My New Normal: 9 Questions With Vocon Principal Tom Vecchione
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.
When New York enacted a stay-at-home order back in March, Vocon principal Tom Vecchione traded in the commercial architecture firm's Fifth Avenue office for a Long Island beach house overlooking the Atlantic, where he works from home. Steps away from sandy shores and miles away from the eastern shore of Long Island's famous lighthouses, Vecchione thinks about what awaits the future of the city that never sleeps when it opens back up and he returns.
Vecchione is an expert in real estate planning and architecture, with three decades of experience in the field. He joined Vocon last fall after leaving Gensler, where he had been for over 30 years. He produces commercial space design that aims at increasing the effectiveness of businesses overall. He’s active in nonprofits in New York City, including the nonpartisan economic development think tank Center For An Urban Future, where he is a board member.
Bisnow: Describe your work-from-home life.
Vecchione: I left my New York City apartment and turned my beach house into a remote office. The physical environment and the visual setting are very different from New York City, and it is incredibly calming to see the ocean from my desk, but my workdays are now 14 hours long. It is always busy, but now it is busier than ever, and without the separation between office and home, work blurs into every aspect of my home life!
Bisnow: How are you transitioning your life and business to the home front?
Vecchione: I’m constantly on Zoom and on team conference calls. My day used to be oriented around meetings, and it is now choreographed in 45-minute intervals for calls and videoconferences. Everything has an extensive agenda and heightened urgency. I am fighting to retain the free thinking and the brainstorming that comes from the casual back-and-forth of in-person conversation. Being creative is about being with people.
Bisnow: What is the state of your business at the moment?
Vecchione: Like all businesses, Vocon has had to rapidly adapt to the current circumstances, and we have been extraordinarily busy. I focus on real estate strategy and repositioning, and right now, building owners are hyper-focused on the impact of the crisis on lobbies, amenities, elevators, delivery, visitors, etc. We are studying all options for them, at the same time that we are exploring back-to-work strategies and retrofits for our workplace clients.
The economy may have paused, but there is a seemingly nonstop need for analysis, advice and counsel on a host of issues. Vocon’s services are critical to those involved in the return to the workplace, and it requires a period of heightened intensity as our clients execute strategies for near-term re-entry, and medium-term and long-term occupancy. It is an extremely exhilarating and rewarding process.
Bisnow: What is your greatest business concern right now?
Vecchione: My greatest concern is remaining ahead of the curve at a time when there are so many forces at play and so many unknowns. It is key for me to maintain foresight in a period of constant change. In particular, we need to assess the current environment at the same time that we look forward six months, one year and five years to chart the best course for our clients. We are working to ensure that our clients implement solutions that will advance their ability to resume operations without wasting any time or resources.
Keeping track of a pandemic and how it will affect the operations of tenants and property owners requires continual research and analysis. As a result, I am focused [on] giving my group the skills necessary to be agile, flexible, adaptable and swift. It is critical for our team to operate with a greater level of creativity than normal to address the fluid nature of the situation and the urgent needs of our clients.
Bisnow: What was your lowest low and the highest high these last few weeks?
Vecchione: The lowest point for me was when the full reality of the loss caused by the virus hit me. Obviously, the human loss is the worst. We all know people who have died, or who have been sickened, by the virus, and the pain for the families is horrible. And the loss touches all those who have struggled with their businesses in this environment.
I remember the awful feeling of temporarily closing the office and locking the door to our new Fifth Avenue space. As I walked home to Park Avenue the streets were empty, the shops were closed, everything vibrant about the urban environment seemed to be gone. This was one of the saddest and most reflective moments of my life. The following day, my spouse and I arrived at a cold beach house. We stocked the pantry, stoked the fire and pumped the well.
I was woken the next morning by the birds and I was calmed by the steady sound of the waves. My business partner, Deb Donley, and I spoke. She said, “We’re going to be all right and we will all come out of this even stronger.” My colleague is always energized and optimistic. I thought to myself, “Deb’s right, we will get through this!” Having thoughtful, smart and loyal business partners is a highlight of the current crisis for me. There is an immeasurable benefit that has come from spending time together with loved ones in a way that would never otherwise have happened. We have all experienced a powerful sense of community, it is heartening when we realize we can rely on this in a crisis.
Bisnow: What are you doing at home to keep your sanity?
Vecchione: I love to cook, and the kitchen I have in the country is perfect for it. In an effort to keep off the stress weight I balance the increased food intake with biking in the dunes, walking on the beach and outdoor stretching.
Bisnow: What have you learned about your business or the industry in the last few weeks?
Vecchione: I’ve learned that we’re all in this together. We reach out to each other for support and openly share our insights: the brokers, real estate investors, enterprise executives, building owners and fellow architects have all connected. It demonstrates that the New York City real estate industry is truly a community. I also have learned that the real estate industry is remarkably resilient, flexible and determined. We have seen tenants and property owners swiftly tackle problems that we would never have envisioned two months ago, implementing solutions in weeks that might have taken months under normal circumstances.
Bisnow: How do you think the coronavirus could permanently affect the way real estate does business?
Vecchione: One side of me thinks, "Wow, every aspect of real estate has been impacted, from retail, hospitality and healthcare to residential, entertainment and office." When you layer in the impact to transportation and urban density you recognize that the way we live, work and play might forever change. On the flip side, as research accelerates and policymaking builds awareness, we may well have solutions during the next 24 months that mitigate some of the need for massive long-term change.
Regardless, this crisis will impact the way we work for a long time to come. Most tenants and property owners are already organizing significant reductions in the number of employees on-site, with portions of the staff continuing to work virtually as others [return] to the office in shifts.
Meanwhile, all parties are quickly working to enhance health and safety measures in common areas and in tenant spaces, creating congestion-free security check-in, implementing technology to reduce clustering, adding hygiene stations throughout buildings, retrofitting spaces to reduce high-touch points and spreading employees out in former cafés and break-out rooms to increase physical distance.
These changes notwithstanding, the crisis will not change the value of a shared workspace, specifically collaboration, creativity, culture and human interaction. These intangibles not only benefit a company, they create a powerful sense of self and a sense of community. We can generate a feeling of shared purpose virtually, but it is much more powerful when we work side by side to reach a common goal. The health of all employees will remain our top priority, but this crisis has made us realize that the office supports successful businesses and the mental health and well-being of employees.
Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about today?
Vecchione: Each day I have another conversation that leads to a new and thought-provoking idea on how we can adapt. Following 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, New York City changed in ways that we did not think possible and that we now take for granted. I am certain that New York City will evolve again, even more rapidly, adopting measures to permanently enhance health and safety for everyone. This crisis has proven that we can work remotely in a highly efficient way. But it has also highlighted the immense importance of gathering together in the workplace. Sometimes, it feels that we have lost the ability to appreciate each day, but this crisis has given us the chance to reflect, and I feel incredibly grateful for every minute.