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My New Normal: HOK Director Of Business Development Kimberly Dowdell

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.

Architecture is closely tied to commercial real estate’s ups and downs, and when she became HOK principal and director of business development in 2019, one of Kimberly Dowdell’s chief responsibilities was to maintain the global firm’s links with its many clients, constantly checking in to gauge how their needs were changing. When the coronavirus pandemic engulfed economies around the world, her tasks became far more complex, as developers in some sectors, such as retail and office, grew more cautious, while others in fields such as healthcare are undergoing changes not yet understood.

As president of the National Organization for Minority Architects, Dowdell has another set of ambitious goals complicated by the pandemic. Like commercial real estate, the architecture profession is mostly white, and African Americans make up only about 2% of its practitioners, she said. Many NOMA members worry that the present economic downturn will cause talented minority graduates to drift away from architecture into other fields, much like what happened in the aftermath of the Great Recession. 

Kimberly Dowdell ready to venture outside.

The Detroit native and Cornell University graduate takes all this on as, like HOK’s other 1,800 employees, she was abruptly confined to her home office and cut off from daily personal interaction. But virtual meetings allow work to continue, and the view from her 40th floor window — which takes in Lake Michigan, the red facade of 333 South Wabash Ave., where HOK is located, and the Jeanne Gang-designed buildings that inspire her — keeps Dowdell grounded, she said.

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life.

Dowdell: My work-from-home life consists of my long-held morning routine followed up by a new, very short commute to my home office, which is essentially my living room. The highlight of my home office is the incredible view that I have of the Chicago cityscape and Lake Michigan.

By 8:30 a.m., I tend to start my HOK day by filtering through emails and prioritizing tasks. Video calls are generally peppered throughout the day, so I make an effort to plan time to get up, walk around a bit and make little snacks or lunch so that I am maintaining my stamina to be as productive as I can. Sitting in front of a computer for hours upon hours can be taxing on the body and mind.

As the national president of NOMA, I usually carve out time earlier in the morning or in the evening to coordinate with our consultants or respond to a wide variety of emails. Given the isolation that everyone is feeling these days, we’re making an effort to bring our members together for our new online event series.

Bisnow: How are you transitioning your life and business to the homefront?

Dowdell: The transition has been rather abrupt for me. I went from traveling a lot to being completely grounded in not only a new apartment, but also a relatively new city. Having just moved to Chicago last May, I feel as though I’m still getting to know the city. Over the past year, I’ve traveled extensively for my roles with both HOK and NOMA, averaging a trip every 10 days or so, making my learning curve in Chicago somewhat longer. Just before our HOK Chicago office converted to WFH, I was in New York and Detroit within the prior seven days.

Suddenly being confined to my apartment in Chicago was a very different way of life, but one that I’ve embraced in an effort to do my part to flatten the curve. Business development, which is a large component of my role at HOK, is all about relationship building. Our team has had to get more creative with connecting with our clients and collaborators. This has translated into more check-in calls, emails and text messages. Generally, people are open to continuing the tradition of convening over coffee, lunch and cocktail meetings, but in a new digital format. We’re all eager to remain connected, one way or another.

Kimberly Dowdell's home office

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

Dowdell: Currently, the profession of architecture is seeing a major slowdown in RFPs and new opportunities, but many projects under contract are moving forward with caution. Our private sector clients are more hesitant to advance their projects than our government and institutional clients. The uncertainty in the economy is cause for concern about the pipeline of projects that we’re going to be seeing in the coming months. HOK has had a long history of developing a diverse practice, so we do have the advantage of being able to rely more heavily on active projects while some of our stalled projects are waiting in the wings.

Bisnow: What is your greatest business concern right now?

Dowdell: Part of my role with HOK involves helping to recruit the best talent in the industry and I’m concerned about the ability of the architectural profession to retain talent in general. One of the things that I learned from the great recession of 2008 was that our field is vulnerable to letting our talent get poached into other parts of real estate and construction, or even entertainment and fashion. Many of my classmates from architecture school have left the profession and we’re now seeing somewhat of a gap in the field for those with 15 [to] 20 years of experience. My hope is that we’ll find ways to hold onto talent during the current challenging times so that we can continue to optimally serve our clients by solving their most complex problems with highly trained professionals.

Standing in line and social distancing at Trader Joe's grocery store.

Bisnow: What was your lowest low and the highest high these last few weeks?

Dowdell: On a personal note, I’m concerned about my dad, who is in a nursing home in Detroit. A low point was hearing that a case of the virus was confirmed in his facility. A high point was recently having an opportunity to hop on a call with him and my sister to hear his voice and confirm that he’s holding up well and remains in good spirits.

Bisnow: What are you doing at home to keep your sanity? 

Dowdell: I often find myself reflecting on my childhood with my grandmother, who maintained the most peaceful home environment that I’ve ever encountered. The major takeaway from that experience was how important a foundation in faith is in maintaining inner peace. I’ve definitely reconnected with my faith through reading, prayer and meditation, which helps a lot. I also connect with a few different communities of faith virtually on Sunday mornings and that serves as somewhat of a weekly reset button. I also enjoy good old-fashioned humor to lighten heavy moments. I’m getting a kick out of the Mayor [Lori] Lightfoot memes.

In this meme, Mayor Lori Lightfoot does not approve of Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

Bisnow: What have you learned about your business or the industry in the last few weeks?

Dowdell: Our firm has learned just how flexible and resilient we are from a technology perspective. While we have always had the capacity to work remotely, the fact that we were able to transition 1,800 people in 24 offices around the globe to remote working in a matter of days was remarkable. This was possible largely due to the forethought and planning that our IT and other leaders had weeks and months before. We’ve found that our various project teams are doing a remarkable job of communicating with one another and meeting deadlines rather seamlessly.

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

Dowdell: I think that the way of life that we’ve come to know will be fundamentally different post-COVID. The real estate business, like most other sectors, will struggle to get back up and running. The uncertainty around the virus, especially without having a vaccine readily available, is putting everyone in a holding pattern in the near term. Over the mid-term and the long term, I believe that we’ll see greater connectivity and information sharing. Given how we’ve all had to rely on technology to remain connected in this pandemic environment, we are likely to see more digital interaction take place. As we’ve proven that WFH is more viable than originally anticipated, I suspect that we’ll see workplaces shift significantly in the coming years. It is also probable that gathering spaces will need to adapt in order to accommodate greater flexibility.

Kimberly Dowdell on Chicago's lakefront before the pandemic.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about today?

Dowdell: While there is a lot of tumult abound at this moment due to the pandemic, I am encouraged by the resolve of the human spirit to overcome adversity and band together for collective progress. I’m hopeful that as a global society, we will rise to the occasion and solve the present set of problems in front of us and design a better future for all. The pandemic has definitely highlighted economic and health disparities that exist currently in certain communities, which I hope we’ll take a close look at addressing in meaningful and sustainable ways.