When your business is moving people, what do you do when the world stops moving? This week, Michelle is joined by our client, Mark Scullion, president of Suddath Workplace Solutions, a company that went from moving employees and students from place to place to moving everyone back home. Listen in as they discuss the future of the office spaces post-pandemic.
Get to know Mark Scullion
Google tells more than 100,000 North American employees to stay home amid coronavirus fears.
Microsoft updates work from home policy, lets employees work remotely through October.
Since recording our podcast, Twitter has announced it will make working remote permanent for some.
Hello, and thank you for joining Ubben Talkin’. I’m your host, Michelle Ubben, and today we’re discussing the nationwide relocation of students and workers as thousands of people retreated to the safety of their homes in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As states reopen, they will return to changed workplaces with new safety protocols. Later we’ll speak with Mark Scullion, president of Suddath Workplace Solutions — the powerhouse behind many of these university and business moves.
When a hurricane threatens to rip through a community, many must leave their homes for the sake of their safety. But with a pandemic, the safest place you can be is your home. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost overnight, the world sheltered in place, and our jobs, schools, exercise and hobbies had to coexist in our living rooms, forever changing the way we operate our daily lives.
While the idea of working remotely is not new, until the past few months, its application had been limited. Many used to think it was only suited for technology-focused jobs, or only needed when an employee was facing extenuating circumstances. But the COVID-19 pandemic has shattered our previous conceptions of working remote and now is showing us that many more jobs are suited for this type of work than we previously thought.
Giant corporations like Google, Twitter, and AT&T are leading the change, letting hundreds of thousands of employees work remotely during the pandemic. Microsoft is even extending this period out as far as October.
Public schools and major universities had a similar overhaul in operations as they rescheduled their curricula to suit online courses. Many college students across the country left for spring break without realizing they were leaving their college experience – and belongings – behind for the foreseeable future.
These companies and institutions didn’t have weeks of planning to enact this transition to the online world. They depended on quick action and strategic planning by experts in the logistics field. Homes needed to be outfitted with the proper technology for work tasks, millions of students needed to be reunited with their sealed off personal possessions, and those still at work needed to remodel their workplaces with an eye for social distancing.
As many states begin the first phase of reopening plans this month, many schools and workplaces will begin to transition back to in-person working and learning. It’s essential for them to take a step back and learn from the past few months. Whether it’s incorporating social distancing into their operations long-term, or incorporating remote working as a continuing part of their work plan, we need to look at this as an evolution of the workplace, rather than a response to a problem that has come and gone.
Join me as I talk with Mark Scullion, president of Suddath Workplace Solutions, about the forces behind a transition to remote work and schooling and how companies will need to adapt as we move toward the new normal.
Michelle: Mark, thank you for joining me on Ubben Talkin’ Today.
Mark: Happy to be here. Thank you.
Michelle: So 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?
Mark: Absolutely. You know, talk about something you think will never happen, you know, hitting you from out of left field. Our business has gone from robust and growing to less than 50 percent business volume and you know, many of our customers have just ceased operations, so our service opportunities are significantly limited.
Michelle: But what I find so impressive is that you’ve been able to pivot so effectively and provide news services.
Mark: Yeah I mean, the logistics around sending, you know, hundreds of employees home with very short notice, you know, that was reality across many of our customers. College campuses, where thousands of students were sent home without their belongings and you know, how do the logistics happen around the students getting their belongings. And for companies that are staying open, you know, the environment had to change from a distancing standpoint, from a, you know, personal protection equipment stand point. It’s just massive changes in a very short period of time and we did rally 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 that were sort of focused around the crisis.
Michelle: Some people might think it’s no big deal to move employees to home, you know, pack up their laptops 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 work space 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.
Mark: Well you know, an employee disconnecting their work station and moving it in their car or home, how do you hook it up on the other end? How were the cables configured to the docking station? How come I can’t get it to work? Fortunately, those are all things we know how to do very well. You know, before we move a computer set up, we inventory it, we take a photo of it, we mark which monitor was right, which monitor was left, if there’s a middle, we mark middle. We tag the cable ends so that it’s clear where they go on the other side. You know, 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 different employee experience. And I’ll tell you, a complicating factor has been many companies sent people home to work but then they furloughed them. So the additional logistics need around harvesting assets from furloughed employees, you know, so you’ve got another level of complexity there and that’s really where that inventory of what did the employee have, comes in handy.
Michelle: You also mentioned colleges and we both have college student children that have had to leave their campuses and come home. Every university is struggling with empty dorms that are still full of student 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?
Mark: It’s kind of mind numbing. How do you process 6,000 credit card transactions? How do you gather 6,000 room numbers and 6,000 destinations and 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 of time, 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 of 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. So that really streamlined the process for the students, it gave the colleges and universities confidence and it definitely streamlined information for us on our end.
Michelle: And it’s the way that students are confident of sharing information and checking on the status of things anyway.
Mark: No doubt about it.
Michelle: And that wasn’t a service you provided before all of this came up, right?
Mark: We do provide logistic 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. A lot of these students don’t have proper handling equipment, many times there are stairs and small elevators. So some colleges will have us bring, you know, 20 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.
Michelle: So 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 still have to observe social distancing. How have you played a role to help those essential workers continue to function in the workplace?
Mark: We’ve seen a wave of what we call social distancing projects. Large employers across, pretty much all of our markets, where they want us to come in and remove seating in common areas or conference rooms because, you know, 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, so you might have an office with 50 vacant cubicles but they are all concentrated in one area so we go in and reshuffle things to where, maybe every other workstation is vacant versus having just a block of vacancy. Again, to drive distancing in the workplace and there are also now some solutions coming from an office furniture standpoint, Steelcase in particular, with different screens to drive additional safety in the workplace. You see these in grocery stores and you see them in liquor stores, where you got someone behind the counter dealing with the public. We are starting to see those types of accessories show up in the workplace.
Michelle: You know we are 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 and helping businesses that are maybe working remotely now but need to get back to work in a different way?
Mark: You know, I think that we’re in the same position so many of these other companies are. You know, we are just figuring this out for our own employee workforce. We have, you know, over 2,000 employees globally and we’ve got multiple facilities all across the country and all around the world. So a lot of what they are going through, we are actually going through as an employer. I think that the return to work, what we are 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 in a particular period of time. Then the B team, and then if there’s an infection they will quickly be able to know who was at work that day and how do we then quarantine the individuals who were around the infected individual to protect the other employees and then certainly deep clean you know, the office space for the next team to come in to the office space. So companies are becoming very creative on how to best do that. We’ve adopted an A,B,C regimen across our domestic locations. I think in terms of, you know, us, as a logistic provider, you know, in the previous months, you know, just before COVID-19, we might have five men in a truck. You know, you could have a crew cab straight truck with a driver, a passenger, and then three men in the back. There’s no way we can do that anymore. You know, because that doesn’t meet the social distancing requirement so it’s amazing how we’re going to have to change 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. You know, we have to spread things out now more and I’ll tell you, there’s some rude awakenings out there. We still do have project managers out there walking spaces and planning moves and there’s been a couple cases where the facility’s executive is saying, “Hey, you are not distant enough. Please change your behaviours.” So there is an incredible sensitivity out there right now around social distancing and you know, we are learning these things for the first time and really trying to adjust as quickly as possible.
Michelle: 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?
Mark: 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 WIFI signal is weak or if the VPN doesn’t work, they can’t be productive. So I think for sure, 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’ll be more systematic. I don’t think it will be, you know, random. I think there will be a cadence to that, at least for the foreseeable future. And then you know, cost is king. Companies are going to be ultimately what costs the least. They’re going to, I mean for years we’ve seen companies go from 400 sq. feet per employee down to 180 sq. feet per employee. They did that for a lot of reasons, but one of those reasons was cost. So I think as this new work place for the future evolves, I think cost will naturally be a consideration. So I don’t have a firm handle on you know, what it will ultimately look like. But I do 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.
Michelle: You know, even before COVID-19, we were in a period of rapid disruption and one of the things I admire about Suddath, is that you were able to pivot so quickly to see what the need was in the situation and to provide it. What are the lessons you think for other companies because it’s the companies that can respond to disruption and change quickly that are going to adapt and survive.
Mark: I think communication. You know, we have a lot of long standing relationships where we know our customers, they will open up to us, they will brainstorm out loud with us. So I think, you know, making sure you have a strong relationship with your customer because in some cases some 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 if there’s a genuine interest in helping. The solutions start to appear and we are 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 are very savvy from an environmental health and safety standpoint. They’ve got incredible policies and procedures and disaster recovery plans but then you have companies that might have 100 employees or 200 employees. The level of sophistication just isn’t there. So 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?” And that’s really a concept for 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.
Michelle: 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, you know, quickly be able to meet those needs and let them know that you can.
Mark: I would also say you know, don’t underestimate the power of marketing and communications in those situations. Because we are 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, ideas around different service offerings that we knew companies would be needing. So I think, the customer relationships are one thing but having a strong marketing and communication platform is absolutely essential in a situation like this.
Michelle: Well we appreciate being your communication partner and I am so grateful to you for making time to talk to me today. Thank you for being on Ubben Talkin’.
Mark: Thanks for giving me the opportunity. Can’t wait to chat again soon.
Michelle: Stay well.
Mark: You too.
Today, you’ve been talking pandemic relocation with my guest, Mark Scullion, the president of Suddath Workplace Solutions. If you want to read more about our conversation, visit sachsmedia.com/podcast. And make sure to subscribe for more episodes on communications breakthroughs in unexpected places.