March 13, 2020. It was a Friday. Our kids were at school, and I was in a zoom meeting with a client from Missouri. Three weeks earlier, the first confirmed US case of Covid-19 was made public in Snohomish County, Washington. I was in the room when that call came in. I witnessed history. We had the first case of Covid-19 in America…in one of our client offices.
Nothing has been the same since.
For the ten years leading up to 2020, Orion Growth primarily served two practice areas: consulting and project delivery. Cost containment and portfolio alignment were the primary objectives on the consulting side, while consistency and process development was front-of-mind within PDS. Our projects were always with different AEC teams throughout North America, so consistency was a key element to a successful turnover.
The model worked well. We had a great track record and a pipeline full of projects. The PDS team was actively hiring to keep up with our standard of delivery.
It didn’t take long to realize the office market of CRE would be forever changed. As a company, we were responsible for making recommendations on the future of work as we delivered projects. We had decades of experience with activity-based design, and our delivery team was well-versed in tech enablement. The office footprint had been consistently shrinking as more and more jobs became remote/flexible. The trend was more robust in primary markets, due to commute constraints and the protracted construction and FF&E costs. Most of our portfolio clients were already moving away from the per-square-foot model and allowing leadership to make decisions on flexible work in their own markets.
The lockdown mandate hit us on March 30, 2020. On March 31, Orion Growth filed with Microsoft to become a Cloud Service Provider. On April 1, we advised 27 projects that were in various forms of discovery or lease negotiation to be stopped. We didn’t approve a single lease extension throughout Covid. By the end of April, our PDS team was non-existent. It took less than 45 days to erase a business that was 10 years in the making. We simply couldn’t advise our clients to take up more space.
While we made this gut-wrenching decision to advise of the future of office work, we watched as an industry gaslighted its occupiers. Leasing extensions exploded, sneeze guards were installed, and thermal cameras were purchased. Brokers and dealers got busy selling the shiny objects of the day. 6-foot rules meant companies would need 3x the space. Furniture solutions, sensors, and a personal favorite, Kastle Systems Back to Work Barometer, were born.
This worked for a little while until it didn’t.
It takes 66 days to form a habit. Productivity metrics were born. People were working from home, and it was working. Necessity is the mother of invention, and knowledge workers were figuring it out. Boardrooms across the world wanted answers, but nobody had them.
So what have we learned during the last 1095 days?
→ Disaster recovery planning starts with remote-first thinking.
→ Integrated digital environments are the cornerstone of the modern office.
→ Access to broadband internet and stable power are essential elements.
→ Reduce and unify your tech stack.
→ Evaluate all legacy systems. Identify the invasive species. Eradicate them.
→ Evaluate all legacy service contracts against their performance during Covid.
→ Treat your employees better than you treat your customers.
→ Surveys suck. Feedback loops have to be immediate.
→ As a service is only as good as the service.
It’s up to organizations to build their own informative model around CRE processes. The intended outcome of the model can be as custom as the organizations that seek the information. Some will seek econometrics, while others seek employee engagement and productivity. Some will incorporate building information modeling with robotic process automation. Others will seek a centralized communication platform with unified workflows that support flexible work.
Not only has the game changed, but the field changed too. CRE is now Workspace. How we support the flexibility of work is our new role. We write these rules. They’re custom-tailored to fit the financial, social, and environmental vision of the organizations we choose to work for. Nobody is better suited to build our vision than us.
Build it, don’t buy it.
Post Script - It’s been 1063 days since confirmation of the aerosol transmission of viral pathogens. ASHRAE published this on April 13, 2020 and ironically, it’s set to expire one month from today. The link takes you to the TLDR summary - but the research takes you to the solution. What have we done to make the places we work safer?
Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash