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My New Normal: AECOM Senior Urban Planner Tatum Lau

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.

AECOM Senior Urban Planner Tatum Lau has quickly risen through the ranks of urban planning, earning spots at the helm of major cutting-edge projects across Texas within the first decade of her career. 

She recently served as lead consultant for the city of Dallas 100 Resilient Cities Plan and the futuristic Texas Hyperloop Plan, an initiative that aims to connect all major Texas cities in the future.  

Her passion for work, ecological transformation, humor and creativity may be stuck at home, but they are certainly not lost.

AECOM Senior Urban Planner Tatum Lau attends a virtual meeting from home.

Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.

Lau: Work from home is very productive actually. My team are a group of brilliant minds with a good sense of humor so, in the pre-pandemic era, this meant many hours engaged in dialogue and banter (British for the playful exchange of teasing remarks). These days, there is less of that but I’m enjoying the time exploring every nook of my neighborhood, speculating on the stories of neighbors based on what they choose to display on their front porches, and investigating the possibility of edible plants along city streets.

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

Lau: AECOM will be opening up slowly and returning to work will be voluntary for most. Safety is our company’s core value and there will be a lot of protocols for those who choose to return. Teams have received weekly updates on changes and every employee has had the opportunity to provide feedback on what their minimum requirements would be to feel comfortable returning to the office.

Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally?

Lau: I don’t think much will change for me. The science hasn’t changed, and the virus continues to be transmitted in our community, so until we have a vaccine, I intend to stay put as much as possible.

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

Lau: As urban planners and designers, we are fortunate to be able to collaborate with colleagues across the country and serve our clients from anywhere with a good internet connection. A lot of our work typically includes partnering and consulting stakeholder groups and members of the public, and although things are starting to ease up, we know (and our clients know) that large group settings simply put folks at risk. We are therefore having to get very creative about how to ensure digital engagement is both effective and equitable.

AECOM Senior Urban Planner Tatum Lau working from home during the coronavirus pandemic.

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

Lau: In a nutshell, we plan, design, finance and build cities and we are diverse in that we serve a wide variety of sectors and clients. We also support cities and public agencies with emergency management, and many of our teams around the country have been involved with setting up emergency hospitals for COVID-19 patients. All this to say that we have had projects delayed or put on hold, while at the same time, many opportunities have also come up.

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

Lau: AECOM has always been supportive of working around the needs of our employees and a number of our staff had been working from home some days a week before the pandemic. I’ve always appreciated that flexibility and now that it’s more permanent, I’m learning to set boundaries and a routine to make sure I’m not always on the computer.

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

Lau: Being a company of 55,000 people has meant that communication between departments and from national leadership has always been online, so in that respect, things haven’t changed that much. We have made further efforts to have social calls that deliberately do not include project-related discussions and Zoom happy hours, but I will admit that it doesn’t come close to the real thing.

A bit of humor on the laptop.

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

Lau: Over the last decade, we’ve already begun to witness changes to office space due to trends in open office concepts and flexible coworking hubs, both of which reduce overall floor area requirements. Coworking companies offer far more flexibility than typical office buildings, and when the future feels as precarious as it does right now, a 10- or even five-year lease does not sound palatable. On the extreme end, companies such as Square, Twitter and others have announced they will become 100% remote. Large firms know how much they can save if they reduce their footprints, and the pandemic has shown that many of us can go about our business as usual without going to the office.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?

Lau: Many people are talking about how the pandemic has shown that if we as a community take something seriously, we can change our behavior overnight. Staying home has cleaned up air pollution and provided the healthiest air some communities have ever breathed.

The largest crisis we will face in our lifetimes is responding to the global climate emergency, and that response requires collective and bold action. Our team supported the city of Dallas on its Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan, which was adopted on May 27.

This is just the first step in the right direction and the rest is up to every one of us to commit to changing the way we live, play and work. Although we are in the midst of what is a concerning pandemic, it gives me hope that when people work together, we can accomplish ambitious goals.