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My New Normal: 9 Questions With CBT Principal Haril Pandya

This series aims to capture a moment in time, talking to men and women in commercial real estate about how their lives and businesses are being transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Although Haril Pandya has found aspects of remote work that appeal to him, the notion of returning to the office is music to his ears.

Pandya, a principal and director of asset strategy at Boston-based architecture and design firm CBT, has found some harmony in his work-from-home space. With his 16-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son also at home, Pandya has, for the short term, found his niche, completing his work, which focuses on corporate rebranding and repositioning, from his music room. He even finds time to jam with his son.

Haril Pandya's 14-year-old son and he jam in Pandya's combination music room-workspace.

Still, he is ready to get back to the office. Data-driven work may be suited to working from home, but design is another story. 

“The challenge is that our creative approach is largely team-based rather than data-based,” he said. “With data, you can take your laptop home and essentially work from anywhere. When you’re working on a design that’s subjective and dependent on look and feel, it’s much harder to not meet in person and have those collaborative discussions.”

Until that happens, Pandya, who performs in a couple of bands, will not let his routine get flat. Without a commute to slow his rhythm, Pandya has taken his workouts up an octave, exercising every day since he began to work remotely. 

There are other, broader positive outcomes of self-quarantining he hopes will endure beyond the pandemic, including for people to be mindful of the reduction in pollution, and for people to continue to show care for their neighbors. In other words, he hopes for a melodious balance between life as it was before and life as it is during the pandemic when it is all over. 

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time. (Or, if you are going into the workplace, describe what that’s like.)

Pandya: Right now, with me and my two teenage kids at home, there’s a lot of overlapping calls for school, work, catching up with friends and loved ones, and everything else. We’ve established our own corners in the house during the day to get work done and, fortunately for me, my office is also my music room. So, every once in a while, I take a break and play. 

The best part about working from home is that I can exercise in the mornings. I don’t have an excuse to skip a workout because I no longer commute. So far, in nine weeks, I’ve worked out every single day. I’ve also been meditating more than I ever have. CBT holds a biweekly, 20-minute meditation Zoom call, and it’s a nice opportunity to be reflective and create space for balance. 

In my spare time, I’ve also been helping my son with music. We both regularly play in bands, but right now there’s no place to perform and the internet can’t quite keep up with virtual jam sessions. At the end of the day, there’s plenty to keep me busy, but I’ve remained committed to finding and keeping the balance in my work-life balance. 

Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan? 

Pandya: We’re meeting weekly to discuss the key issues related to returning to the office. We’re exploring the measures we’ll need to put in place to ensure the health and safety of everyone in and around the office, from the right timing for re-entry to how to maintain social distance in an open office floor plan. Right now, we’re still figuring out the details and taking cues from [Massachusetts] Gov. [Charlie] Baker and federal officials. But above all, the safety and well-being of our team, clients and the community are our top priority as we look ahead.

CBT principal Haril Pandya's pandemic workspace.

Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally? (Will you go to the office? Will you go out shopping or to church?)

Pandya: In the beginning, I think people are going to be wary about reverting back to old habits. For me, it’s going to be about taking extra precautions, such as bringing in my lunch, having a box of gloves and extra masks at the office and at home, and generally thinking differently about my routine. If being cautious and diligent leads to more people staying healthy and doing well, I think those behaviors will stick. The biggest thing is being mindful and respectful of the emotional and psychological states of everyone else as this pandemic shifts and evolves.

Bisnow: How will you manage the home front as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?

Pandya: We’ll still maintain the measures we have in place at home when we start to leave the house more frequently. For instance, we’re going to do our best to maintain the cleanliness of our home, which we’ve been actively working on since we began self-isolating. 

School is out for the year, but when it returns, in shifts or phases, we’ll have to be even more careful at home to mitigate potential exposure. 

We’re being diligent, and I think that, as things begin to loosen more, we’ll stay connected with friends and family through physically distanced walks and nights around the fire pit the way we have been these last couple of months. 

Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?

Pandya: Businesses are being cautious, but the firm still has a lot of projects in motion. The Asset Strategy and Repositioning Group that I lead is busy doing a lot of concept work and continuing to move ahead with big projects that were underway before the pandemic took hold. Like many of our peers, we have some projects that have been put on pause, but we’re staying motivated and creative by talking regularly and collaborating virtually on the projects in our pipeline.  

Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?

Pandya: Ironically, we were in the process of developing our work-from-home policy right before we had to transition to full-time remote work. The challenge is that our creative approach is largely team-based rather than data-based. With data, you can take your laptop home and essentially work from anywhere. When you’re working on a design that’s subjective and dependent on look and feel, it’s much harder to not meet in person and have those collaborative discussions. 

One concern we had was whether everyone could be productive at home with everything that it entails. After experiencing what’s essentially been a work-from-home boot camp, we’ve found that yes, we can. Of course, there are still many aspects of our work that get the best results in person, but this experience has definitely changed my impression of working from home. In fact, I’m finding I sometimes prefer it. All that aside, if you were to ask me whether I’d rather be at home or in the office with my peers and friends, I’d pick the office every time.

Haril Pandya's cover band, Red Square, performs remotely.

Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?

Pandya: Maintaining our company culture is incredibly important, and we’re doing this a number of ways. Biweekly, we hold a Friday State of the Union Zoom call that seeks to keep everyone informed of what’s happening at the firm. I’m also staying connected with my team by having smaller weekly meetings where we check in on current projects and catch up. 

At CBT, we even have a culture council that organizes social interactions for us at the office, and right now, even from a distance, they’re doing a great job organizing things like Zoom happy hours, recipe sharing and getting creative with our social media accounts. 

Of course, our current circumstances have forced us to change how we do things, but we’re not letting that stop us from staying connected. Every year, we have an internal award we give out in honor of Frank Coyne, a former associate who was well-known for teaching emerging designers new technical skills. This year, we had to celebrate that honor virtually with a card that we all signed electronically and shared during a firm-wide Zoom call. The way we celebrate may look different right now, but the sentiment and value behind it remains fully intact.

Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?

Pandya: Right now, we’re in the middle of responding to a major public health crisis, and because we’re still in a very reactionary place, we don’t yet know how it’s affected our culture or the way we do business. Until people are back in a semi-normal routine, we won’t know whether the majority of the population is willing to change their habits. In some ways, it’s like the time it took to know if moving from closed to open offices or sticking ping-pong tables in the middle of the office social area was going to be accepted. 

This virus wasn’t created organically over time in response to a cultural shift. Rather, it came on suddenly and upended the way we live and work, forcing us to react with quick and drastic change. As a result, the way we populate space, order things from stores or restaurants, and interact with friends and family may change for a time, but the long-term solutions that are implemented may not be as drastic.

It’s more likely that instead of completely de-densifying office buildings, for example, we’ll make sure there’s more open space, both inside and outdoors, so people can take more space for themselves if they need it. We all still need places to work, live, get educated and recreate, and those needs won’t change. Instead, long-term changes to our public and private spaces will likely incorporate more flexibility rather than be complete overhauls. 

That’s not to say we won’t learn from this experience. Just as we have in previous national or global emergencies, we’ll likely adopt a few long-term changes, maybe to building codes that limit occupancy or public space requirements. I don’t think we’ll see major shifts. As humans, we’re just not programmed that way.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?

Pandya: I’m always hopeful about the things that are altruistically true to us as individuals. I look around, and it’s wild how clear the sky is because people aren’t operating as many vehicles. There are big, albeit temporary, shifts occurring right now, and I hope humanity will see them and realize that there’s a benefit to cleaner air and water and the ability to have more interactions with family and friends. 

I’ve spent more time on the phone with people in the last two months than I had previously, and it’s been a really positive part of this experience. We’ve seen people showing up to drive-by graduation parties and birthdays, and I’m hopeful that people will still care about those things when we aren’t being restricted to our homes.

It’s awful that sometimes it takes a major event for us to realize what we care about most, but that’s part of being human. It’s incumbent on us to come out of this experience with a better understanding of our environment, our relationships and to not take as much for granted. More than ever, I’ve also seen people on social media talking about and embracing things they hadn’t before, such as museums, music and art, and it’s creating a nostalgia and appreciation for the things that we hold sacred to ourselves. My hope is that the gratitude for what we love and miss stays.