Taking the Lead to Return to the Workplace
As COVID-19 shifted what a “workplace” should look like, organizations across the globe have mobilized to pull together new protocols and practices for their workspaces as they consider when and how to bring back staff. In April, the Govan Brown team began discussing this very challenge with clients, many of whom really weren’t sure how to approach their return. Join Govan Brown’s SVP of corporate development, Trevor Howie, as he interviews VP of human resources and CSR, Sarah Paul, and special projects manager, Jordan Winter, about how they turned the Govan Brown’s own COVID-19 playbook into a guide to help their clients and nonprofit partners return to the workplace.
Trevor HowieSVP, Corporate Development, Govan Brown
Sarah PaulVP, Human Resources & Corporate Social Responsibility, Govan Brown
Jordan WinterManager, Service & Special Projects, Govan Brown
Welcome to STO Building Conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. On today’s episode, Trevor Howie, Senior Vice President of Govern Brown, is speaking with VP of Human Resources, Sarah Paul, and Manager of Service & Special Projects, Jordan Winter, about how their office safety plan has evolved into a playbook offering that’s helping their clients and nonprofit partners return to the workplace.
My name is Trevor Howie. I’m with Govan Brown, I’m senior vice president of corporate development here in Toronto. I spent the last six years with the company in our Western office, Calgary, helping to grow our Western operations and have since moved back during the apex of COVID, so all of this conversation is very close to home. During the pandemic, I had the fortunate opportunity to work with Rob Leon and a number of the other folks with STO, working on the future of workplace and construction related to post-COVID design. It was an interesting, eye-opening exercise tapping into our global network of partners and clients to see what’s going on and how the reentry back into the workplace might take place. Today I’m joined by Sarah Paul and Jordan Winter, who led the same efforts locally here at Govan Brown and packaged our company strategy as an offering to our clients.
Good morning, Sarah and Jordan, would you guys mind introducing yourselves to the listeners and talking a little bit about each of your roles and your time with Govan Brown?
Sure. Thank you. So, Sarah Paul,viced president of human resources, and more recently, I also look after corporate social responsibility here at Govan Brown. I’ve been with the organization for almost eight years. And, along with a team, headed up the COVID response here at our Toronto office, as well as the locations that we have nationally across Canada. And I’m really excited to be here and share some of our best practices and successes on getting people back to the next office.
I’m Jordan Winter. I manage the service & special projects department for Govan Brown here in Toronto. I started with Govan Brown in August of 2015 as a project administrator. I was brought on for one of our larger retail projects that we were doing at the time. And since then, there’s been a lot of growth opportunities within the company. Fast forward, five years later, I’m managing the service & special projects department.
Excellent. Well, it’s great to have you guys here. So as with many corporate office environments, they shut down during the height of the pandemic, try and flatten the curve. Our offices shut down across the country, our Ontario offices, as well as our construction sites shut down due to an enforced lockdown. When it was time to return to the workplace, how did you guys go about developing guidelines to reenter our staff safely and make sure everybody felt comfortable? What were some of the solutions you guys came up with?
You know, back in April we shut down and over the course of six weeks that we were all at home, when we really put our heads together to try and find meaningful ways and safe ways to have a staff return to the office, we relied heavily on a playbook that was created out of Structure Tone. There were some key players from the HR, Legal, and Safety teams that looked at what best practices were. Obviously, they were being developed at the time. And we, you know, really relied on that and customized it to our own office. Also having to do our own research on requirements from a public health standpoint, as they differ, you know, from the US up here in Canada, but also across the various provinces, each had their own requirements from a public health standpoint.
So we brought all that information together and then looked to see what made sense for us as a business. To be honest, we were fortunate here, particularly at our head office in Toronto, where we own the building and we are a separate building with no shared tenants, no elevators, none of the key challenges that we’re seeing in a lot of the downtown core offices here and in the US, so that really put us at an advantage to be able to put some protocols in place. And just to kind of run down some of the key things that we’ve done. First of all, we tried to have a little bit of fun with it—you know, not necessarily a priority, but we ended up branding our return office protocols as “Six in the Six,” so meaning six feet in the six, which is what Toronto has been kind of nicknamed when Drake brought us to the forefront and we’ve been dubbed here in Toronto as six. So, we branded it. And a lot of the communication tools and floor markings have a logo that we designed. So that was something that we tried to put our own unique spin on. And then in terms of protocols, a lot of what we’re seeing in other workplaces—plexiglass was put up between the desks, personal protective equipment was provided, social distancing protocols and room restrictions in terms of size, and we also tried to make it a bit of an event when staff returned. So, we had banners put up, we had all of the PPE materials, the masks, gloves, sanitizer were put in little gift bags. We got bandanas made for people to use that as a mask and we branded it with our logo.
Another key thing that we did was a video. Before the staff returned, the President and myself walked and toured the office, giving employees the heads up on what to expect when they returned. And I think that went a long way for just providing some comfort and confidence that we had done what we needed and everything we could possible to provide that safe work environment. There were some people that were very hesitant. We did start with a staggered shift whereby only 50% came in on a given day. And over the course of about four weeks, we were able to transition to full occupancy. And a lot of that was dictated by government standards on the maximum number of occupants in a given space and whatnot. So again, I think one of the key things that we relied on was staying on top of what made sense from a public health standpoint for our business, we revisited some of the protocols and communication was key. So regular emails, regular check-ins, you know, taking the temperature—I mean, literally taking the temperature—but also, you know, pulling people aside to ask how they’re feeling. And after seeing what we were doing, it made sense for everyone. So those are some of the key measures that we took. And I think thus far, knock on wood, we’ve done a pretty good job and haven’t had any positive cases in the offices.
Yeah. And I think the general feeling throughout the office, especially with my department, when I check-in with everybody is that they were all, you know, pretty eager to get back to work and they were excited, but they were hesitant as well. So the video really helped ease some worries about what it might look like to return to work. And it’s kind of the new normal. Now we all know, keep your distance, stay behind the tape, and if we all do that, it really works out.
And I think another aspect of the comfort and the return was staff really kind of checked each other and felt comfortable reminding people that, “Hey, you know, put your mask on,” because at first it was not something that people were used to. I think now it’s become second nature to have a mask on. We’re doing it in the office and at home and, you know, in public. So, having employees check each other has worked as well. And then we’ve also, like I said, tried to still have a bit of fun. That’s our culture, our mantra is “work smart, play hard, give back.” And we’ve tried to coordinate some socially distant events, we’ve brought food trucks in, and we’ve had some golf tournaments, you know, when it was allowed and made sense. So again, I think it’s, you know, trying to get creative on practices that you’ve had in place, they still want to continue. And I think a perfect example is the MS Team/Zoom meetings. I mean, a year ago it was, you know, I don’t even think I had these on my laptop and now it’s just become commonplace. And again, it’s being able to adapt and then look at new ways of doing things and try to integrate them into the workplace.
Yeah. I saw a funny picture the other day about the new normal with masks and how, when I leave the house or leave my desk and I don’t have my mask, I feel like a superhero cause like, “Oh no, my mask, I can’t leave home without it.”
Yeah. I think you guys have done an excellent job coming in. And I think one of the keys I can say that really has worked is tying some of these new requirements to our culture. I think one thing Govan Brown really prides themselves on is the culture of our workplace. And I think these becoming now part of our everyday and part of our brand, that it becomes commonplace and it sets a little bit of normality for the staff because a lot of this is the health side but it’s also the psychological side. And I think to your point, the communication has amped up. It’s got us all talking a lot more. So a great job. I mean, it’s hard to believe it’s been just over five months we’ve been back into the office. Based on everything you just said, Sarah and Jordan, how has the plan been? Has it been effective?
Yeah, like I said, we haven’t had any cases, but we’re not getting comfortable. In Canada here, we’re currently experiencing a spike in cases. And we may in due course, you know, next week, tomorrow, be told that workplaces are being shut down. So we’re prepared for that. We’re prepared to return. So I think we just take whatever direction, is was required and is mandated, but overall I think it’s working. Again to Jordan’s point, I think the staff after being away from the routine, from the office, from each other, was tough over those six weeks that we were at home. And certainly in conversations with people, they were really excited about the opportunity to come back. So there was a little bit of good pressure put on us to make sure that we did get this right. The psychological aspect of, you know, making sure people can still focus, but do so in a way that’s safe.
Yeah, and a couple of weeks after we returned, we did allow designers and clients to come into the office for meetings. And the feedback that I saw from them was they were just blown away at what we were able to accomplish and how we were able to fill our office and still, you know, be successful. And they were blown away, it was great feedback.
I think that’s a good segue actually, Jordan, talking about our clients and our industry partners, you know, we obviously dug into this ourselves so we could get back into the office. We truly believe there’s a place for the office. It’s the heart of our culture and where we can all get together and brainstorm and work. We certainly can work remote. We’ve learned that. I think a lot of industries have learned that, but how did our company approach evolve into a service offering that we now offer our clients? I know you and I talked early on as we were going through the taskforce and a lot of clients reached out to you looking for assistance, looking for guidance.
Yeah, that’s right. I remember I was at home during the shutdown one day, constantly wiping down everything. Even in my house, it was just, everybody was in such a cautious state and thinking like, we’re going to have to do this for our customers. And I had this, like, it was almost like a light bulb popped on that this could be a great offering. And we have service programs with a lot of financial institutions and we have one that we’ve been working with for years and they’ve got over 800 people in their building. And I was in constant contact with them a couple of times a week talking about what a new normal looks like for them and how can they get staff back into their building. And I sent Sarah’s video that she mentioned over and showed them what we had done, obviously on a much smaller scale.
And they were very excited about that. They thought this is great and they were interested. So what we did is we took a floor plan of their eight floors and basically started at the front and walked our way through everything. Talked about putting the one-way traffic tape up, where we can put plexiglass up, where areas like sanitization stations might make sense. Then we also introduced the anti-microbial film, which at the time I was seeing it pop up everywhere, the lead times for it were insane. And there was a lot of information on, does this stuff work? So, you know, digging into it a lot and doing a lot of research, finding out what, you know, what we can do, where we can put it, should we put it on our handles, should we put in coffee stations and we started to install that all over for them. So this financial institution is about 20% capacity right now, but they are geared up for a full return, hopefully in January, those spaces ready to go. And we’re here for them to get back so that’s the main thing right now. Like Sarah mentioned earlier is it’s the elevators, right? So once the buildings can sort that out, their office is ready to get back to hopefully full capacity.
That’s amazing. And I think it’s funny listening to you talk about this now, five months in all the things you’re saying seem so commonplace, but at the time I remember people reaching out and asking questions about them and it seems now like, yeah, this is a no brainer, directional plexi, anti-microbial films. So, this kind of ties into the playbook that Sarah spoke to it. Is this solution a one size fits all? Or is it an a la carte? How do you, how did you see it rolling out?
More of an a la carte presented as a solution, as here’s the playbook, here’s all of our offerings. Each page kind of has, you know, the temperature scanners and all the film and everything, all the product, data sheets. But when I take that to clients, what I’m finding is it’s more of an, a la carte grocery list, right? “I’ll take some anti-microbial film, I don’t need the sanitization stations, but I’ll definitely take some of your plexiglass.” And from there was when, like I said, we do the walkthrough and then come back and give them, you know, a bit of a budget breakdown of what you’re looking at per square foot for your plexi and what it’ll cost to install sanitization stations and stuff like that. So that’s been a good opportunity to kind of put it in their court to let them decide what they need. The only thing we’re finding right now is they’re a little cautious because they don’t know what the government standards are, and nobody wants to really jump too much into it, finding out that two months from now, they might have to do more. So we’re seeing a pickup now with January just around the corner, but that’s kind of where we were at the summertime.
And I think with this, it’s really good when you’ve done a great job of is reaching out early on and being that point of contact who responds to questions. I think we all can agree, it’s just a matter of time before the return happens and you’ve become that consultant for our clients to be that first phone call once it’s determined when, which I think has certainly helped differentiate us as a business partner with our clients.
Yeah. One of the things that really helped was I facilitated a conference call with multiple clients who in terms were competing against each other, but they came together to see what works for the offices. And they all were on the call saying, you know, “I think we’re going to go with this.” So the other clients were like, “I think we’re going to do that too.” And it really helped them come together to make everything safe.
Yeah. I think that’s what really resonated even as I spoke to clients or, you know, as we’re looking forward at projects that were supposed to start is really the thought leadership that we can provide our clients here. Um, you know, they’re coming to us for advisement. I don’t know how many people I spoke to that were like, “the project’s on hold, I’m just trying to get my staff in.” So to be able to come to the, not as a grocery list and say, pick what you want, but actually help them and help advise them, you know, what did we do for these clients based on similarities in their space. So, kudos to you guys for doing that. And that kind of ties in the next question. So how many clients would you say have actually taken us up on this offering?
I’ve had probably four to five that have really kind of jumped into it and multiple clients that are maybe just doing a sanitization station for now. Like I said, nobody is really at 100% capacity back in the office, so they’re more so trying to take care of the 20%. Um, the feedback that we’ve gotten is that for the 20% at the financial institution, their staff feels safe. Like they’ve been doing enough, but I would say, like I said, January, just around the corner. And despite that we’re in a bit of a spike right now, I do feel like people are gearing up. I’m starting to see more emails, more questions come through with “what is the lead time for, you know, 10 sanitization stations.” The good thing is that we did kind of see this coming. So I am prepped with 1500 linear feet of antimicrobial film. I got everything, you know, on standby waiting.
The film is like the new toilet paper.
Yeah, so, yeah, being prepared for that, it’s kind of where we’re at right now.
Great. And obviously this is an evolving thing. I don’t think any of us really knows where this is going to end up much like the taskforce I was part of at Structure Tone and what the future of the office looks like. I think there’s a flexibility play in here and an evolution as things progress. So how have our protocols within the office changed since we first returned? Can you share some of the new developments that we’re doing here?
So, um, I think the focus of the new developments is on innovation through technology. When we brought people back, we initially had a nurse in every day taking temperature and running through the five questions for sense of comfort and just to make sure that we were doing it right. And during this time, we were partnering with a technology firm that we’d actually been speaking with to help us develop a completely different platform into an app. And, you know, they saw the opportunity to kind of pivot their technology into the COVID realm. And we worked with them as they piloted a thermal camera technology, whereby visitors and employees come to the office. They stand in front of an iPad on a pole. And, again, respond to the questions, if you’ve been out of country, if they have any symptoms, if they were close to someone or in contact with a positive case, then their temperature is taken by a thermal camera, which then determines whether they’re okay and meet the thresholds to enter the space, or if not having additional temperature testing.
And in some cases, might not be able to come into the office. So that technology has been exceptionally beneficial to us, again, from a peace of mind standpoint and just a sheer safety standpoint. So that’s one key thing that we’ve implemented and I know we have some extra devices ready to go, should clients be interested in implementing that within their space. And the second technology that we’re looking to launch is with a firm that has developed a pathogen sensor technology, whereby they have devices throughout the space and also take swabs of high-traffic locations within the office and report in real time, the presence of COVID-19 within the workplace, at which point we then kind of engage on your office, closure, cleaning, you know, temperatures and whatnot. But again, another device that a year ago would not have necessarily been of much interest. Um, and we again are partnering with them to pilot this technology that, if successful, we can certainly roll out to our clients. So I think the technology piece is certainly something that we’re paying very close attention to and becoming the early adopter on our return protocol,
Jordan, anything you’re seeing on the client side that’s changing or being requested?
Yeah. The temperature scanners that Sarah just talked about. Those seem to peak a lot of interest. Everybody wants to see what it’s all about, how it works. The nice thing was that basically, I took a video of myself walking into work one day and how that worked right, where you’re walking up to the machine, taking my temperature, answering the questions. So the interest of that has it’s definitely peaked. I do feel like that will become part of life in any office. They’re going to be taking temperatures. A lot of us, you know, they did it in the grocery stores for a while. Something that we’ve kind of implemented is the use of HoloBuilder or Matterport with these offices being fit out, especially in the financial institution I spoke about. We looked to set up a HoloBuilder scan of their floors so that they can send that to their staff at home, similar to what Sarah and Joe did for us and show them as they walk through, they can see that their desk is set up for them, ready to go with plexi. They can see the one-way tape and that’s kind of how we’ve really tried to implement that. It’s a really good program that allows us to go through a whole office by just clicking on the link.
It’s very cool. Yeah. It’s all about communicating and strengthening that to help put the mindset at ease as people come back in. That’s very cool. So is the intention of some of these evolving features to roll back into this playbook that you’re offering clients?
Yeah, absolutely. The, the playbook at first changed almost every week, we were finding what works and we’re updating it and sending it back to clients who were interested, definitely something we’ll be including is the Matterport mobile builder updates with the temperature scanning and anything that we’re finding works in our office. We want to offer to our clients for their offices.
Yeah. We’re kind of the Guinea pig. We test it all out here and roll it out as what works and what doesn’t.
I think we’re more pioneers, Trev.
Yeah. Maybe Mavericks. I think that we’re Mavericks, right? On the cutting edge. Perfect. So community, let’s chat a little bit about community, because obviously talking our culture, Sarah, you handle our corporate social responsibility. What have you seen? You know, giving back is such a big thing. And while we are offering this to our clients and it is a bit of a revenue stream, it certainly was not the intent. The intent was to add value and be a partner to our clients. But you’ve been offering a lot of our COVID playbook features and solutions to some of our non-profit partners. How did that idea come up and how have they been taking the idea?
A couple of organizations that we partner with in and during, COVID actually had an opportunity to put a number of volunteer hours to assisting. One in particular is a community organization that focuses on reducing food insecurity and it’s very local to our neighborhood. And we have been putting a lot of hours in terms of packaging food, delivering food. And so they have a smaller office space and the conversation, just, you know, evolved, you know, what are you doing to get your volunteers and employees back to your space? And it was a natural next step to say, listen, you know, let us help you support your return and on a much smaller scale kind of put a package together with all of our tools in terms of distancing tape and masks and, and N95 spray and we created a customized playbook, you know, how to enter the building.
And suggested staggering, their shifts and really customized it to, to their needs. And Jordan and I actually went in and physically hung all the communications and the posters and fixed all the tape and whatnot. So it was a great, it’s a great way to give back. Certainly not an expense that a lot of these organizations have budgeted for. And so we’ve done that for a few not-for-profit organizations within our community and it’s been very well received and appreciated, I think is, is kind of the key response that we’ve heard from these initiatives. So, it was an amazing opportunity for us to give back.
Yeah. It was a great experience. And like you said, the feedback was phenomenal. They were super excited about their new workspace and they felt comfortable. It was around the time where everybody was really cautious and nervous about what they were going to do and that was great. And it was very rewarding and they definitely appreciated it.
Trevor Howie (23:04):
Absolutely. Well, thank you both very much. I think this was quite insightful. I think we can say one thing, you know, hopefully out of this pandemic, as terrible as it is, is that it, you know, will make the office space a lot more progressive. Let us rethink how the office space works and how we operate in it, going beyond just the debate between open and closed office. Um, but really start to change how we interact and what the office looks like moving forward. So thank you both for that and keep up the fantastic work. And, uh, we’ll see how this thing changes over the next couple of months.
Thanks for listening to STO Building Conversations for more episodes like this. You can find our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or the Structure Tone website.