August 12 2020
Our Approach: Returning to the Office
One question that many of us keep coming back to these days is “what will a return to normal look like?” At Entuitive, our COVID Response Team spends many hours each week keenly focused on answering this question.
We’ve approached the return to work with our People First philosophy in mind, focusing on health and safety, work/life balance and people’s comfort levels. After research, discussions and several offices having reopened, what we’ve learned is that being a responsive organization is key to success, especially with the current uncertain state of the world we live in.
Return to Office So Far
While we’ve had people on site throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve been meeting since the beginning as a COVID response team, and planning for a return to office in each of our seven locations for some time. While we’ve never been in a race to be first to open, we’re certainly trying to accommodate our staff, many of whom wish to return to the office, and to do so safely.
The planning process is centered on the idea of understanding people’s individual level of comfort and we wanted to ensure employee engagement was central to our planning of a return strategy.
With this in mind, we conducted a survey of our people and a survey of our industry. We used the results from each to better understand how many people in each office wanted to return, what their concerns might be and, with the survey of our industry we also learned what other organizations’ plans for a return were, which served as a helpful benchmark.
Throughout, members of our COVID response team have also been monitoring conditions in each of our regions, including the advice and policies of government and health organizations. Having engineers on this team has helped to ensure that we respond correctly and implement the right level of standards when it comes to things like air filtration or spacing requirements.
Vancouver was the first office to open because of the low infection rates in British Columbia and because of the high number of the Vancouver team who indicated they wanted to return. We worked with office leaders Mike Lembke and Julien Fagnan to split the office into two teams and were fortunate that the space is large and could easily accommodate social distancing for these two teams. One thing we’ve heard is that the whole team can’t wait to get together again.
Mike Lembke had this to say, “It has been great to see the team in person again after so much time as passed. Although we aren’t able to all be together, and we have to return to working from home the very next week, it doesn’t feel as much of a vacuum anymore. The opportunity to reconnect in person has had the effect of resetting and has helped to diminish the mental effects that working from for extended periods has had on many of us. It’s been a refreshing change.”
Edmonton came next and they’re actually in a brand-new space that has enough room to accommodate the entire team at once. While those who work out of Edmonton are currently split into two teams, office leader Brian Shedden surveyed the group to see whether they’d like to all return together and they do.
Said Shedden, “In our recent survey, it was unanimous that we return to the office together, so we have just gone back to everyone in the office if they want to come in. Now it’s a work from home if needed, office is optional situation. It helps that our office is unique in the amount of space that we have, which allows us to all work comfortably 6’ apart at our desks.”
In Calgary, which has been the last office to open so far, we’re again blessed with a multitude of space where all staff could fit and accommodate social distancing standards if they wanted to. However, between respecting a healthy work-life balance and the challenges many of us are facing in terms of care situations, etc. during the pandemic, we’re still split into two teams. This also helps ensure everyone is comfortable working in the office if they’d like to.
Randy Thesen, a Principal based out of our Calgary office had this to say about what return to office has been like there: “In the few days I’ve been back so far the biggest positive factor for me has been the human-to-human interaction. It’s been energizing to see familiar faces and to be able to collaborate in person. It’s refreshing to not have to rely so much on Teams for meetings and you can’t replace the value you get from being able to consult in person.”
One thing we’ve experienced in Calgary is the need for clear guidelines for operating in the office during a pandemic. Examples of this include the need for directional flow tape on the floor, suggestions for how to use the kitchen safely and comfortably, and the provision of additional PPE and sanitizing supplies.
Sites and Safety
We’ve been using digital collaboration tools and innovating with ways to deliver projects. We’ve also worked hard to ensure that we can implement virtual site reviews during the pandemic where we can, but many clients still prefer an onsite presence and, sometimes, a virtual site review just isn’t possible.
So, when it comes to being onsite, the safety of our people and our project teams is what matters most. We’ve been providing PPE such as gloves, sanitizer, and masks from day one and have gone above and beyond, for instance by providing alcohol-based wipes for wiping down one’s cell phone. In rare instances, we’ve accommodated concerns like an individual harness.
To ensure the safety of our people, we’ve held Health and Safety calls with a group of representatives from across our seven locations. These calls help to develop a philosophy that we’ve adhered to where we implement the best practices from each site across our seven regions, which means we often go above and beyond the local standards.
We’ve also been communicating Health and Safety standards internally through our weekly employee newsletter.
As we move forward, we’re going to continue to listen and learn.
Applying Lessons Learned
Recognizing we have in office/on site requirements, where we can accommodate, our biggest take-home is really that our plans must always be based on an individual’s comfort level within their unique situation. One thing we learned in Calgary was that if we could clear up people’s thoughts and address common fears, we could address people’s comfort level and help them realize some of the positive benefits of coming into the office, at least part time.
Some of the benefits we’ve heard first-hand from our people include the positives associated with a change of scenery, getting back to a routine and a much-needed mental break. There’s also the fact that collaboration and creativity – two deeply held Entuitive values – seem to be enhanced for many people when we’re working in the same space together.
Of course, our offices in the three biggest cities remain to return. Here, there are added challenges such as taking transit to work. Anxiety over transit is such a large concern in Toronto that we’re actually researching whether there’s a way to secure a deal on parking for employees. With so many parking lots underutilized due to the lack of sporting events and cultural events being offered because of the pandemic, we’re hoping to help employees out by securing a deal. We’ve also been advising employees in all regions to walk or ride a bike where they can.
Our UK and NYC offices are even further behind in the return strategy. As with many other offices, we’re encouraging an office cleanup in advance of reopening and encouraging staff to work towards desk minimalism – the less there is to touch, the more we can accommodate social distancing as needed. As UK leader Mark Goddard says, “your desk should fit in a box.”
Said Associate and UK Regional Representative Sanja Buncic, “The return in London is happening gradually and at the moment myself, Mark Goddard and our office administrator, Ni, are busy planning for it. All London colleagues have booked a slot in their calendar to clean and pack up their desks and we’re preparing a plan of the office that accommodates two teams so we can appropriately physical distance when we do return. We’re also acquiring the PPE and sanitizing equipment we’ll need for health and safety standards. Once all this is done, we’ll begin discussions with colleagues to ensure a safe return. At the moment our Edinburgh office has no plans to return.”
In NYC and the UK, they have windows they can open to help with air flow and ventilation. Across the board we’ve been working with our landlords to ensure they can help with details like air quality, HVAC and the cleanliness of common spaces like elevators and washrooms.
Said Christopher Johnson, Vice President, Building Envelope and Regional Representative for New York, “Probably the biggest concern for people here when it comes to going back to the office is the commuting factor. No one is interested in riding a subway for 45 minutes, not just because of worries over recycled air and virus transmission, but also because of increased unreliability of the transit system itself. Some people are able to ride bikes, but for others that’s not a viable solution, at least in the medium to long term. Being a small office with enough space for everyone, it seems there are fewer concerns about sharing the office space with others, and the building itself has plenty of protocols to help people feel more comfortable. With all that said, there does not seem to be a lot of urgency for people to return to the office, except for that we miss the interaction and collaboration. We have not heard of any of our local clients going back to their offices full time yet, and some of them who have small numbers of staff have in fact decided not to go back at all, and plan to continue working remotely with only intermittent in-person meetings. Things will start to go back to normal over the next 6-12 months, but there will also be some visible shifting I think.”
The Long Game
One thing we’ve noticed is that people have really enjoyed the flexibility in working arrangements that the pandemic has afforded. Traditionally, we didn’t have a strong work from home culture but now we’re looking to consider a more flexible arrangement post-COVID.
We’ve also noticed how successful our work from home arrangement has been – whether it be how quickly and effectively we’ve transitioned or how productive and engaged people have been throughout the pandemic, there’s been a lot of success.
Throughout the pandemic, and as we continue to reopen, working in the office will remain voluntary for those who don’t have specific situations that require them to be onsite or in the office. We’re so grateful to those who have been working in the office throughout to help ensure our servers run smoothly, cheques are deposited, packages are delivered and more. We’re also grateful to those who have been conducting site visits, performing building investigations and doing other onsite work throughout the past five months.
When we reopen full time, we’re working toward work from home guidelines that offer greater flexibility. For the time being, a return will continue to remain voluntary as each of our offices navigates their local circumstances and each of our team members navigate their personal circumstances. Given the level of global uncertainty that remains, in particular with the questions around the return to school, we don’t anticipate implementing any mandatory direction until it is clear that it’s the right time to do so.
In the interim, we’re committed to respecting each individual’s unique situation during the pandemic and prioritizing a strong sense of work/life balance. We also know that when schools reopen, or if there’s a second wave, there could be new challenges. So, we’re clear that we need to continue to be responsive and agile as the pandemic continues to evolve.
Whatever the case, we’re prepared to deliver seamlessly through what comes our way.
Many have been positing ideas like reducing the office footprint or creating a more agile office environment with no desks. At this point, we are keeping things as-is but, as always, we continue to remain thoughtful of the best ways to serve our employees.
Share Your Thoughts
Perhaps the biggest lesson we’ve learned during this process is that communication is key.
So, with that said, do you have thoughts on a return to office? Any tools, tips or tricks you’d like to share? We’d love to work with you and you can reach out to the COVID Response Team here.