With the coronavirus pandemic waning in some parts of the world, and raging in others, companies are preparing for a return to work in an uncertain and uneven atmosphere.
In many ways, the prospects of a return to work seem particularly treacherous for the coworking industry as players like WeWork, Knotel and Convene, as well as Industrious, have laid off hundreds of workers and closed locations, and in some instances, are struggling to make rent.
But for Jamie Hodari, the CEO and founder of workplace operator Industrious, the workplace-as-a-service have some advantages over other companies or landlords at managing the return to work, given that their expertise is managing space at scale. They have the resources to roll out measures like temperature testing or medical-grade cleaning in ways that small and medium-sized firms might struggle with.
Commercial Observer caught up with Hodari to hear about how Industrious is engaging with their members now, how they’re prepping for the return to work, and the lasting ways in which pandemic will change the way we work.
Commercial Observer: Let’s start with what you’re working on now, and how you’re thinking about the next three months.
Jamie Hodari: Right now, the company’s focus is primarily on serving our members virtually. We have an entire program in place called Continuous that is a wrapper for all of our COVID-19 response initiatives, and it involves everything from virtual assistance for our members, work from home kits, Slack communities for all of our locations that enable people to stay connected.
It’s basically focused on how to make working from home a less isolating, more productive and engaging experience.
When we first launched this, it was more focused on productivity at home and how you recreate your office and work environments or bring the best parts of that home. How do you figure out how to minimize distractions, keep up energy levels and focus on what can be a really complicated way to be working?
The reality is, a lot of our members were pointing out that they were struggling just to get by. They were struggling to manage everything going on in their life in a way that didn’t feel unsustainable. And so a lot of our resources, and where we’re putting a lot of our time right now, it’s around broader forms of support, you know, free therapy via a series of partnerships that we put in place, telemedicine, etc.
And what kind of engagement are you seeing from your members in these virtual services?
It’s funny, it’s been surprising the degree to which supporting customers virtually has resembled supporting customers in person. If certain types of events have a 50 percent in-person participation rates, they tend to have a 50 percent digital participation rate.
The majority of our businesses, our members, are small businesses with under 500 employees, and they don’t have the resources to navigate all of this the way that a Bank of America or a Pfizer can. So we’ve become a particularly important partner in navigating all of it.
Looking ahead at the return to work, what are you working on now to prepare for the transitionary period as we move from working from home full-time to going back to the office?
In the medium term, once people start going back to work before a vaccine is in place, for our industry — shared office providers — and for all companies, it’s going to be a complicated time, with very powerful, conflicting or competing forces at play. There will be a negative impact of what looks to be a protracted recession, including customers who are shrinking or who go out of business altogether. And on the other hand, I think times of crisis or shocks to the system tend to really accelerate the shift to outsourcing industries like our own.
It’s moments like this that most powerfully push companies away from saying, “This is something I should be doing myself,” to think, “This is something I should hand off to an expert.”
The long term impact is, I think, this is going to accelerate the way companies have organized their workforces over the last 20 or 30 years. In the 60s and 70s and throughout the 80s, the vast majority of headcount for most businesses worked in headquarters. If that headquarters was in Armonk, New York, tough luck. You had to go live somewhere near Armonk, New York.
Since then there’s been this gradual but very noticeable shift towards companies distributing their workforces across the country where they have a medium-sized headquarters, and then lots and lots of regional offices so that they can meet their customers and they can meet their, their workforce where they are. Obviously, that’s been enabled by changes in technology that make it more reasonable to have a more distributed workforce.
This mass national natural experiment with the entire country, or, all white-collar office workers working from home for months at a time, is going to dramatically accelerate that shift. So I think you’re gonna see the shift to workplaces-as-a-service probably accelerate coming out of this crisis relative to what would have been the trajectory before.
As we return to work, there will need to be health protocols and interventions in place — how do you think shared workspace operators are positioned, relative to either traditional landlords or companies, to be prepared for that?
The return to work is going to be very complicated. Nobody can credibly say right now, “We got this, this is gonna be easy.” That being said, outside of Google and Facebook and the Goldman Sachs of the world that have 18-person disaster planning teams and all the resources in the world. For the other 95 percent of the country I think operators like Industrious are going to be the safest most proactive workplace environments that do the best job of tackling them the moment at hand.
To address distancing, sterilization or disinfection and then mitigating spread, it will involve a series of architectural changes and then a series of behavioral interventions.
On the architectural side, the vast majority of American workplaces are giant open floorplan pits, which are really, really, really thorny for the problem at hand. You have HVAC systems that have a single zone and treat the entire open floorplan, so you have hundreds of people with the same set of circulating air. And that’s a tough setup in order to mitigate both spread via airflow and spread via contact.
The setup of a coworking operator — like a private office coworker operator like Industrious — where you have hundreds of individual offices of one to four people, is a much better setup for this. You have much smaller HVAC runs that can be controlled more deftly. One way to think of it is in a co-working space, your workspace, where you spend 90 percent of your day is private, and the shared experiences are shared, but you can turn those off. In the average workplace, the work environment is shared. And the interaction points are private, like the meeting room, the cafe, etc. It’s much harder to control contact points or interactions in that way.
What are the interventions that companies, from medium-size firms to giant corporate headquarters to coworking spaces, will have to have in place in order for people to return to work safely?
First of all, companies need a plan. It’s good to get tactical and start focusing today on what the actual set of interventions are going to be, but for most businesses, they haven’t yet even set up a strategic plan to navigate this. For most businesses, it’s the CEO trying to scroll through articles online and figure out what best practices are and that’s a tough spot to be in.
In terms of [tactical] intervention, you need to minimize the chance that someone with COVID enters the work environment in the first place. And that includes protocols like under what circumstances someone stays home, temperature readings, and hopefully antibody testing, and then potentially rotational programs that minimize the percentage of a team that’s in the office in any given block of time.
The second is, mitigating the spread. You want to create distance between employees and I think that’s probably where most attention has been paid today. It’s the easiest to visualize, it’s easiest to write an article about, and it’s the easiest for landlords and for the CBREs of the world to talk about, because that’s a space problem, and landlords and real estate services firms are in the business of space. So that’s the part that I think is getting the most love right now. But there’s a lot of questions around whether that’s sufficient, and whether it’s less about that and more about air circulation, and disinfecting contact points, and protocols for shared spaces.
Given the amount of effort it seems it would take to really get people to be working again from the office and the fact that currently, people are managing their businesses from home, why won’t businesses just keep working from home until this is truly over?
I feel very strongly about that particular point. I see people putting out reports about the return to work and reports on the workplace that take for granted that essentially people are going to be forced to return to work by their bosses. They don’t start with the fundamental question of why would someone want to return to work in the first place? What does the workplace have to offer that can’t be done at home?
I think the best plans are going to start and end with what is different about a workplace than working from home, what are the reasons someone would want to return to that kind of environment?
One simple test is if you could say to your employees, how would you answer this question: “If I could get to the office safely, would I rather be there than at home?” A lot of the return to work is going to require the answer to that question to be “Yes” for most people.