This post is part of our ongoing exploration into workplace strategies in a post-COVID environment.


Terri: Hi everybody, I am Terri Jackson, I am the Real Estate Workplace Consultant at Atmosphere Commercial Interiors, here in our Minneapolis office. And I’m joined today by our President and CEO, Carlene Wilson. Hi Carlene!

Carlene: Hi Terri, how are you?

Terri: You know, I’m doing well.  Hanging in Carlene, how are you?

Carlene: Same here.

Terri: Ok, so Carlene is in our office, she is already back downtown, in the office, and I am at home today, and the reason we’re here today, Carlene, you were gracious enough to talk with me a little bit about how you have organizationally planned to bring us all back to the workplace. So as I’ve talked to people in the real estate markets and the A&D markets, and business communities in the Twin Cities, you know there’s a lot of interest around how people are handling that. So, thank you for being willing to share some of your insight and learnings on that, to date.

Terri: Alright, so as I mentioned, I think that you and the leadership team at Atmosphere, truly has done a stellar job at staying focused, and organized, and communicating information to all of us from the get-go. I mean this is … nobody knew there was no road map.

I do want to set the stage a little bit, because I’m not sure that people really know how big Atmosphere is, in what your responsibility has been. So, we have over 500 employees, including our operational team. There are eight different locations in four states, which means a lot of different shelter-at-home policies, local restrictions you’ve been dealing with and meanwhile, I’ve been here, I have myself, I have my two kids, and two cats, and some days I feel very overwhelmed. But, you know, how did you get started?

Carlene: Well, Terri as you mentioned there is no roadmap.  There’s no playbook, for this global pandemic that we’re all navigating through.

So, at the outset we created a COVID taskforce team, to keep our pulse on what was going on throughout the four states, and in our business. And that taskforce was comprised of senior leaders, that reported to me, and a group of middle managers and we prioritized the health [and] welfare, of our team members, as our highest priority. Their ability to successfully work from home, to ensure that we could still continue to provide a great client experience for our customers.

They also focused on financial stress testing our organization to assure that we would get to the other side, strong, as an organization, and developing contingency plans. So that’s really been very helpful and a critical part of our journey as we’re navigating this crisis. And we meet regularly, initially we were meeting daily, now we’re meeting twice a week. And we continue to keep a pulse on the organization, especially at this time as we gradually begin to reopen, and the economy begins to recover.

Terri: Tell us a little bit about how you are accommodating that. Everyone has a different level of personal comfort and safety.

Carlene: So from the outset, it’s my personal belief that we have to be very transparent, and communicate often, with our team members to help them understand exactly what we’re going through as an organization, and I go back to safety being our highest priority.

When COVID-19 hit, our operational side of our business was delivering [and] installing furniture, and we were on construction projects.  So safety was paramount. We had to quickly have the necessary PPE gear in order to protect them, and protect our customers.

And so we took that same mindset and applied it to our Worklabs, because that’s what we do. We’re a leader in helping clients create a great experiences [in] the workplace. We had to ensure the safety of our team members.

So we used the framework, to guide our return-to-work, and to help people feel comfortable, realizing that people are on [various points] of the continuum relative to their concerns and their feelings about this health crisis.

We talked about under what context should our team members be allowed to return to the workplace; what intervention should we take as an organization to ensure a safe work environment; and how will our policies and plans vary based on region, site and business.

As you indicated, we are under different shelter-in-place guidelines, currently. For example, Minnesota and Arizona, the shelter-in-place restrictions have been lifted. So they’re gradually re-emerging into our Worklabs.

However, our locations in Wisconsin and Illinois are still in shelter-in-place. And so we take our cues from the CDC and the local government authority, and that’s how we’re basing our return to our Worklabs.

We implemented a survey several weeks back. We wanted to better understand what our team members were feeling as they thought about re-emerging back into our Worklabs, and so we asked them questions about the communication that they’ve been receiving from the senior leadership team. Was it was it frequent enough? Was it thorough?

We asked what their comfort level was as they were thinking about returning to work, and what would make them feel more comfortable. You know, what could we solve for? And so that really helped shape our thinking about what those protocols and guidelines and new behaviors that we had to put in place, for our Worklabs.

What did we have to do, in order to ensure their comfort. I mean, there’s some things that were within our control. And there’s some things that are not within our control. Yeah, for example, public transportation. So [within] everything that we could control, our objective is that we’re providing that safe environment so that they can return to work gradually.

Terri: Yeah, so can you go into a little bit of detail on how are you displaying confidence in everything that Atmosphere’s leadership team has decided?

Carlene:  So we made the decision that our our senior leadership team should emerge first back into our Worklabs. And again we did that because we can plan all day long, right? We can put together policies and new guidelines and protocols.

But, and in order to understand if they’re going to be effective we have to ensure that we can execute flawlessly. There’s no better way than to have me, as the CEO and my senior leaders, back at the office.  And so we begin to re-emerge two weeks ago, and to ensure that we were providing the appropriate social distancing guidelines through the geometry of space, and the de-densification of our space, and that we have the proper cleaning procedures in place, hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, things like that throughout the workspace.

Today, for example, I’m in a confined small conference area, that the leadership team uses. Today, I’m the only one in here. And so we have a policy, where as you know, we’re wearing masks. But when I’m in a confined space, or at my personal workstation not interacting with anyone, my mask is to the side.  But as soon as I get up from that space and I begin navigating our space, going in social and common areas, the work cafe, I have to put a mask on.

The leaders going in first, looking at the building⁠—we’re in a multi tenant building here in Minneapolis, that’s not necessarily the case in our other facilities where we’re the sole tenant⁠—but so now we have other companies that we have to work around in the building, and the building management. This is this is a team sport. We all have to hold each other accountable for implementing those new behaviors and protocols.

And so, having the leadership team come back first, we help people understand this is what the expectation is.

Terri: Is there anything that you found surprising, or issues that you want to make sure other leaders are aware of.

Carlene: Well, I would say there have been a lot of pleasant surprises through this entire 8 – 9 weeks, especially initially working from home.  I would say the first surprise, and it really wasn’t a surprise, because I’m so privileged to lead such a great group of team members is how quickly people adapted to the changing environment. The changing circumstances.

Again, this this was not a plan. This was forced upon us, and how quickly they moved from working in our Worklabs in our facilities, to working from home seamlessly. That was great. That was a great Aha. And the resilience of our team members, and how they were navigating issues, and solving problems for our customers to ensure business as usual.

They’ve done some really great, heroic things to ensure business continuity, which is really critically important, because our business continuity is all about taking great care of our customers. That’s been our primary focus. How do we take great care of our customers when we’re not in our Worklabs.

Terri: So, because I’m here at home still, and you’re there, as you mentioned, leadership has come back first to the office. Tell a little bit about what day one might look like at Atmosphere, at least in our Minneapolis office. What has changed? What should I expect?

Carlene: This is consistent across all of our locations, because we think that’s critically important. And as you know, you received a lot of information about our new protocols and guidelines. Yeah, new health and hygiene habits that we’ve instituted. So across our enterprise we have done deep cleaning and sanitization of all of our facilities.

And it’s a service that we provide not only for us but to our customers, and so that’s the first thing that happened. You’ve received paperwork that you signed. And again, we’re each holding one another accountable, and that was to share with you with the new protocols will be when you step foot into the Worklabs.

So, for example, when you come back to the Worklab, and we’re doing that in waves, gradually. We’re starting out with 25% of our team members coming back next week, and then we’ll gradually build upon that. And we’ve [a] got team of people, A team, B team, and we’re taking alternate dates to ensure a safe return for everyone.

You will sign in, when you come in, because we want to know that you’re in the facility, which is good for contact tracing. And you’re signing in and basically stating, that you have not been in contact with anyone that has contracted COVID-19, and that you’re healthy, and you don’t have any symptoms of COVID-19.

And then you will don your mask, because you’re walking through our public spaces,  and you’ll keep your mask on until you select a place to sit. And I know you’re one of our nomadic team members, and 60% of our organization is nomadic, but we’re going to ask you to select a designated spot for the day and stay there.

So we’re going to temporarily suspend our nomadic environment. And the reason for that is because you can keep that clean, we can keep that clean. Versus you moving around to four or five different locations that you’re normally used to throughout the day. So that choice-and-control, we’re going to temporarily suspend that to ensure that we’re protecting everyone.

You will see a lot of digital signage throughout the space, reminding you of the guidelines and protocols that we put in place, so it’s very prominent. You won’t be using our cutlery, dishes, for the time being, so we’re asking you to bring your own lunch and anything that you want to enjoy. Whether, eating or drinking, [use] your own utensils to do that initially.  You’re not going to see any communal food, you know we always had communal food out for everyone, and we had a lot of healthy or, not so healthy options. But we’re suspending that for the time-being as well.

Again, we really want to ensure the health and safety of all of our team members. And so that’s what, initially, you’ll encounter when you come into space.  You’ll go into a conference room and see a lot less seating, so we’ve taken out seating. We’ve de-densified conference room areas. We’re going to ask you to keep the door open so there is ample air circulation.  And you won’t be seated next to a team member.  You may be diagonal to a team member, but social distancing is definitely an effect throughout all of our Worklabs.

And if you have a client, if a client comes into the space, and if they don’t have a mask, we will be offering them a mask as well. They will also be signing an affidavit, confirming that they don’t have any symptoms and they haven’t been in contact with anyone that has contracted the virus in the past 14 days.

Terri: It’s funny being in the office, and commercial furniture world, some people have said the office is dead. Benching in dead. I’ve heard all these different phrases, from really a very small percentage of people. From a real estate perspective, I do feel like things are still moving forward in a healthy way.  We’re still seeing a lot of leases signed, rents paid. So what’s your opinion if people think the office is not necessary?

Carlene:  Well, I think you know everyone’s working from home and I think remote work is always going to continue, obviously. We’ve demonstrated that we can do that, and many people have been super productive working from home and I would say that certainly is, my scenario.  I have been very productive.

But, I would also say that I think sometimes leaders have a distorted perception of what working from home really entails. And I will use myself as an example, given that I’m a leader in this industry, I’ve got great tools and resources. So I have a home office …

Terri: Like a light, some professional lighting or something!

Carlene: I’ve got monitors, I’ve got lighting, I can make videos from my home.  I don’t have small children that I’m home-schooling at the time, right?

My son has graduated from school. So I think I’m in the minority. I’m not distracted, and can be super productive. But my experience doesn’t necessarily correlate to the experience many of our team members have, even in this industry.

Let alone what a lot of employees from organizations face. I’ve heard, because I routinely connected with our team members over virtual coffee in the last four weeks, and that some are challenged with the distractions.  They’re not as productive as they wish they could be, because they’re juggling personal priorities along with business priorities.

I’ve also heard that some are experiencing a high degree of loneliness. And then some of our newer team members, that we were on-boarding right before the crisis hit, you know don’t have the benefit of a developed network. And the support system that you have, and that I have.

And so they’re learning the culture of our organization, and they’re struggling with that. Because they don’t have someone to turn to, day in and day out.  Obviously, we have resources to help them but it’s not the same.

So, I personally believe that the workplace is critically important for organizations. As you think about your culture, as you think about engagement, and productivity, and creativity.

The workplace is not going to die. It’s going to look different, yes.  And yes, we’re going to work-from-home, and there’s going to be a blend between working from home and working from the office.

But, Terri you remember back in 2008 during the liquidity crisis, many customers at that time decided to reduce their real estate footprint.  And they told their team members, go ahead work from home. And a lot of companies did that, and they were some of our customers, people that we’re doing business with today. And then what happened, was a couple years later, they saw a retention issues increase, and they saw engagement levels decrease, productivity decrease.

So, what did they do? They asked everybody come back to the workplace.  And it was a cycle that we went through. I remember that. And because everybody realized the importance of the workplace, as we think about mentoring and developing talent . And I can’t even imagine an organization, you know, five years from now, that the only experienced one of their team members would have would be a virtual experience.

That’s very difficult to imagine. So, I don’t believe the workplace is dead. I think it’s a critical part of organizations today and moving forward. And yes, it’s going to look a bit different, and we’re going to lead that change as to what it looks like, but it’s very much a part of who we are and will always be, in my mind.

Terri: We’re social beings after all.

Carlene: I shared with our team members, that this is a time to try new things and experiment. Let’s be more efficient. Let’s have more effective meetings. And you yourself shared with me that you’ve enjoyed that, and you’ve had a chance to test some different things, and they’ve been super valuable for you, so hopefully this has taught us some lessons that we’re going to continue to hold onto and just enhance as we gradually transition back into the workplace.

Terri: I agree it’s a very open climate for experimentation. Right? Because we’re all just forging our way. Very entrepreneurial, and I love that.  Well thank you, and I want to mention that you have said you’re happy to join in on conversations, you know, what with clients, either with their internal team members and leadership teams, or with their own clients.

If anyone is struggling, or you know, you’re happy to share some of the protocols and some of the learnings that you had worked out.

Carlene: I’d be pleased to do that. We are learning as well as everyone else, but I also believe it’s our responsibility to lead the way. You know this is what we do.

We help clients understand the importance of the workplace, and how that can help their business, and how it can help team member engagement.  And so that’s why, personally we want to make sure that we’re doing it right, so that we can help our customers navigate this transition too.

So I would even invite customers to come into our Worklabs, see the changes that we’ve made relative to the geometry, and de-densification, and the protocols and guidelines that we’ve put in place. And we are taking meetings by appointment, and it’s a safe environment, and we’d be pleased to talk with clients.

Terri: Very good, thank you. So, before we part, I have one more question. I know that being the CEO of Atmosphere is your dream job, but if you didn’t have that, what is your dream job?

Carlene: I think my dream job …I get to do portions of this every day …I would love to be a teacher. I enjoy helping and mentoring people, so …

Terri: Well, you’re really good at that!  What age?

Carlene: I have a tremendous respect for teachers, especially during this time. I have family members that are trying to homeschool their children, I know you’re in that … situation.

Terri: Ok, what age? Elementary? High school?

Carlene: Oh no. High school or college. I lack the patience required for under 12.

Terri: Well, thank you, it’s fun to see you virtually.

Carlene: I look forward to seeing you in person in the Worklab, Terri.

Terri: Next week I think I’m slated to come in.

Carlene: I will see you, I will be here.

Terri: Thank you Carlene Wilson, maybe we’ll catch up again in a couple of weeks and see what we’ve learned? Thank you Carlene!

Carlene: You’re welcome!

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