Regional Report: The New Workplace

Published: 06/12/2020
Updated: 06/17/2020

A GPEC Virtual Series

The Greater Phoenix Economic Council (GPEC) hosted the latest installment of its virtual series, ‘Regional Report,’ to explore the realities and best practices of the new workplace. The hour-long discussion was moderated by Eric Sperling, managing director of The Social Television Network, and speakers included:

Christine Sanchez, chief culture officer at Arizona State University (ASU), kicked off the discussion and highlighted ASU’s transformation to a digital model as a result of COVID-19. In the third quarter of fiscal year 2020, 1,016 laptops were delivered to students, faculty and staff, and 3,500 team members trained on remote modalities as the pandemic began to set in.

“They were able to take 3,500 faculty and staff up online to do everything virtually, so ASU did not shut down and all the students continued to learn,” she says.

In Q3 alone, ASU held more than 177,000 Zoom sessions and logged 55.5 million Zoom meeting minutes. ASU also utilized Slack’s enterprise platform for synchronous and asynchronous communication to bridge that gaps of connectivity, and while technology has allowed ASU and businesses across the world to remain operational, the new workplace and learning environment realities have created significant challenges for obtaining work-life balance and staying healthy mentally. ASU has instilled mindfulness practices and Sanchez shared a number of helpful tips for work life integration with the audience.

  1. Create a dedicated workspace with a comfortable chair
  2. Cue your brain for work by defining your workday and following a routine
  3. Take a real lunch break
  4. Use alarms to signal start, stop and break times – resist the urge to keep working
  5. Replace commute time with physical activity, meditation, getting outdoors, or talking to family and friends
  6. Set aside time to socialize with your family and friends
  7. Make days off sacred

Sanchez also spoke to ASU’s plans for returning to campus and the institution’s hybrid work model, which will see two teams rotate between 10-days working from home in isolation followed by four days a week in the office.

For an industry like construction, which was deemed essential even during the first-wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the safety of workers and limiting the spread of the virus on job-sites has taken a combination of technology and operational pivots with health and safety being the number one priority.

Joe Yeargan, project executive at DPR Construction, highlighted the app his company developed for contact tracing.

“Today, I checked our dashboard and 12,000 people use this app to enter our projects across the country and in Europe,” he says. “It’s really been a quick adoption and it’s been a great tool for us for contact tracing because we know any give day who was on a project site. If we do have a positive case, we can really help start to track down the folks that we need to contact and make aware.”

DPR Construction has also implemented a hybrid work-model, installed barriers in between individual workstations, pre-screening processes, and reconfiguring the desk layout and assignment model for all of its job site offices.

Yeargan showcased an integrated helmet and face shield design that will be rolled out shortly, which will eliminate the need for cloth face coverings and safety glasses, which are fairly uncomfortable in hot climates.

Talking about the future of design and construction, Yeargan says, “One of the things that we’re really sure is going to happen is an increased adoption of WELL Building Standards.”

Much like energy and environmental responsible design, the International Well Building Institute has created standards for how buildings are designed, constructed and then operated within with health and wellness at the forefront. There are 300 ‘WELL Building’ certified buildings in the world already, three are DPR offices.

“We really see that being part of the future and we’re pretty excited about being a part of that,” Yeargan says.

Emily Agin, founder & CEO of Disrupt Consultants, which provides workplace strategy for fast-growing tech companies, was honest in her opening remarks about the overall uncertainty about what a post-COVID-19 workplace may ultimately look like because of the novelty that exists with the pandemic.

“I don’t think we can begin to guess what the long-term may be with regard to the physical office space,” she says. “All we can do right now is put plans in place called return to office or RTO planning, and it focuses on a few major sections of the CDC’s [Centers for Disease Control] recommendations.”

Those practices center around education, training, PPE, cleaning, sanitization, social distancing and capacity planning.

“These are major buckets and there are subsections to each of these that are equally important that we’re working through with our clients, and their HR and legal teams,” she says.

Agin focused her comments around real estate and return to office procedure with CDC guidelines as the guiding light.

“When we’re talking about evaluating the footprint in the desk layouts, we encourage our clients to implement the CDC guidelines and six-foot social distancing capacity,” she says. “We’re truly not sure if this is the new normal or offices will return at some point with the densities and layouts, you know, pre-COVID. We wonder if there’s going to be quarantined fatigue and if we’ll have some sort of like pandemic amnesia, and offices will want to return to some form of normal.”

While a lot of companies have been immediate in their response to drastically change the footprint of their office space with health and safety in mind, Agin is advising clients to take a pragmatic approach.

“We encourage them [companies] not to make reactionary decisions about the footprint, about right sizing, about work from home policies in this current climate, but rather slowly and steadily move down the path of returning to the office in the safest manner possible and observe that success before making any long-lasting changes.”

Acknowledging how critical offices are to the culture of each individual organization, Agin is attuned to the fact that employees may be on opposite sides of the COVID-19 spectrum when it comes to overall concern.

“Best practices and procedures should be more on the aggressive side in the beginning to accommodate those in the workplace that are most concerned,” she says. “The reality is, if you don’t feel safe at work, it will be hard for people to focus on doing their job.”

Leslie Mulloy, operations director at JPMorgan Chase & Co, noted her company is aligned with Agin’s thinking.

“As we think about returning folks to the office, we want to make sure that we’re managing to the most conservative of both CDC guidelines, local and government guidelines and regulations,” Mulloy says. “Well-being of our employees is the absolute top priority, so we are looking at social distancing guidelines and how that applies in our workplace.”

With uncertainty about what return to work plans and timing may look like on a large-scale, there is real concern about company and employee morale as a result of digital and technological transformations. Sanchez and Agin agreed that Zoom fatigue is a real thing, so trying to make meetings more interactive and conversational as opposed to agenda heavy is a good place to start.

Some clients have reduced Friday work hours Agin said to better support employee’s mental well-being.

Childcare was also a central theme of conversation, and how organizations have and continue to support employees through those challenges as a result of work from home policies will be critical.

COVID-19 has presented unparalleled challenges for every organization, but when asked if work from home is a long-term solution, Christine Sanchez was poignant.

“I really do,” she says.

If that is in fact the course of action for companies moving forward, infrastructure will be an obstacle that will need to be addressed if it hasn’t already.

“Some companies are providing a stipend or a reimbursement protocol,” Agin said. “sometimes it’s an ergo-friendly setup, sometimes it’s just IT peripherals, and then guidance on where to go buy.”

COVID-19 has impacted every facet of our lives, including our workplaces. While still unknown and truly left up to individual organizations to determine how they will operate moving forward, the workplace may never truly look like it did pre-COVID-19.

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