KALAMAZOO — Even as construction and development projects came to a halt for several weeks as states and the nation reacted to the spread of COVID-19, Seven Generations Architecture & Engineering LLC has remained busy.
The 30-person firm works on a range of federal government projects, which provided a needed cushion to keep all the company’s employees working, albeit from their homes and not Seven Generations’ new headquarters in downtown Kalamazoo.
While the company did not think about planning for a pandemic as part of its business strategy, it did bake into its model the flexibility to allow employees to work remotely when necessary, said President Jeremy Berg.
Now, Berg is unsure if always working from an office will be entirely necessary in the future. He envisions a future in which people schedule times for desks and use the office primarily for team meetings.
“I’m starting to think of the office as more of the collaboration zone and figuring out does everybody need to be at the office. I don’t think so, to be honest with you, after this,” Berg said. “If you’ve got an important meeting and you want to get the team together in person and work through some stuff, then absolutely you do that, but then maybe two or three of the days out of the week, people are working remotely. It’s all on the table.”
Seven Generations, which is wholly owned by Mno-Bmadsen, the independent non-gaming investment arm of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians, already has started to modify its offices to add barriers and rethink common gathering areas to keep people safe and allow for more distancing. The firm is taking those internal lessons and applying them to client work, helping others think through the implications of office environments in a post-pandemic timeframe.
“This could be a watershed moment with many implications, like 9/11 was to airport and transportation security,” Berg said. “I can’t say I have the answers, but I certainly believe there’s going to be changes in the working environment, looking at do we need to be in the office as much, can we work remotely.
“I think there’s benefits of getting together and working side by side, but do we have to do that all the time? … You look at open office environments. Do those make as much sense anymore? I think we have to really look critically at our spaces and try to figure out what makes the most sense.”
Steve VandenBussche, vice president of practice and senior health care architect at Seven Generations, said the current situation could lead more companies to find ways to incorporate outdoor spaces into their strategies for social distancing.
“I think there’s going to be more programs and institutions looking at outdoor program space as more of an asset, whereas maybe before, that sort of green space or trail system or whatever around the building wasn’t as important of an item,” VandenBussche said.
While the firm’s federal work, including a $30 million office building at the Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, continues to move forward, some of its local projects in Southwest Michigan have hit pause. Likewise, some of its tribal work also has stalled as parts of Indian Country have been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, while other projects continue making progress, including a housing development for the Bay Mills Indian Community near Sault Ste. Marie.
Berg guesses it will be a “mixed bag” as to whether work on the boards for some commercial projects will move forward or be scrapped.
“If I’m a developer, if I’m building a hotel, it’d be hard for me to say let’s do it right now. There’s just so much uncertainty,” he said, noting that he expects “a slow restart” to the national economy.
Seven Generations also has benefited from being able to have executive-level discussions with the other platform companies of Mno-Bmadsen, as well as from sharing back-office functions such as human resources.
“That is one of our advantages: We’re backed by another organization and have sister companies and have resources and the ability to just have candid conversations about what’s happening and how best to deal with it,” Berg said. “We feel fortunate that we’re in a position where we’re all working and we foresee us all working for the long haul. I know there’s other companies in town that do work similar to us that don’t feel as optimistic.”