have to be able to be balancing the physical space with the emotional and behavioral piece.
So a lot of our conversation has been focusing on commercial interiors and office places, but, as you guys know, our organization works in healthcare and manufacturing and other industries. Healthcare, for example, has sort of had higher standards when it comes to indoor air quality and some of the issues we’re dealing with now, have we been able to look toward those sectors to kind of see what we can learn from them and what they’re doing going forward since they have to be a little bit more vigilant?
Yeah, I would say 100%. That was one of the things that on the taskforce came out of the gate really quickly is, you know, if we’re going to create these indoor environments that promote health and wellness and perhaps reduce the spread, where else does this happen? Oh, great – healthcare. Let’s go talk to the healthcare guys and find out, you know, what can we pull over from some of those conversations and some great things come out of it that. We’re talking about pressurization, there’s this theory about, you know, moving air from one room into another, so you get from the cleanest rooms into the not cleanest rooms and pulling, you know, dirty air out through exhaust systems, whether it’s in janitor’s closets or bathrooms or whatever. And what does that look like in a healthcare environment and how could it ultimately work in an office space? And so I would say absolutely, that’s been a big part of a lot of our conversations with clients and with our own internal staff as well.
Yeah, absolutely. And Jenn, can you talk a bit about, like materials selections, anti-microbial surfaces, touchless technology, things that we see a lot in the hospital environment?
Yeah. So anti-microbials is another big one that’s come up a lot lately and there’s been a ton of research on them. They have for years have been proven ineffective, and actually they’re more harmful in the long term to human health. And so we kind of got away from putting those materials. I would say, you know, there’s a lot of healthcare people out there who have denounced them over the years and refuse to have them put in their specs, but they’re starting to creep back up into conversations because retailers are still putting things like this in our clothing. You know, it’s still very much out there in the consumer world. And so when our clients hear it, they think it’s okay. And so it’s really beholden on all of us to educate ourselves and educate each other about some of these things that work and don’t work.
I think that amongst all of those, anti-microbials the one that we’ve come across that seems to be the least impactful on human health is copper. But unfortunately, we can’t line everything with copper, it would get kind of expensive. The other thing, and Rob’s 100% correct, I think technology is going to move pretty quickly in these like touchless environments. Like how do we open doors with an app on our phone instead of having to touch them or do they just sense, ultimately that we’re coming at some point and open for us in advance and, you know, the bathrooms have long had touchless options, but, there’s a big run on installing touchless faucets in kitchen pantries for our clients to the point where some of those manufacturers were really worried about having enough materials to supply them. So that’s definitely another trend that we’ve been seeing.
And when you think about how this could tie into intelligent buildings, right? So we have a security badge, for example, we have facial recognition to get through the turnstiles. And when you have that device on you, do you have to physically push a button to call an elevator? The elevator knows you’re going to, whatever floor does do you have to push a button to get through a door? And it doesn’t necessarily have to be the sensors that sense that you’re in front of the door, because it could be a security issue. But if you have your security badge, you have the clearance through whatever technology may be acceptable to allow you through that door, for example. And then that just carries on it. Does that then turn on the lights in your workspace, in your office, whatever that might be. And you can think about how far down the road this can go. Can it make the cup of coffee that you typically want, you know, from at the pantry and whatever. It’s just, you know, the technology is I think really going to expand, really quickly on this. And again, just like everything it’s going to be, what sticks and what is just more of a quote unquote fad that maybe, you know, really playing into the media and people’s immediate desires and thoughts and anxiety.
Well, while we’re on that topic of reactions and trends, how much of an impact do you think, and I guess lasting power, do you think remote working will have, and I’d like you both to answer that in terms of, on the office in general, and then Jenn, on sustainability, you know, what effect even have we seen already on cities and commuting and all that kind of thing?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there have been some great articles in the news about how outdoor air quality has gotten so much better, especially in cities, you know, people being able to see through the water in Venice or being able to see mountains ranges that they hadn’t seen for years. And so, there’s some optimistic part of me that is hopeful that once people have those experiences, that they want to keep them.
But the other side of the reality is that what we’re seeing is that in many cases, people are going to a more disposable society, right? You know, there’s disposable masks and gloves and the PPE that you are required in life. And you know, what happens with that? And, you know, I think that was another thing actually that came out of our taskforce learnings is that we can’t forget the sustainability piece and I go back to commuting. So many people are driving to work now, and you know, I’m going to give it a pass because we’re not at 100% of the workforce, but imagine being stuck in Boston traffic, again, when 100% of the workers come back, it’s just not sustainable. And not only from an environmental way, it would take you literally an hour to get from one part of Boston to the other part of Boston. So yeah. Welcome to Boston. You’re only an hour away, right? So I think in some ways we really have to remember that we got, as far as we did with banning plastic bags and going to a more environmental outlook on things. And we need to sort of dampen that with the risk that we’re taking, because climate change is still real. We’re still battling that at the same time that we’re battling the pandemic and there’s no reason to backslide.
Yeah. So I think those are great, great points. And when you think about it, we talk about environmentalism is “saving the earth,” but we’re really saving the human race, right? Because the earth will take care of itself by probably ridding itself of us, right? But going back to the question, will the work from home piece be long lasting? All I have to say is that everything that we saw in our research says that we have to continue the flexibility. I don’t think it will be a mandate, but people want to get back to the office. It continues and solidifies the culture of the company. It’s the conversations and interactions that you have with people that aren’t scheduled on a zoom meeting or a GoTo meeting that can be completely monotonous, right? So you want to have that, you know, there’s a sense of professionalism also when you come to an office, there’s your company brand, when it comes to the office. So the takeaway really, again, is flexibility and the sense of community you have to have that people want to be around other people and not in always a very formal controlled way. It has to be that, you run into somebody, idea that breeds innovation, it breeds productivity, believe it or not, to have those little sidebars and little diversions actually really lead to more productivity. So I think that the flexibility piece will be long lasting even when we do get a vaccine for this. I think that will be the big takeaway, the flexibility of the workforce.
And just you know, shout out to Rob, I think one of the things that he’s done really well during this pandemic is bring a tight knit group, our global department together, even closer by setting up, you know, we have weekly calls. We used to meet once a month. And then we went to like, actually, we were meeting a couple of times a week and now we’re down to one time a week. But when Rob asked today, as a matter of fact on our weekly call, do people still want to go forward with it? Even though it looks like things are getting back to normal, everybody resoundingly said yes. And I think part of that is that connectivity. That, even though we were a disparate group that we were, you know, we’re all kind of spread out in different business units, because we’re working for our clients throughout the globe, but bringing us together over that phone call, even if it is 15 minutes or 30 minutes, just to check in and see everybody’s faces, you know, here a random joke from one of our colleagues or, you know, whatever it is I think is really more meaningful now in some ways. And I think that, you know, I’m hopeful that that’s one of the positives that comes out of this even as we do all start returning to the office.
Yeah. And I think in the very beginning, Rob, you mentioned that, you know, the trends that were happening before this were collaboration and flexibility, and it sounded to me like they still are, it just maybe a new take on flexibility. I think for many industries, remote working was part of that flexible package, but maybe not with the acceptance or to the extent it would be. Now, the system’s just been a little disrupted, you know. Even for myself, I have always liked working from home, but I do not want to work from home five days a week – no, sir, no, thank you. So I agree with that, you know, just on a personal level, being able to mix it up, you know, and kind of do what you need to do in the office, what you can do at home. It’s, I think you’re right. That will be a lasting take away, even for industries like ours, that haven’t typically embraced remote working. I think everybody learned that it works and we can do it, especially with video conference calls. That was a gamechanger.
Yeah. And you know, the other thing too, I think it kind of a de-glorified it. Glorified might not be the right word, but I’m saying that like, “oh, you get to work from home? That’s great, I can’t wait to do that,” and now it’s like, “I can’t wait to get back to the office.” You know, there are advantages obviously of working from home and when you can do it and how you do it for all different industries and also different functions within whatever business you’re in. I think we’re sort of unlocking the key to finding the right balance, right? And you know, the people who really wanted to go work from home and then saying, well, you know what, it’s not at all that it’s cracked up to be – there are some issues of having to work from home, but there’s also the people who said, we can never do it because of X, Y, and Z saying, “you know what? It’s not so bad. We can still be productive.” You know, we’re talking about a workforce that’s comprised of adults and they know the things that they have to do. And as long as you also have good management and a good strong culture in your company that can carry that through, I think it could be very, very sustaining and successful. So we’ll see what happens. But I do think that that’s going to be around for a long time.
Great. And “we’ll see,” seems to continue to be the theme of any of these discussions related to COVID. I mean, I remember them saying we’re going to have to either shelter-in-place or wear masks, you know, back when they were having the daily press conferences, maybe until July. Like I remember them saying that and we all thought “no way, no way.” And here we are and things are, you know, in some areas, they’re shooting back up, so we’ll see.
Well, we will see, we shall see, only time will tell. And there are so many factors of what’s going on. The pandemic that we’re in now is actually just highlighting the situation, exacerbating situation, and possibly even accelerating the situation on many, many different fronts—the sustainable fronts to technology, to the culture of how we’re going to work and allow people to have flexibility. So it’s all going to change. And when we get to wherever we think it’s going to be, it’s going to change again because that’s what happens, right? Everything evolves. We were just put into a situation that we have to really focus in on it right now.
I think the other thing, my takeaway from this is that there’s also no silver bullets. Like, “we’ll see, we’ll see, we’ll see,” and there’s no one solution to any problem. And so, you know, you don’t even get to the point where you might even be able to iterate a solution because you’re dealing with different people, you’re dealing with different sets of systems, you’re dealing with so many different variables that everything really has to be bespoke in a way. And you’re just, you’re taking it all in and then having to like give the best possible answer back. It’s just like a giant SAT test—it’s the best possible answer we’re giving back out at the end. But all of those potential solutions – they’re backed in science. It’s just a matter of like, which one of these pieces of the puzzle fit into the problem.
You know, you hear everyone likening this, especially in the Northeast, to 9/11. There were so many drastic changes made and the way we operate in our world, at least in the United States, and I think it is a really apt comparison because there’s going to be for sure lasting impacts, You know, maybe wearing masks every single day won’t stick around forever, just like certain security check-type things didn’t after 9/11, but you know, there’s always security in a lobby now, and you have to go through TSA. Those things are still here. And I think there will be things like that from this too that will just continue on because there’s probably going to be some other kind of health risk, not just this one, you know. This is just one.
You’re absolutely right. And so when that happened and the world changed and people said, “wow, this can actually happen.” That’s the same thing that’s happening. Now. This can actually happen, who would have thought? And it happened like very quickly, you know, we were traveling everywhere one day and all of a sudden it was here and not just like a little bit—it was like here and then it spread and bam. It was like everywhere. And here we are still talking about it. And it’s a real learning situation, I think that we have got to go through, like I said, not just as a country, but as global community members, as a whole human race. And again, this is just one of the factors that beat us down the path towards changing and evolving. It’s a huge factor right now, but again, it’s just one of the factors right now that’s helping accelerate the need to change.
Okay. Well, I do appreciate you both talking about this and I know it’s going to keep changing, especially as you said, our clients really return. I know we have so many that aren’t. It’s not even happening until 2021, which is just so wild. Again in March, we just never could have thought this would be the way. So yeah, we’ll see when that happens, too.
We’ve seen clients sit in a wait and see position because they’re holding off on bringing their employees back and trying to decide whether or not they really need to make some of these changes or are we going to get lucky and get a vaccine before it happens? And I think the other part of that is wait and see what other people try and see what works, right? And so I think that there’s a lot more to come and hopefully we’ll be back here to talk about it again.
Absolutely. Thanks again to Rob Leon and Jenn Taranto, who were our very first STO Building Conversations podcast guests. So, thanks for returning and we hope to actually have you both on again to talk about what’s coming up next.
Rob Leon and Jennifer Taranto (27:42Go to https://www.temi.com/editor/t/f71GcjCUe1r-JqyVxY6ySRANTYE2gxp5rcW9A6RyEUgevWO-mCcFb--GCfzUEdHMzUXrKVCGFJ2dbO2UcW1gN4gOJZ0?loadFrom=DocumentDeeplink&ts=1662.77):
Thank you, Alison. Thank you.
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