Challenges in the reimagined workplace

Apr 24, 2022

The pandemic has been a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine how we do our jobs and how we run our companies.

Human resources departments are still caught between a rock and a hard place trying to recruit and retain staff while continuously adapting to the work landscape that was altered two years ago with the onset of COVID-19.

The biggest challenge for AEC industry leaders today is having employees return safely to the workplace in a way that does not cause a mass exodus of our workforce.

The pandemic changed everyone’s way of doing business in March of 2020, sending most employees home to work remotely in the short-term. It also changed every company’s vocabulary. Words like quarantining, isolating, masking, and social distancing overshadowed discussions on proposals, project deliverables, productivity, staff development, and team building.

Employers also had added responsibilities managing time for employees to quarantine or care for family members home from school/daycare. Most employers had to create policies and processes to address vaccinations, testing, and masking requirements in the workplace.

Employers have been trying to stay the course, but managing shared expectations, productivity, employee stress, staying connected, and striking a balance when it comes to how and where work is done has redefined the AEC workplace.

Why? There are several reasons. We’re in one of the tightest labor markets in years. Firms need to retain great talent and find more, but there are more jobs than people and team members are getting multiple weekly calls from recruiters trying to entice them away. To top that off, we’ve had to deal with the “great resignation,” with baby boomers retiring in record numbers.

In my 25-year career in human resources management, recruiting has always been a challenge, especially in a strong economy. However, it is usually in pockets. Nothing compares to the variables at play today that are affecting all positions and industries.

The pandemic has affected everyone in the workforce. Baby boomers are exiting at a faster rate than schools can produce technical professionals to replace them, and young professionals are leaving due to personal/family reasons such as limited daycare and/or online schooling for children.

We at Fleis & VandenBrink, like many other consulting firms, have come so far in dealing with the ever-changing way of doing business. But we’re still making tweaks to get the best workplace model to retain valued employees, and recruit even more talent.

Most companies recognized that as 2021 progressed and OSHA and/or state laws and regulations allowed for employees to return to the office, that employees had adapted their lifestyles to working remotely, and the world of work had changed.

Employees seemed content with their home workspaces. Whether it was getting a new pet as your home officemate or welcoming a newborn, the flexibility of working wherever, and – at times – whenever, without cubemates, noises, or interruptions was ideal for a lot of staff.

Many employees relished not commuting to work, and in most cases, getting an hour of their day back for themselves. They also savored the opportunity to roll out of bed 20 minutes before starting their day, brewing a cup of coffee, and making themselves presentable from the waist up for Zoom or Teams call.

At F&V, we recognized in May of 2021 the need for a reset plan to ease staff back into the office and that individuals would have initial safety and childcare issues/concerns. We also communicated to all employees our belief that we are better as a firm when we are together, in the same place.

Our plan included an “encourage” phase, where we encouraged remote staff to begin working one or two days in the office to start the transition from home-as-primary to office-as-primary and ramp up time back in the office. It also allowed staff time to adapt and reset to a new routine and/or schedule for the next phase – the “expected” phase.

While we valued the benefits from the in-person collaborative work environment, and that work performance is generally optimal as a face-first firm, we also recognized the benefits to our team members having some flexibility in where they complete their best work, fulfill commitments, and deliver results. The “expected” phase also included rolling out a remote work policy which highlighted work options such as ad-hoc, hybrid, and primary remote.

The hybrid working model, where workers split time in the office and home weekly, has been popular with employees. But it’s a challenge getting work done in each department. You need to have the right people in the office to have availability to do the work. Some roles also involve equipment or duties that cannot be done well remotely.

Success in developing and maintaining flexible work arrangements requires a shared commitment by both employees and managers. It includes open communication, clear expectations, regular check-ins, and availability. If expectations are not being maintained, then changes in work arrangements are required.

Jack Welch, former chairman and CEO of General Electric, once said, “Change before you have to!” If you do, you’ll most likely come out ahead in the business of tomorrow. Remote work is changing the business world.

At F&V, we’re turning this pandemic into a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reimagine how we do our jobs and how we run our company. 

Paul David, PHR, SHRM-CP, is the human resources director at Fleis & VandenBrink. Contact him at

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