VAX, WFH, and other acronyms remaking the U.S. A/E workforce

Morrissey Goodale discusses the messy return to office in 2021 and the overall implications for the A/E industry.

By Morrissey Goodale September 27, 2021
Downtown Chicago. Courtesy: CFE Media

Morrissey Goodale discusses the messy return to office in 2021 and the overall implications for the A/E industry.

In January of this year—about the same time as the brand names Moderna and Pfizer were becoming as ubiquitous as Coca Cola—we hosted our Q1 CEO Week in Virtual Reality. Many of the CEOs in attendance anticipated a “messy” return to the office in 2021. Little did they anticipate just how disruptive that return would turn out to be—not just for their individual firms, but for the A/E industry overall. Here are some of our observations from the field as to how this is playing out.

An industry fragmenting in real-time: What’s striking to us in our work this year with A/E firms around the country is how the workplace experience varies so dramatically between them. This is a new and huge industry development for A/E firm leaders to understand and use to their benefit. Pre-pandemic, we were a homogeneous bunch. Pretty much the work experience at one firm looked exactly like it did at its competitor across  town. That dynamic has been completely upended. You cannot assume that the firm that you are competing with, or the business you are trying to acquire or recruit from, is the “same” as you are anymore. The strategic and competitive implications of this shift will be immense.

The way we were: Employees in many A/E firms have essentially been “back in the office” since the summer of last year. From our strategy and M&A work, we see that this cohort of firms tends to be less than $30 million in revenue, has a primarily regional business model, and is killing it financially. While WFH is available to employees in these firms, by and large most of their employees are working in their offices and that’s the way leadership wants it. Employees are collaborating, producing, and mentoring like it’s 2019. In these firms, OOO (Out Of Office) messages still have meaning. The most obvious impact of the virus on their business operations can be seen in B2B activities like sales and BD, which have changed due to client-driven protocols around remote interactions, mask-wearing, or vaccine requirements for physical meetings.

The rest of the story: However, for many more industry firms, “back-to-the-office” is a challenging smorgasbord of aspiration, frustration, and confusion, with no conclusion or satisfying solution. In strategy meetings around the country (both in-person and virtual), leadership teams are struggling to plan for and communicate what “work” looks like at their firms for the balance of 2021, into 2022, and beyond.

The industry’s largest firms are in flux: Their sheer scale and complexity—multiple offices across different continents and U.S. states with diverse client portfolios—preclude a simple binary decision of back-to-the-office or not. Their operations managers are trying to navigate a maze federal, state, and local regulations overlaid with client requirements and protocols. Their HR managers are trying to decipher the ever-changing, always-inconclusive results from monthly employee surveys. They are hyper-aware of employee preferences and super-worried about being written up as an example in a Great Resignation article. Their highly paid legal teams are concerned about current and anticipated liabilities of any directives to bring employees back to offices. Meanwhile, their CFOs are in heaven, planning how to spend the savings from anticipated reductions in office leases.

Eerily empty offices: Many employees at the ENR Top 100 have not been in the office at all since early 2020. Their cubicles (is this finally the end of the horrible bland beige cube?) are littered with the unread periodicals and laptop docking stations they left behind when the message came down to go home to work “for a couple of weeks.” Office occupancy for these leading firms is somewhere between 10% and 20% of what it was pre-pandemic—in buildings where the Starbucks doesn’t let you put your own half-and-half in your venti dark roast anymore, and the Jamba Juice closes early because of “staffing shortages.” Floor plans consist of weird, spread-out desk configurations that nobody really believes make a difference to their safety.

Tear up that “return to office” communication—again: The “return” keeps getting pushed to the right: Many firms were set to come back to the office this August, coinciding with kids going back to school. The Delta variant blew most of those plans up. Now these firms are looking to “return” in January—just in time for flu season. That probably isn’t going to fly in the Northeast and Midwest. So, when will firms in those regions “return”? Spring 2022?

The four-day weekend: The hybrid that most firms are experimenting with is some variation of “requiring” (I—and management—use that term loosely) a critical mass of employees in the office for a minimum of two days and a maximum of three. Tuesday Wednesday, and Thursday are the workhorses for this hybrid-model. Fridays and Mondays are now off limits (with Fridays reserved for being in love). But it seems that while this is the mandated hybrid model for many firms, if an employee wants an exemption from it, they can easily get it.

Work patterns disrupted: IT directors (close allies of CFOs in advocating for WFH) are showing that company networks are lit up with employee activity for 18-plus hours, five days a week. WFH folks are online from early in the morning—before assuming their new normal childcare or elder care responsibilities—to late at night after they’ve put everyone to bed and before they watch Ted Lasso. IT Directors are NOT seeing lots of weekend traffic. WFH “work weeks” are very different than those that existed pre-pandemic and bear no resemblance to the “overtime” put in by Boomers and Gen X on Saturdays and Sundays in the 80s, 90s and 00s. This is not your father’s industry.

Vaccines and VAX mandates – the great dividers: Perhaps the thorniest issue for leadership teams right now is setting policy on vaccines. Firms are all over the map on this, falling into three broad categories of Require, Encourage, and Silent. The decision-making dynamics and cultural differences between leadership teams on this topic are dramatic and provide another example of how this once homogeneous industry is fragmenting in 2021. (There will be business school case studies written on this in the future.) One group of leadership teams is requiring all employees to be vaccinated to work in the office, no “ifs” “ands” or “buts” or religious or medical exemptions. A second group is encouraging employees to be vaccinated as part of their larger corporate “wellness” initiative. However, they are reluctant to require folks to be vaccinated to be in the office for fear of losing employees. A third group of leadership teams are staying silent on the topic. They are not communicating at all on vaccines, focusing instead on complying with any local, state or federal regulations. The federal vaccine mandate is causing headaches for HR managers of 100-plus employees in the second and third groups. Firms in these groups are also navigating the business impacts of client vaccination protocols. CEO POP QUIZ: What do you do if your best client requires your superstar project manager to be vaccinated to allow your firm to continue to work for them, but your superstar project manager refuses to get vaccinated and refuses to fake a religious or medical exemption? (And yes, faking religious or medical exemptions is now a thing.)

A generational shift: We are seeing a growing number of strategy conversations among Boomer and Gen X leadership teams that start with an emphatic “We need to get everyone back to the office,” and end up at “You know, there are times when our work is better done at home in a quiet space with no interruptions.” (The oft-overlooked “only child” cohort finally gets their day in the sun—alone.)

This is no country for old men: YeatsCormac McCarthy, and the Coen Brothers agree that this will become a defining issue for younger industry talent. Gen Z employees as a whole will expect greater flexibility in their work environment whether they are working for a firm that is 100% back-in-the-office or not-right-now. And they are more effective than their older co-workers and managers in that model. They’re facile with a digital and remote work environment. Sure, they will want to work with other team members in person, either at an office or some other physical location (Panera has great Wi-Fi). But they will not have the same antiquated relationship with static office space that their older co-workers did pre-pandemic.

Want to retain millennials and Gen Z? Then survey them and make sure to include their input in your “back-to-the-office” decisions. Millennials want to feel like they’re part of something larger than themselves. They’ve seen how their work can be done in many cases just as well—if not better—remotely. They want to be heard, and they want to trust that you’re making decisions based on data, not just on your nostalgic desire to go back to the way things were before. (Warning: If you want to turn off younger staff, survey them, and then ignore their feedback.)

What does this all mean for you?

Our advice: Stop focusing on getting your employees to return to the office. Instead, focus on outcomes that you want to achieve as a business. If those outcomes can be best achieved through employees working together in an office environment, then let that drive your policies and decision-making.


This article originally appeared on Morrissey Goodale’s websiteMorrissey Goodale is a CFE Media content partner.

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