It’s May. The office in Kitchener is quiet save for the occasional groan-creak of a tape dispenser. As Chief Operations Officer, Mark Christensen was acutely aware of the red tape that would come with reopening an office during a pandemic, but he could never have anticipated how literal that tape would be. Proposed traffic flow patterns in hand, he paces the office pretending he is Amanda Knopf, then Paul Rodriguez, then Fei Wei. Does the flow make sense for everyone? He marks out conflicts and changes on the floor with a bold red X of tape.
As he moves about the office, he thinks about the Hamilton location. The 10-storey building comes with its own set of logistical challenges: three elevators, narrow stairways, multiple tenants, a high-traffic lobby, washrooms with controlled access. The return to office plan will be much less straightforward than the Kitchener location.
Later he will check in with Leadership—they’ve been meeting almost daily for the past six weeks to discuss the company’s next steps. Then he’ll need to circle back with Jy, AEC, Enterprise Technology, Human Resources, and Business Development. Just as the to-do list starts to shrink, it surges again for everyone.
Calling this an operational exercise is an understatement. Since March it has been simultaneously a sprint and a marathon. With a steady stream of information and hodge-podge restrictions rolling in from regulatory bodies, the ground is forever shifting underfoot. But one thing has always been certain – the safety of the team comes first.
When Ontario announced the Declaration of Emergency on March 17, 2020, the path forward was crystal clear for leadership. “We decided we’re working from home,” said Mark. “That’s the best and safest place for all our staff, and that’s where we need to be. Period.”
Transitioning a staff of over 200 to remote work while maintaining a high level of service is a feat that requires careful thought, planning, and ideally, time. In the early days of COVID-19, time was not on anyone’s side. “There was a lot of pressure on everyone to make the right decisions, and there were tons to be made,” Mark explained. “There was a gravity to the decisions we had to make, with the potential to impact our business. Collectively we wanted to make sure we insulated our staff as best as we could from it.”
So how do you plan for the unprecedented? “You don’t navigate that amount of thinking without a team, I’ll tell you that,” Mark laughed. “I very quickly drafted Jy Hamilton and said, Remember that little line on the bottom of your job description that says other duties as assigned? Tag, you’re it. This is going to be unlike anything you’ve ever done before.”
As staff settled into a new routine from home, working groups from across the company banded together to absorb any turbulence and minimize the wake for the rest of the organization. “It was a time full of emotion and stressors that were new to everyone. We were all trying to navigate maintaining a healthy business in a new climate, and at the same time, work from home and fulfill our family roles as partners and parents. It was absolute madness that stretched from very, very early starts to very, very late ends to the days,” Mark reflected. “But there was a real sense, too, of locking arms.”
As summer rolled into fall, staff began successfully transitioning back to a reimagined office equipped with directional arrows, increased cleaning protocols, reduced capacity, and a five-page COVID safety plan. “A key part of the success of the plan has been connecting back with staff. It’s a continuous improvement thing. Everything evolves and we need to make sure that we check back in to see what’s working and refine as needed,” Mark explained.
“[The pandemic] has been a real testament to our ability to adapt and be flexible, and to meet a challenge head-on and actually thrive,” Mark offered.
It is now February. As mandated, the offices are dormant, and staff resume their work from home routine. While the desks are empty, what does remain is a deep sense of optimism and gratitude.
“It has been quite an experience. I am thankful for the opportunity it has provided us to learn how resilient we are. We have recognized a need to find a balance, when the time is right, to have the best of both worlds because I think it makes us better and stronger. As I look forward, I think about the opportunities that this learning has presented us. We need to make the best of it.”