My New Normal: Gensler Co-CEO Andy Cohen
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.
Andy Cohen co-leads Gensler, a global giant in the architecture world with 6,000 employees across 18 countries and 24 practice areas, with Diane Hoskins. Though design work has been impacted, the coronavirus pandemic has been a busy time for him: Beyond checking in with 67,000 clients in 10 weeks, his team has been crafting open-source guides to get back to the office safely, and Cohen has been active on the webinar circuit.
Cohen is a biking enthusiast and father to two young entrepreneurs. Though he has loved the extra time with his wife that not commuting into Los Angeles has brought him, he said he is ready to get back to the office, because that’s where the magic happens.
Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life and what you are doing in your spare time.
Cohen: Because we are a global design firm, I have consistently worked virtually my entire career, especially when I became co-CEO 15 years ago with my partner, Diane Hoskins. As I am in LA and Diane in D.C., we are in constant communication with each other and key Gensler leaders from around the globe. So, even before the pandemic I was having video calls or traveling 50% of the time. Now, it has increased to 150% of the time as we work from home with 12- to 14-hour days starting early in the morning with video calls with clients and Gensler leaders in Europe and the Middle East and ending in the evening with Asia and India.
And, because we pride ourselves on our trusted client relationships, I spend a lot of time strategizing with great clients from around the globe, which again has always been virtual. I also have had many opportunities over the past several months to do keynote or panel discussions on redefining the future of cities and the impacts of the pandemic. It’s been interesting how much bigger the audience can be for these now that we can host them with a click of a button.
Personally, another positive result of this situation is how much time I save by not commuting on the LA freeways or traveling. This has given me more time to be with my wife, Portia, and spend quality time together when I’m not working. We both really enjoy cooking at home in the evenings and biking in the early morning and weekends. My passion is biking. It’s great exercise and also a chance to get outside for fresh air and clear my head. I also check in with both our children, Brandin and McKenzi, regularly. We are all very close, and I’m able to help them right now as they are both young entrepreneurs with thriving businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic.
Bisnow: What is your company’s return-to-the-workplace plan?
Cohen: As leaders of the design industry, and office building and workplace design, we have formulated detailed and integrated workplace strategies for our clients and for our ourselves, starting with when to go back, and the key executive decisions plus gated standards in every country, state and city. Then, we move to who should be in the first phase of going back to the office — ensuring that people with children or elderly parents can stay safely working from home. Then, we decide where they will be sitting and working in offices that allow for government standards of physical distancing to weave in with the social needs people crave. We have redesigned our Gensler entry/lobbies, front desks, open work plan, amenities and conference rooms, quickly in our offices. Because we never design our space for single purpose, they are highly adaptable spaces. Then, finally, we move to how the office will have ongoing protocols for cleaning, density, visitors and deliveries.
Design is a highly collaborative and iterative industry. We thrive on client interaction, real-time feedback and internal critique. While possible in the remote world, it’s so much easier and more fulfilling to design in person. And, we know that success in design and architecture is often directly associated with mentorship and emulation. Our young and rising star designers crave the natural learning moments that happen as they see a sketch or concept as they walk by someone’s desk or on their way to get a cup of coffee. Being curious is in our DNA as designers and there’s only so much clicking through web catalogs that will fulfill that innate inquisitiveness.
Gensler has thousands of people in 18 countries around the globe. That’s a big responsibility. We have offices in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, so we learned in January about the protocols in working from home, and then the key programs around returning to the workplace from them. We have applied those lessons learned in China to our guidelines in the U.S. and around the globe and are laser-focused on the health, safety and well-being of our people. We have formulated a going back to office guideline with specific protocols by the location of the office, plus our unique culture. We are using these same protocols for our clients around the world.
We have also published open-source content, as well as doing strategic webinars, client panels, keynotes and blogs on critical industry thought leadership in the post-pandemic world — focused on the future of cities and specific industries significantly impacted by the pandemic. The future of hospitality, retail, aviation, live entertainment and sports, education and, of course, [the] workplace are just a few of our areas of expertise and where we are playing a global role in how we get back to these core experiences as people.
Bisnow: What will reopening businesses and workplaces look like for you personally?
Cohen: I love being with and motivating and inspiring people. Co-leading our firm throughout these very challenging and unprecedented times, I know that I can lead from anywhere. So, the answer is yes, I will go back as soon as it is safe. Being present and having interactive, human and visceral experiences are what we are all about — creating well-designed places and spaces that enhance the human experience.
Every day, Gensler is impacting millions of people’s lives, how they live, work and play. Design has a profound impact on making a difference and creating a better world. We thrive when we are close to and in direct contact with our clients and partners. Those parts of being a designer is in my DNA — to be curious and see instant as well as far-future solutions based on human behavior. I know I will be paying even more attention to how people are using space and how design can make it better. This cannot happen working from home. Innovation happens when people come together with a variety of points of view and we can make magic together. Working from home just doesn’t provide that magic!
And, I miss our large firm meetings with my partners from around the world and hearing their great innovation and client stories. I so look forward to meeting face-to-face again. We are taking on the world’s greatest opportunities and challenges and I look forward to getting back to doing that in person.
Bisnow: How will you manage the homefront as stay-at-home restrictions ease and businesses reopen?
Cohen: My homefront situation didn’t change too much during this time. My children are older and my wife and I have been in our regular schedules, for the most part. I am in awe of our staff that has young children and other dependents at home. To be invited into their homes and seeing their lives has been a refreshing reality check on the people who make our business possible.
The tenacity and pure determination of our people to deliver design for our clients is truly incredible. And, to be welcomed into our client’s homes, too. I still do a lot of direct client work. Designers end up building very close relationships with clients that you feel as if you’re part of their extended family. This pandemic has expanded on these relationships in ways that would never be possible otherwise. And, it’s something I never take for granted.
Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?
Cohen: Our business is directly tied to our client’s businesses. We have seen projects slow down or go on hold, while we are hyper-focused on helping our clients get to the other side of this global pandemic. Our firm has been in business for 55 years, I have been with the firm 40 years, and we have a very strong vision and firm culture that is always dedicated in service to the collective human experience now and in the future.
We came out of other major global shocks and recessions like 9/11 and the 2008-9 global recession stronger than any other design firm because of our focus on our vision of “Creating a Better World Through the Power of Design.” We have the breadth, scale and diversity of practice to excel beyond challenging times. Our firm is built for this moment with the most talented entrepreneurial team in the world.
We have engaged with over 67,000 clients in the past 10 weeks. And, as such are developing robust “Back to” guides — publicly available — to help cities, communities and clients in a variety of sectors reopen. We focused first on Back to the Office and, in the coming weeks, we are releasing Back to School — after all, we can’t talk about going back to the office without the kids being back in school, and education has been one of the slower industries to adopt new methods. Again, the silver lining in this crisis is schools and educators are expediting needed changes that have been on the back burner for decades.
Bisnow: What was your impression of work from home before this got started? What is it now?
Cohen: My impressions have always been grounded in research and using that to think about what’s next. And, Gensler has invested a lot in studying the workplaces since 2005 to inform the future instead of just guessing. Serendipitously, right before the pandemic sent us all home, we launched our 2020 U.S. Workplace Survey. We knew then that remote working was only productive two to three days a week.
Now we know that remote working and a forced work-from-home situation is very different. And, like I said earlier, Gensler’s U.S. Work From Home Survey proves only 12% of people want to work from home full time. And, what’s also very interesting, before COVID-19, 10% of U.S. office workers had regularly worked from home. That’s a 2% increase in the number of workers who prefer to work from home the entire workweek. The most interesting finding to me is the survey revealed how our younger generations are less satisfied with the work-from-home experience, despite their technological savviness for remote and mobile work. Why? Because they are less aware of what is expected of them and how their work contributes to their organizational goals. That’s the mentorship part that is only best in a physical vs. a virtual environment.
I do believe that the option to work from home is, and has always been, important. It’s been a part of the Gensler culture in the 15 years I have been a co-CEO. It’s what we recommend to our clients based on research and we are always a living lab for our clients and others.
Bisnow: How is your company fostering community and maintaining its culture from a distance?
Cohen: We have a core firm philosophy and guiding principles, which our firm follows every day. We call it our “One Firm Firm” philosophy — we are one seamless, fluid, flat and integrated firm around the globe. That is the glue that holds us together. We all sink or swim together. We are one unified organization where the whole is greater than the parts.
The virtual environment has created an equity that wasn’t present in the physical office and is something we plan to bring back with us. It’s easy for casual connections to happen in the office, but it’s limiting to only those in the office. As a CEO, it’s been incredible to have the same casual connections via a simple click-to-video conference — regardless if they are in LA or Europe or Japan.
“One Firm Firm” is behind every strategic decision we make and how we foster innovation and community around the world. It’s tangible and real.
Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?
Cohen: We are learning so much about CRE and businesses as we navigate this pandemic, especially key lessons for how we design buildings and workspaces of the future. We are now designing all spaces to be healthy, resilient environments.
As an architect and designer, I am naturally optimistic that in crisis, there can be opportunity when you look for it. There will be some obvious shifts such as investors waiting for properties to scoop up at bargain prices. And there will be some not-so-obvious opportunities such as being able to adopt change and move faster than before. Now that the future arrived overnight, those who were possibly resistant to changes or programs that supported a new standard for health, wellness and sustainability are, instantly, all in.
Touchless and frictionless places and spaces are the future. From biometric and sensor technology, to motion detectors and temperature sensors, to facial recognition, our buildings and workplaces will morph into smart city solutions — seamless and integrated.
This pandemic is a wake-up call for the world. Another warning sign for the impact humans and the built environment have on climate change and the significant impacts it will have on our world. This is the moment to fully embrace that our future is about creating a resilient, healthy and sustainable world.
Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?
Cohen: I have determined optimism that we will come through these unprecedented times stronger together. When it comes to life’s challenges we often stand at a crossroads. We are at one of the key milestones in life and in the history of our firm and the world right now. So, I ask, what are we going to do about it?
Yes, living in a coronavirus world feels out of control. These are very challenging and disorienting times. We know everyone is making personal sacrifices. Our people’s inquiry, professionalism and commitment are amazing. At this pivotal moment in history, I see a similar mindset of determined optimism emerging in people. Because, you see, we have a choice, and choosing to face this moment with determined optimism fills our lives with great purpose and meaning: to create a better safer, more resilient world through the power of design.