Delta Variant Impacts the Office: A Podcast with Lauri Goodman Lampson

HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – The recent emergence of the Covid Delta Variant has prompted corporations to scuttle, alter or reconsider their return-to-work plans.

An expert who’s been focused on the Delta Variant response is Lauri Goodman Lampson, president and CEO of PDR, a Houston-based workplace consulting, design and architecture firm that works with large companies like Exxon Mobil and developers, including Hines and Brookfield Properties.

Long-term policies and practices about Working-From-Home continue to be a hot topic, too.

Lauri Goodman Lampson was a guest on THE RALPH BIVINS PROJECT, a podcast produced by Realty News Report. Below is an excerpt from her appearance.

To Listen to the Podcast CLICK HERE.

Ralph Bivins: What are you hearing – the latest information – about the workplace strategies and processes of dealing with the Delta Variant?

Lauri Goodman Lampson: It seems we are living in a very quickly evolving world that’s dealing with the pandemic. About a month ago, many clients were moving toward fall re-entries, with a September-October timeline. They had been getting ready to start the migration back to offices some days, most days or all days, of the week. Just in the last week, at least a dozen clients have – to use your word, retreated. We follow the CDC, county and municipal guidelines, and companies listen and respond to the guidelines when new ones are issued. Fall deadlines are slipping to late fall, some to January of 2022 and at least one I know declared an opening in March 2022. It depends on where your headquarters is located. The attitude is that what you do and where it’s done should be enterprise-wide, not just locally.

Ralph Bivins: How does it impact the employees?

Lauri Goodman Lampson: It is really a complex and confusing time for everyone, particularly the employees. People want to know what’s going to happen to them; what their organizations are going to declare, and when. Everyone is afraid of losing the flexibility, the control and the choices that the pandemic had to offer [them in workplace options] for the past year and a half. They just want some certainty.

Ralph Bivins: In terms of the number of companies, how many have made their decisions, and how many have put them off?

Lauri Goodman Lampson:  It started in early July. Companies, especially in Houston — and most of our clients are in Houston. Really, for the most part, they want their people to come back to the office most of the time. We’re hearing a lot of that.

Ralph Bivins: Tell us about your discussions with the decision makers.

Lauri Goodman Lampson: My advice to company leaders is that as they are making their decisions, be super clear with their intentions and communicate them to their people so people can understand why it is that you are making the decision you are making. The worst path would be for you to appear to be making the decisions arbitrarily. If you have a clear intention to offer some degree of flexibility — or not — just be clear about what you want to achieve. What you want to do is establish a context for people to use to make their own assessments and their own decisions. A lot of organizations are polling people, asking them how many days they would like to be in the office; what would compel them to come in or what it is that would keep them away. If you ask this before establishing that the intention is to do X, here’s the context on which the office will exist in the future. People only know what they left behind, so they will make their decisions based on the condition of the office in 2019. You have to establish a new context. People will react by saying they would come in to work every day if it’s going to be that awesome. If the organization is not changing anything, why would the people come in? They’d feel the organization is offering nothing to come in for that they can’t get at home.

Ralph Bivins: How you are handling things at your firm, PDR? I believe you’re located in Houston Center in downtown.

Lauri Goodman Lampson: Yes, we’re at 2 Houston Center. We have a beautiful office. It has been open almost since the beginning of the pandemic, on an as-needed basis, because a lot of our design team members need access to the materials in our office. So, it has been open with very low occupancy.

Before the Delta Variant, we were starting to increase our capacity. If you were not vaccinated and you did not want to inform HR, your area is considered a mask zone. If you had been vaccinated and you wanted to inform only HR, you could move around without a mask. That is, until next Monday, when all people moving around the building – vaccinated or not – will have to be masked. If you are sitting at your desk, you can take the mask off. The mask is a deterrent; it’s another barrier to the human interaction we all are craving.

We were on this path to increasing occupancy and started loosening up the restrictions until the CDC and Harris County raised the threat level and recommended that masks be worn in high transmission areas such as closed office spaces. This remains a very fluid situation, making it very hard for leaders to declare what we should do. So, my guidance is just to call what you decide an experiment, subject to another declaration based on the next situation – which we will evaluate, assess and iterate.

“We will never go back to working the way we worked in 2019”

Every organization’s needs are different. We have hired new people who don’t even live in Texas. I can’t compel them to come to the office. I was speaking to a client yesterday and I said, “We don’t know a lot of things, but we do know two things. We will never go back to working the way we worked in 2019. And we will always have some degree of a hybrid work collaboration because some of our people don’t live near the office.” So, now we know these two things, and they should form our go-forward strategy.

Ralph Bivins: Let’s switch gears for a second and talk about some of the projects you have worked on. One Shell Plaza, now known by its address, 910 Louisiana. It opened 50 years ago and was the first major office tower developed by Gerald Hines. Tell us a little about that downtown building.

Lauri Goodman Lampson: That building and the owner we worked on behalf of wanted to reposition the lobby and common areas. It’s no secret many buildings are going through a renaissance for the new world of work. These areas must be more than what we call “dead lobbies,” that are just beautiful homages to some stone and some paint we used to use back in the 1980s. Now, we must make these places into experiences, from the minute you enter them. You have to feel a sense of belonging, a sense of community. You start to feel the energy from other people, which is difficult now. Without people in these offices, the human energy is reduced. So, we are trying to amp up the community spaces, so, at least in some concentrated areas, you have the vibe of human energy. This is the reason we come back to the office, to feel the energy of other people there. We don’t want to come to empty offices. We feed off this human energy.

Ralph Bivins: The downtown restaurants that surround these places surely want to see the energy, too.

Lauri Goodman Lampson: Absolutely.

Ralph Bivins: As a consultant for Brookfield, you have worked on the Allen Center complex. What did PDR do at Allen Center?

Lauri Goodman Lampson: It’s a very similar sort of goal – to take that complex – which is a much bigger complex – and work with it. In that complex, we were instrumental in editing the traffic patterns and how people enter the buildings and how they experience the common space and connective tissue between the high-rise buildings to increase the engagement and amp up that experience. We also created little micro-experiences. Some of these buildings are so large and the lobbies are so large that they can be made to express different moods and experiences.

This building has really opened its arms to the public. Now, instead of being very closed-off and protected, it is still secure and welcoming. You don’t need architectural and landscape barriers. It’s much more welcoming, much more pleasant attracting visitors as well as accommodating and creating an experience for the tenants.

Ralph Bivins: Your firm consulted on the Exxon Mobil campus –3 million SF, 20 buildings, located in Springwoods Village which is now called City Place. Tell us what you did for Exxon Mobil.

Lauri Goodman Lampson: We were instrumental in helping Exxon Mobil decide how to organize their 12 headquarter companies here in Houston into a single location. There were 28 locations in the city of Houston. We did a study of what would happen if we could put all of them into one place. We started with the study and began to look for site locations.

When this started, it was a big secret. We were under a non-disclosure agreement. So, it was a real estate study that turned into a business optimization opportunity. Once the executives of the company realized there was real business potential in bringing the companies together to encourage collaboration – what we coined as “collisions” between groups of people and individuals that did not work explicitly together. One of the things they realized was that just considering consolidating caused them to rethink their company structure. They actually began to merge business units and reorganize themselves before they moved onto the campus. A big catalyst followed. And in the years since they have occupied the campus, we have helped them capitalize on business synergies. We were the program managers, the master planners, and worked with teams of design architects to bring it to life. Because of the way we helped create the design of the campus, we reformed the interior to meet the work needs for the coming 50 years. It must be incredibly flexible and fluid so business can evolve inside without architectural barriers standing in the way.

Ralph Bivins: Lauri, one thing I want to repeat. When you talked about advising leadership how to make institutional changes, you advised them to “call it an experiment.”  I’m going to remember that and use that in the future.

To Listen to the Podcast CLICK HERE.

(Interview edited for clarity)

Aug. 16, 2021 Realty News Report Copyright 2021

 File:  Delta Variant Impacts the Office

For more about Texas real estate, check out the book Houston 2020: America’s Boom Town – An Extreme Close Up  by Ralph Bivins. Available on Amazon  

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