The Post Pandemic Workplace Podcast: The New Future of the Office

Wondering what the workplace will look like post pandemic? In this 20-minute podcast, Suddath® Chief Commercial Officer Mark Scullion joins Sachs Media Group President Michelle Ubben to discuss how organizations are bringing employees back in phases, if cost will play a role in work from home policies and how technology will change the workplace of the future.

Don’t have time to listen? Catch the highlights below.

Ubben: Like about every business, Suddath has experienced some disruption from the incredible changes that we’ve all suffered from COVID-19. Can you talk about that a little bit?

Scullion: Absolutely. You know, talk about something you think will never happen hitting you from out of left field, our business has gone from robust and growing to less than 50% business volume. Many of our customers have just ceased operations so our service opportunities are significantly limited.

U: What I find so impressive is that you’ve been able to pivot so effectively and provide new services.

S: Yeah, the logistics around sending hundreds of employees home with very short notice was reality across many of our customers.

College campuses sent thousands of students home without their belongings. How do the logistics happen around getting the students their belongings? And for companies that are staying open, the environment had to change from a distancing standpoint, from a personal protection equipment standpoint. It’s just massive changes in a very short period of time, and we rallied our resources and we were able to help customers with all of those challenges and actually soften some of the revenue impact on our company by keeping our workers busy with those services.

U: Some people might think it’s no big deal to move employees to home. Pack up their laptop and their day planner and find a quiet part of the house to work, but for large companies that are moving lots of employees and need equipment, need a workspace set up times a hundred or a thousand, there’s a lot to it and then keeping track of all of those business items that need to come back and knowing where they are, knowing that they get back when we return to some semblance of normal is a big undertaking.

S: An employee disconnecting their workstation and moving it in their car or home raises questions—how do you hook it up on the other end, how are the cables configured to the docking station, how come I can’t get it to work?

Fortunately, those are all things that we know how to do very well. You know before we move a computer setup, we inventory it, we take a photo of it, we mark which monitor was right, which monitor was left. We tag the cable ends so that it’s clear where they go on the other side. An employee just grabbing stuff and running and trying to set it up on the other end could be an awful employee experience whereas having an experienced partner that knows how to do that can be a much better employee experience.

And, I’ll tell you a complicating factor has been that many companies sent people home to work but then they furloughed them so the additional logistics need around harvesting assets from furloughed employees gives you another level of complexity. That’s where that inventory of what did the employee have comes in handy.

U: You also mentioned colleges and we both have college student children that had to leave their campuses and come home. Every university is struggling with empty dorms that are still full of students’ possessions. How have you been able to provide a solution to universities and how is that going to work when students return to campus eventually?

S: It’s kind of mind numbing. How do you process six thousand credit card transactions? How do you gather 6,000 room numbers and 6,000 destinations, 6,000 cell phone numbers for the students and 6,000 email addresses for the students?

So, what we did in a very short period, is we spun up a version of our customer portal where the students could sign into a web-based platform. They could give us all their critical information and we could have a consistent workflow from that point forward, versus the traditional methods of an email or a phone call. That really streamlined the process for the students. It gave the colleges and universities confidence and it streamlined information for us on our end.

U: And it’s the way the students are comfortable sharing information and checking on the status of things anyway.

S: No doubt about it.

U: And that wasn’t a service you provided before all this came up right?

S: We do provide logistics support when students, especially in large colleges and universities, show up to their dorms on the first day and leave their dorms on the last day because a lot of these students don’t have proper handling equipment. Many times, there’s stairs and small elevators, so some colleges will have us bring about twenty men to a location and just provide general support to the students as they move in and out, but this is really the first time we’ve ever gone in and removed student belongings and shipped them to the students.

U: Besides the workplaces that were able to relocate their employees to home, you’ve got essential workers who really have to remain in the workspace but they can’t have the same layout perhaps or function in the same way they did before because they have to observe some social distancing. How have you played a roll to help those essential workers continue to function in the workplace?

S: We’ve seen a wave of what we call, “social distancing projects.” Large employers across pretty much all of our markets want us to come in and remove seating in common areas or conference rooms because one way to reduce the number of people in the room is to reduce the number of seats in the room.

We have also evened out the vacancy in some office spaces. For example, an office has fifty vacant cubicles all concentrated in one area, so we go in and reshuffle things where maybe every other workstation is vacant versus having just a block of vacancy. Again, to drive distancing in the workplace.

There are also solutions coming from an office furniture standpoint. Steelcase, in particular, offers different screens to drive additional safety in the workplace. You see these in grocery stores, and you see them in liquor stores where you’ve got someone behind the counter dealing with the public. We’re starting to see those type accessories show up in the workplace.

U: We’re hearing such a strong interest on the part of the governor and the chamber of commerce and the business community in general to get Florida back to work and get our economy going again but there will have to be some significant and long-term changes to how we function and how we work for that to happen. What role do you see Suddath playing in that in helping businesses that are working remotely now but need to get back to work in a different way?

S: I think that we’re in the same position so many other companies are. We’re figuring this out for our own employee workforce. We have over 2,000 employees globally, and we have multiple facilities across the country and all around the world, so a lot of what they’re going through, we’re actually going through as an employer. I think they’ll return to work, what we’re hearing is a consistent theme around phasing and rotation where everyone will not come back to work at the same time.

In some cases, you might have an ‘A’ team, a ‘B’ team, and a ‘C’ team, and only the ‘A’ team comes in at a particular time. Then, if there’s an infection, they will quickly be able to know who was at work that day and how to quarantine the individuals that were around the infected individual to protect the other employees and certainly deep clean the office space for the next team to come into the office. Companies are getting very creative on how to best do that. We’ve adopted an ABC team regimen across our domestic locations.

In terms of us as a logistics provider, in the previous months just before COVID-19, we might have five men in a truck. We could have a crew cab straight truck with the driver, a passenger, then three men in the back. There’s no way we can do that anymore because that doesn’t meet the social distancing requirements. It’s amazing how we’re changing the way we operate and we’re already thinking about does this extend the amount of time that it’s going to require to do a move. It probably will.

What are the safety implications? Whereas a couple of people would work together in the past, now we must spread things out now more. We’re learning these things for the first time and really trying to adjust as quickly as possible.

U: So, look into your crystal ball for a minute. How do you see the general work environment changing long-term as a response to all of this?

S: I think it will absolutely cause companies to strengthen their disaster recovery practices particularly from a network infrastructure standpoint. Sending employees home sounds great but if they can’t connect and be productive and if the Wi-Fi signal is weak or if the VPN doesn’t work, they can’t be productive, so I think CIOs will absolutely be zeroing in on how to maintain connectivity and high levels of performance from a tech standpoint when employees work from home.

I think we will see some additional work from home privileges, but I think it will be more systematic. I don’t think it will be random. I think there will be a cadence to that at least for the foreseeable future.

Companies are ultimately going to do what costs the least. For years we’ve seen companies go from 400 square-feet per employee down to 180 square-feet per employee and they did that for a lot of reasons.

One of those reasons was cost, so I think as this new workplace for the future evolves, cost will naturally be a consideration. I don’t have a firm handle on what it will ultimately look like but I think it will look somewhat like it did in the past, but companies will be more nimble and equipped to send people home to be productive at the very minimum.

U: You know, even before Covid-19, we were in a period of rapid disruption and one of the things I admire most about Suddath is that you were able to pivot so quickly to see what the need was in this situation and to provide it. What are the lessons for other companies because it’s the companies that can respond to disruption and change quickly that are going to adapt and survive.

S: I think communication. We have a lot of long-standing relationships where we know our customers. They’ll open up to us. They’ll brainstorm out loud with us.

In some cases customers have called us knowing they need something but not knowing exactly what they need and that’s really where, if you have a good relationship, if there is trust and there’s a general interest in helping, the solutions start to appear. We’re also in a position to share best practices with our customers. We do business with some of the biggest office occupiers in the world. We service facilities that have up to 60,000 employees in one geographic area and those companies with that number of employees are very sophisticated. They’re very savvy from an environmental health and safety standpoint. They’ve got incredible policies and procedures and disaster recovery plans.

Then you have companies that might have a hundred employees or two hundred employees. The level of sophistication just isn’t there. Because we do business with such large companies we’re in a position to say, “hey, you know what, we saw this company do that and it was really beneficial and it helped get their people up and running more quickly. What do you think about that for your company?” That’s really you know a concept of sharing best practices, trying to be a thought leader with your customers and don’t be afraid to share something that you did for another customer with someone else who might not necessarily know what they really need.

U: Well I’m so glad that you said communication because this podcast is based on believing in the power of communication in both directions, like you said having that close relationship with your customers, to know what they need and then to be able to quickly meet those needs and let them know that you can.

S: I would also say don’t underestimate the power of marketing and communications in those situations. We’re on a CRM platform and because we have our customers and prospects in a system and because we have a robust marketing engine, we were able to push out thought leadership, best practices, FAQs and ideas around different service offerings that we knew companies would be needing. I think the customer relationships are one thing but having a strong marketing and communications platform is essential in a situation like this.

U: Well, we appreciate being your communication partner and I’m so grateful to you for making time to talk to me today. Thank you for being on UBBEN Talking.

S: Thanks for giving me the opportunity, can’t wait to chat again soon.

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