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Planning for the Return to Offices and the Future of the Workplace during COVID-19

Kay Sargent is Senior Principal and Director of WorkPlace at HOK where she is a recognized expert on workplace design and strategy issues. She is an award-winning designer who has worked with several Fortune 500 companies to optimize their global real estate portfolios and create innovative work environments. This week’s podcast episode features highlights from … Continue reading "Planning for the Return to Offices and the Future of the Workplace during COVID-19"

Planning for the Return to Offices and the Future of the Workplace during COVID-19

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Kay Sargent is Senior Principal and Director of WorkPlace at HOK where she is a recognized expert on workplace design and strategy issues. She is an award-winning designer who has worked with several Fortune 500 companies to optimize their global real estate portfolios and create innovative work environments. This week’s podcast episode features highlights from the “Workplace Innovator Interactive Livestream” which was broadcast on April 22, 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Mike Petrusky and Madison Dujka co-host a discussion about the many challenges and opportunities arising as workplace leaders plan for a return to the physical office. Kay shares her concerns about organizations rushing to make decisions when there is no “one size” solution for workplaces. She offers her ideas around the case for a hands-free workplace and gives us a vision for the future of the office in both the near and long term during our journey through this global pandemic.

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Read the full transcript:

Mike Petrusky (00:02):

Hey folks, it’s Mike. And as we enter the next phase of managing our lives during this pandemic, I wanted to ask you to just take a moment to help me as I seek to serve our workplace community the best way I can. Please do me this favor, visit And while you’re there, do these few quick things. First, as you may know, we’re now broadcasting a weekly interactive live stream version of this podcast every Wednesday at noon Eastern. And at the very top of the webpage, you will see a banner inviting you to register for these live events.

            Next, a little further down, you’ll see the announcement of a brand new product feature from iOffice. It’s called Space-Right, and we designed this tool to allow you to set physical distancing parameters, instantly reconfigure floor plans, map out scenarios and reassign desks as your organization returns to the office. Watch the video to see how Space-Right helps take the guesswork out of safe space planning now, and for the future. And finally, at the very bottom of the page, there’s a link to my email. So you can let me know what you think about the live streams, about Space-Right, and you can share your thoughts about how I can make this show more valuable for you. Thanks.

Kay Sargent (01:20):

But the first domino has fallen. And we’ve always said once the first domino falls, once there is a compelling reason or a compelling need or a requirement to do this, all of a sudden the dominoes will go fast.

Mike Petrusky (01:36):

This is the Workplace Innovator Podcast, where we talk with corporate real estate and facility management leaders about the industry trends and technologies impacting your organization. This show is powered by iOffice, the leading employee experience focused IWMS software, that delivers real time data and mobile tools to help you intelligently manage your digital workplace.

            Here we go, everybody. Episode 108 of the show. I’m your host, Mike Petrusky And I want to take a moment to thank you for listening to this podcast. Each week during the pandemic, we have been gathering as a community of workplace leaders to chat about ways we can help each other navigate through this new frontier and meet the many challenges we are facing during this time. And today, I just knew I had to share with you this excerpt of a recent workplace innovator interactive broadcast, featuring my friend and yours, the incomparable Kay Sargent of HOK. It was my first time catching up with Kay, since way back in February, before the lockdown began here in the US. And I was so looking forward to speaking with Kay, that when she joined the livestream, my co-host Maddie and I jumped right into talking about our experiences, working from home, living our quarantine lives. And I had so many questions for Kay that I forgot to even introduce her until about 10 minutes into our chat. So let’s pick things up there and give you an idea of how things went. Check this out.

            Kay is Senior Principal and Director of Workplace for HOK, which is a global architecture and design firm and workplace strategy company. And I imagine your clients are asking you a lot of questions and there’s a ton of resources out there. HOK has been doing a great job of putting out articles. You’ve written articles. I appreciate it so much to hear from you. But this is our first time talking over the last, it’s probably been two months since we talked and had that nice lunch together. But tell me where you’ve been personally, how you’re feeling and also what your clients are telling you. Have you seen that evolution of the questions coming your way?

Kay Sargent (03:40):

Yeah, I mean, we’re getting inundated right now and quite frankly, we’re getting inundated with just the webinars and the information that’s being put out there. And there’s a rush for everybody to get everything and put it out there and to get people answers and information. And I’m going to take an unusual step here. I’m just going to say everybody just needs to take a breath, right? We are in the middle of a whirlwind right now. We don’t know what we don’t know. We don’t really know how this is all going to play out. We can take some really good educated guests about how this is going to play out. But we really don’t know. And there’s a great gentleman and I wish I could remember his name. He was on the New York Times the other day. He talks about the hammer and the dance, right, where you shut everything down.

            Then once you shut it all down, then when you go back, it’s not just flipping that light switch. It’s you move a few steps forward, you move a few steps backwards. You kind of got to figure out your rhythm and what this is. This is going to be a very precarious dance that we’re all going to be in for probably 18 months, if not more. That time period, I think is also one of those things. And I think what we’re seeing is a lot of people are having knee-jerk reactions. And a lot of people are saying, “This is what you need to do.” We don’t really know exactly what everybody needs to do.

Mike Petrusky (03:40):


Kay Sargent (05:10):

And so I think to be really honest and to be really fair, the best thing that we can be doing right now with our clients is having a conversation about what is likely to happen. I can’t tell you that you can go back to the office. I can’t tell you that it’s going to be safe. And every document I see that says do these things and you’ll be safe, nobody can say that. Nobody can say that. And I think what we need to do is say, “What do we know? What do we don’t know? And what are some of the best practices?” And companies have to make a decision about the level of risk they’re willing to take and what it means for their business. And that’s going to be different for every single company. It’s not one checklist that’s going to solve everybody’s problems.

Mike Petrusky (06:03):

In a way it’s going to be different for every single person, right? Individually, we’re all reacting differently to this. That’s been my big struggle and the challenge I think we’re going to face. As I started this journey, as all of us did, I was trying to think, how can I be helpful? Well, I need data. We’re data driven people, right? We like to see what the workplace is telling us through sensors and through surveys and through workplace strategies. We want to know how people operate and how we can best help them do it better. But there was no data, at least in the beginning. Now we’re getting some more data. We’re starting to see where this virus is heading. But it’s still not going to be a perfect picture.

            And when we start making plans to get back to this return to work, re-entry, whatever you want to call it, in a broader sense, how to help our people. Whether you’re a facility management or a workplace real estate leader, your job is to care for the occupants of your facility. And that’s what we do well, right? So how can we help our audience? While you think about that or comment on that, I’m going to launch another poll question, because I’ve been asking this question each week, the last couple of weeks anyway, about when do you think your organization will begin this process of reopening the workplace? I think it’s happening in some parts of our country this week, right?

Kay Sargent (07:15):

In some parts it is. I think, Mike, our gut instinct is to go to what we know and we all know workplace really, really well. But it kind of hit me the other day when I was watching the governors and the president debate who gets to decide when people go back to work. And the reality is neither one of you get to decide that. Companies will decide when they are ready to open. And even then, it’s the workforce that is going to determine, do I feel safe coming in? And what we’re hearing from more and more of our clients is they don’t feel right forcing people back into the office. They might open their offices and they might do a lot of things to prepare as much as they can, given the information that they know today. But very few feel very comfortable, basically telling people who may be apprehensive about this, that they have to go back in, for a variety of reasons.

            We’re dealing with our personal responses, our psychological responses to this, our emotional responses to this. We’re dealing with a variety of family situations that are unprecedented. Getting to the office, I mean, we’re focused on how do we make the office acceptable? How do you get to the office? I mean, think about, if you’re walking on the street, if you’re taking a Metro, all of those things that you have to do, all the touch points from your house to your workplace that you have to interact with. And those aren’t really easy things to fix or to address. So this is, again, this is going to be a dance that we’re going to be playing about who’s comfortable, to what level, and it’s going to be an evolution.

Mike Petrusky (09:10):

Well, you’re anticipating my next poll, but let me share the results of this one. Here’s what people are saying about their organizations being ready to get back to work, or begin the opening of the built environment and the workplace.

Kay Sargent (09:22):


Mike Petrusky (09:22):

And then we’re going to ask where people individually feel comfortable, where they stand when they will be ready to go back? So here we go. This is different than last week, Maddie, Right? Last week we had more of a 50/50 split. It was 50% said May, June, July, and then the other 50% were sometime later, I don’t know. Where here it is 75, 25. Looks like because of the week of news and the week of maybe there’s conversations going on and communication happening within our organizations, this is becoming more real that May, June, July is the timeline for the office, at least being available to people.

Kay Sargent (09:56):

I believe that we are being, the internal optimist in me is going to say, “We’re being handed an opportunity.” Okay, let’s find the opportunity in this. There are a lot of things that we have been talking about that are on the horizon and artificial intelligence, gig economy, biometrics, all of these things that are going to impact the way that we work. But we’re just kind of, “We don’t have to deal with them right now, so we’re kind of not.” And I believe that’s a huge missed opportunity and that something like this, a crisis, an event, or an advance, typically catapult us into having to act and to do something radically, that we might have always known was there. And so it is not lost on me when the media is asking people in our government, what did you do with the time that you had? I think we all need to ask ourselves that question.

            We all are sitting here and we’ve had a month and we will probably have another month or two. What did we do with that time, when we had an opportunity? And once in a decade, maybe once in a career opportunity to rethink what the reentry to the workplace would be. Did we revert back and panic and throw everybody back in assigned desk and throw up a bunch of panels and walls and freak out and panic and go backwards? Or did we say, “We’re here for a reason and let’s continue forward”, and how do we do that intelligently? And how, in doing that intelligently, do we take all those other things, neurodiversity, inclusivity, volume metrics, artificial intelligence, the gig economy. All those things that are moving on the horizon, that we now have an opportunity to truly embrace, to help be part of the solution and move us forward. And I think we’re going to be judged on how we act right now. Did we panic and go backwards, or did we leverage this as an opportunity to move our industry forward? So we might avoid the Kodak moment that our industry is teetering on the edge of.

Mike Petrusky (12:14):

Wow. How’s that folks, for a setup? So that’s where we’re headed with this conversation. And before we get there, though, that reminded me of Maddie’s inspirational quote for this week’s live stream. We often ask for one and Maddie, you want to share it with us because it does tie into what Kay was just talking about.

Madison Dujka (12:32):

My quote is, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it, the seed of an equal or greater benefit.” And I like to think of this, it’s pretty much the other saying of, “With every door that closes a new door opens” or, “Every time I fall, I get back up”

Kay Sargent (12:51):

Well actually, Maddie, we’re removing all the doors now, so nobody has to touch the door handle.

Madison Dujka (12:55):


Kay Sargent (12:57):

So you can’t go through the door now.

Mike Petrusky (12:58):

There we go.

Madison Dujka (12:59):

Every time that an electric door opens.

Kay Sargent (13:02):

Yeah, maybe that’s it. Or it’s permanently held open. Yeah, something like that.

Madison Dujka (13:05):


Mike Petrusky (13:06):

Yeah. So Kay and again, Maddie, I am coming to you. I know the audience is asking questions. But Kay, you reminded me of your article recently written for HOK. And if you want to get some great resources everybody, check out, I Google HOK workplace and it takes me right to the workplace page of the HOK website, where they list all the different articles that have been written. There’s a series that you’ve put out on COVID-19 and I’ve read them, each one, as they’ve been released. Our friend, Adam Stoltz early, contributed.

Kay Sargent (13:35):


Mike Petrusky (13:36):

But you wrote one called COVID-19 and the Case for a Hands-Free Workplace. You want to tell us about that? Because you were just alluding to it.

Kay Sargent (13:42):

Yeah. So, we’ve been talking for two or three years about artificial intelligence and the human experience. And this notion that we are not leveraging this and it’s on the horizon and that we have an opportunity to. And the perfect example, I think, is the fact that I can walk up to a car today with a fob in my pocket, without touching anything, the car unlocks. In some cases, the door will open for me. I can get into that car without having to do anything. The seat, the steering column, the mirrors, all adjust to my preset preferences. The radio, the temperature, all to my preset. And my phone syncs with my dashboard, and my screen comes up and all my phone, calls are brought up instantly. Okay, we have that technology and have had that in automobiles for several years now. Most of us in the workplace are still crawling around trying to find a plug on the floor to plug in.

            Okay, we don’t have that in the workplace. And there’s a reason for that. Okay. You can buy a luxury car and or an economy car. But in the workplace, it’s all got to be egalitarian. You can’t have, these are the luxury work points, and these are the economy work points. We try not to be that way. But we envision that what this will do is it will change everybody’s perspective of what the real workplace is. Why do I need to go to an office? If I can work from home and I’m getting things done, why do I really need to go to an office? Well you go to an office because maybe you want to connect with others, or ideation, or synergy, or any of those things might be the reasons for socialization. Okay.

            And so we see that in going forward, there will probably be a balance of those two, and that the workplace will have probably less densification and that the work points that you have will be fewer. But hopefully there’ll be better because we have the ability to do that. And so maybe we’ll start leveraging some of those so that for the first time, like my car, the workplace responds to me versus me having to respond to the workplace. So whether that’s voice activation, hands-free, connecting with my fob, whatever that is, to have a workplace that is more responsive to the individuals is within our grasp. And I think that that’s one of the things we’re seeing, is a huge opportunity now to leverage what we already know we have, to really help create the workplace that we want going forward.

Mike Petrusky (16:25):

Isn’t that great? And again, I promised that Maddie, I know you have questions, but I’m the host. I get to ask my questions first everybody. I’m selfish about that. So I’ve got Kay as a captive audience here, or as a captive guest. Well haven’t we been talking about this for years, Kay?

Kay Sargent (16:39):


Mike Petrusky (16:39):

Employee experience, bringing consumerized technology and experiences into the workplace. It’s been such a struggle, this huge gap between our personal interaction with technology, and then our drop off in our workplace environment.

Kay Sargent (16:53):

There’s something missing. Okay.

Mike Petrusky (16:54):

What’s that?

Kay Sargent (16:55):

I was talking to the client the other day and I said, “Here are some of the things.” And he goes, “Well, those are some of the things you’ve been telling us are on the horizon for the last few years.” And I said, “Yes, but the first domino has fallen.” And we’ve always said, once the first domino falls, once there is a compelling reason or a compelling need or a requirement to do this, all of a sudden the dominoes will go fast. I mean, think about what happened with the internet of things. Four or five years ago, most people didn’t even know what that was. And then somebody created it, changed the expectation, and then all of a sudden everybody wanted it. Right? I think we are seeing the first domino fall in some of these things. The problem right now is we’re so freaked out by this whole COVID thing and we’re so busy focusing on that, that the domino fell kind of quietly, but not with a thud. But we really do believe that this is kind of the first domino falling.

Mike Petrusky (17:53):

And it’s going to require now, organizations, workplace leaders to respond. Now that we know we’re in this new world, whatever it’s going to look like, post COVID and even during this next period of hybrid approach, these tools, these technologies, these innovations are maybe going to be going to be looked at more seriously than they were just a couple of months ago because the cost benefit, the case for return and ROI, all that stuff was a different picture just a couple months ago. And now it’s like, “Wait, I want to look at this differently.”

Kay Sargent (18:21):

Let me give you another example of where we think this could happen Mike. And again, I don’t think it’s going to happen day one, because right now everybody is just so concerned about how do we get the economy going again and how do we get our businesses going again? So then that’s the concern number one. And how do we make our people feel safe? Okay, those are two incredibly compelling things that businesses are having to deal with before they start thinking about some of these other things. However, we’re one of the few firms that has actually advocated that unassigned desk being continue. And several people, the knee-jerk reaction when this all went down is okay, we’ve got to put everybody back in assigned desk and throw up the panels. Okay, well, fabric panels are like big sponges. They absorb things and then they leech them over the time. So that’s not what we want to be doing.

            And we’re seeing people throwing up all these sneeze guards all over the place that, in some cases, might give you a false sense of security. And quite frankly, it’s just giving you a lot more stuff you’ve got to clean. Okay. But I want you to picture a day, and you picture this day every night I’m sure Mike.

Mike Petrusky (18:21):

Here we go.

Kay Sargent (19:25):

But you wake up in the morning and you decide, “Okay, my office has gone to a four day work week, but we’re open five days a week. But I’m working four days, 10 hours a day. And I get to work from home one or two days a week. But just for whatever, I might be going into the office one, maybe two days a week.” Okay?

Mike Petrusky (19:25):


Kay Sargent (19:46):

It’s to reduce commute, it’s to thin people out, all those reasons. So today might be the day that I’m going in and I’m going to pull out my phone and my app and I’m going to say, let’s see, okay, my team is all going to be there. They’re sitting in our neighborhood. This desk is available. And the desk and the booking system is telling me these are the spots that you can sit in, these are the ones we prefer you not sit in because we’re trying to get some physical distancing or for whatever reasons. Okay?

Mike Petrusky (20:11):


Kay Sargent (20:11):

And I can pick an available spot. I can get into the office. I can use all of this stuff, biometrics, et cetera, so I don’t have to touch things when I get there. I get to that work point, I sit there for four hours and after I’m done, I decide okay, now I need to go someplace else and do something. So I get up and I free that up from the booking system. And it instantly sends the notice to the cleaning crew, which by the way, are not coming in at night anymore. They are always in your office now.

Mike Petrusky (20:11):


Kay Sargent (20:40):

They are like, they’re there. And they now know that that desk is not being occupied anymore, but it’s not been cleaned and it can send an instant message to them so that they can come over, clean it, spot it, do whatever they need to do. And it doesn’t get freed up for somebody else to sit there until that has happened. And the analogy I would use is when you walk into a doctor’s office, if somebody told you, let’s say there’s 20 seats and there’s three people sitting there. And you walk in and somebody said, “Hey, you got to go sit by that person sitting right there.” Your reaction would be, “Why? There’s five seats over there. Why do I have to sit right next to this guy? I want to sit over there. Why are you making me sit here?” It’s the same thing in the workplace, right? And so we need to just take a moment and think about how can we solve some of these problems. Let’s not go backwards. Let’s solve some of these problems so we can actually move forward in a positive way.

Mike Petrusky (21:40):

There you have it folks. What’d I tell you? Great stuff, right? And that is just a small sample of what Kay Sargent had to say when we welcomed her on the Workplace Innovator Livestream. So now, I am sure you will want to hear and watch all of it. The complete one hour recording of what became a very interactive discussion. Yes, I eventually did stop being selfish and I allowed Maddie to offer up several of the many questions that we had coming in from the audience that day. It was a really lively conversation and we heard so much great feedback about it. So I know you’ll want to check out the show notes for this episode and follow the link I have provided to download the full session. And if you find value in discussions like this, there are more to come. So I do invite you to join us this Wednesday at noon Eastern for another live interactive version of this podcast, where we are on a mission to encourage each other and inspire you to be a workplace innovator. Peace out.

            You’ve been listening to the Workplace Innovator Podcast. I hope you found this discussion beneficial as we work together to build partnerships that lead to innovative workplace solutions. For more information about how iOffice can help you create an employee centric workspace by delivering digital technology that enhances the employee experience, visit


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As the host of both the Workplace Innovator Podcast and the Asset Champion Podcast, Mike's role at Eptura is to share thought leadership with CRE, FM, and IT leaders in the digital and hybrid workplace. As an in-demand public speaker, Mike engages audiences with his focus on the human element of workplace and facility management at International Facility Management Association, CoreNet, and other industry events.

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