Embracing the “now” normal during Avison Young’s gradual return to U.S. offices

Embracing the “now” normal during Avison Young’s gradual return to U.S. offices June 9, 2020

Avison Young’s U.S. workplaces have come alive as some of our teammates have returned to our offices for the first time since implementing our work from home protocols in mid-March. Twenty-two offices in 16 U.S. markets opened their doors over the past week in accordance with our Return to Office (RTO) plan, along with state, city and local regulations, guidelines and recommendations. Our RTO plan for the first 60 days after return was designed by leaders across geographies and disciplines, and sets a framework for a phased return to our offices that prioritizes our people’s physical and mental health.

When most of our team members return, they will find some folks who have been in our buildings and offices throughout the pandemic – performing essential functions, making sure that our clients’ and tenants’ needs are met. Building engineers, property management staff, accounting and other essential team members remained on-site during this uncertain time, and we appreciate and commend them for their dedication.

Perhaps the only consistent thing we can say about navigating through the COVID-19 pandemic is that everything is fluid. That is why we’ve taken our time planning for our own employees to return to our offices. This return, in itself, is up to each member of our team. The first step in our planning was to understand and address the needs and concerns of our team members. Based on internal feedback, we determined it was in the best interest of our colleagues to allow anyone who can work from home (WFH) to be allowed to do so for the balance of the year. They do not need to explain or ask permission – just inform and work with their teams to make sure that they can get the job done remotely – as all our people have done over the past few months. 

As we have adjusted to the WFH environment and started planning our RTO (which planning started within two weeks of implementing our WFH program), communication with our team members has been key. We have designed and implemented a communications strategy at the global, country and market levels that includes everything from town hall calls, video messages, eblasts and surveys, lots of surveys. We have held numerous client panels and weekly training Zoom calls for our emerging leaders.     

The surveys we’ve conducted over the past few months were designed to understand how our team members are feeling about working from home, returning to the office, working in the office or a hybrid thereof. This data provides important input as we make decisions that are right for our people, our clients and our business. It also changes from week to week and underscores the evolving nature of how we are all navigating the pandemic and the need for flexibility.

It’s very human to base our decisions on a combination of emotions and facts. Everyone weighs personal, professional and risk tolerance factors in making the decisions that are right for them and their families. In prioritizing our people and providing options, we can meet the variety of unique needs of our employees while we maintain productivity and continue to deliver for our clients.

Based on a survey of our U.S. employees that we took in the latter half of May, approximately 30% of our U.S. staff said that they would elect to continue to work from home during phase one of our RTO, while about 70% said they wished to return to offices. Cities where public transportation is widely used – New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. – demonstrated higher percentages of teammates who wanted to continue working from home. This validated our flexible approach to a voluntary return to offices.

Our market leaders, operations managers and their local teams have done a remarkable job preparing our offices to reopen with detailed and thoughtful market-specific plans. These plans use our global RTO plan as a foundation and then layer on state, city and local regulations and recommendations, as well as the specific needs of the team members based in that office. When preparing to return, our local teams developed plans that included:   

  • Meeting government requirements and dates for reopening (partnering with our in-house legal team)
  • Floor Plans that addressed social distancing and occupancy density through the use of shift work, one-way corridors, areas closed off, sanitization stations, door props and other market specific measures (partnering with our workplace solutions and project management teams)
  • Undergoing a pre-occupancy deep cleaning and ongoing revised cleaning procedures (partnering with our property management teams)
  • Securing required Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for all offices and staff (partnering with our procurement teams)
  • Installing signage throughout the space to inform and direct team members of new policies and procedures (partnering with our marketing and graphics teams)
  • Detailed local market communication plans for RTO activities as well as ongoing communication strategies for the next new normal of a hybrid working environment (partnering with our communications teams) 

For those who have been working from home, the office will look different upon return. The buildings we occupy will have new protocols. Common areas, elevators, building health clubs, rooftop patios, conference facilities and other amenities will be managed and used differently. Once in our offices, there will be fewer people daily. Between splitting offices into shifts and some people working from home for an extended period, the environment will be different. Kitchens will be closed. Conference rooms will have reduced occupancy. Hallways will be one-way where possible. Everyone will be wearing masks when moving about the office. We will all be subject to new policies and procedures developed by our RTO committee and put in place for the safety and well-being of our team members.

We have great clients and team members and we are providing outstanding service and creative solutions in this challenging period. Our people continue to perform at exceptional levels. As we navigate the now and new normal, I am sure that much more will evolve, and we will continue to adapt.

History looks back on crisis through varying lenses. Great innovation and change have come from learnings during these periods. Times like this accelerate change and prove out new ideas. Avison Young has always been committed to innovation and much of what we have been though over the past few months has validated our strategy, accelerated our efforts and given rise to new best practices. We have proven without a doubt that we can work remotely during stay at home orders, and we are convinced that we will all adjust to the new environment just as smoothly. 

Keith Lipton is Chief Operating Officer of Avison Young’s U.S. Operations and a member of the firm’s Executive Committee.