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My New Normal: McKissack & McKissack CEO Deryl McKissack

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.

Deryl McKissack initially thought working from home would make her 140-person architecture, engineering and construction company less productive, but the company has actually increased its activity during the pandemic. 

McKissack & McKissack CEO Deryl McKissack working from home.

McKissack & McKissack is working on more than 70 projects, and it has submitted responses to 17 requests for proposals since the beginning of March. That represents a sharp increase from January and February, when it turned in four RFP responses. 

McKissack, whose family has led construction firms for more than 100 years, founded her own company in 1990. McKissack & McKissack, headquartered in D.C., now employs 140 people. It also has offices in Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Austin, Texas, Detroit, Houston and Cincinnati. 

The company has worked on major projects including the Obama Presidential Center, the George H.W. Bush Library Center, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, MGM National Harbor and Nationals Park

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

McKissack: Spare time? I don’t have any! We have over 70 projects going at the moment, including the three gigantic 2021 inaugural pavilions. That’s a project that doesn’t wait for anything. I’m going full speed ahead from my home in Washington, D.C.

I have a huge iMac in my bedroom, but that room doesn’t get enough light and I have a constant stream of video meetings. So I use my iPad and work from everywhere else in the house. I’ve been so busy I haven’t had time to get a stand for it so I sit at my dining room table because it gets the best natural light in the house. I put the iPad on a pile of my favorite books, which of course reminds me that I haven’t had time to read. I did manage to get away for my birthday a few weekends ago and drove to New York to be with my sister, because we’re identical twins and always celebrate together.

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

McKissack: Slow and strategic, because our business is very complicated. We offer many different services, have so many different professionals and are working from so many different places all over the country. Our projects are from coast to coast, and every one of those states and municipalities is bound by different rules mandated by their mayors and governors. So we need to comply with dozens of local regulations.

And before we send anyone back to the office, we need to take a hard look at the physical issues in every space. For example, we’re having our headquarters in D.C. tested by a hygienist. Then comfort and safety come into play. We’ll need fewer people there at a time. It’s hard to wear a mask all day at work. And we’ve gotten used to working remotely. Plus, everybody’s been so effective and efficient at home. So we’re not in a rush to go back to the office, especially since many of our team members have kids who can’t stay at home by themselves. There’s so much we can’t control, but we can do what’s best for our employees to keep them safe and healthy.

Deryl McKissack with her daughter, Ahlyah.

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?)

McKissack: I’ll go to the office, but part time for meetings — not to sit there every day. I’ve learned that I’m a lot more efficient working from home. In fact, I’d like to scale down our space, which holds 90, to 20% of what it is, and given our design capabilities I’m sure we could come up with something really innovative and effective.

I won’t go to church until it’s safe, but I’ve been going virtually since sheltering started and watching services on my big-screen TV every Sunday. I’ve never been a big shopper anyway and I won’t be going out to dinner anytime soon. But I will have small distancing dinners at my house and patronize my favorite restaurants by ordering in instead of cooking.

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

McKissack: At home, my daughter, Ahlyah, is 16 and is fairly independent. There won’t be camp this summer, but that’s OK because we had planned to spend the summer together anyway. She wants to help me brush up my IT and social media skills over the summer.

At McKissack, we might have teams of people coming in on rotation and we might allow some people to be remote workers forever. We have a close team that’s grown even closer thanks to this situation, so we’re fine being separated physically. So we’ll be slow, strategic and thoughtful and see how it all goes.

Deryl McKissack on a bike ride near the Lincoln Memorial.

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

McKissack: It’s flourishing. We’re so grateful construction is considered essential. Closings have made it easier to get in and out of buildings and slowed street traffic, so we’ve even had some clients accelerate their work now, especially school projects. But everyone is making plans for opening. We did four RFPs in January and February. But we’ve turned in 17 RFPs since the beginning of March and should have four more done by the end of May.

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

McKissack: Ha! I’ve done a total 180. I didn’t believe working from home would be productive. I thought people would get easily distracted. But now I know the complete opposite is true; my team has been more efficient and effective than ever before and our team is more connected than ever before.

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

McKissack: We’ve had biweekly, hourlong town halls ever since this started, with 100% participation. They’ve been focused on everything from our culture to our company performance to reassuring everyone that we’re going to be just fine. This has been productive, informative, effective and, most significantly, fun. We’ve done series of virtual breakout sessions in our town halls to get to know people in other offices we may have never met, and we’ve talked about our culture and identified what counts. We’ve always been about purpose, and now we realize we have a circular economy of care at McKissack. It’s about caring for ourselves, our teams, our families, our clients and our communities. We’ve had a complete reset and rejuvenation for our company and are coming out stronger and better equipped for the future than ever before thanks to this experience.

Deryl McKissack wearing a facemask.

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

McKissack: First of all, real estate has just played a sci-fi-worthy game of leapfrog and gone from an old-school, face-to-face, handshake-deal business to a state-of-the-art, tech-based, forward-thinking industry. Except for construction, everything is touchless, remote and done with innovative software that’s getting even more AI-based by the minute. Will we need to fly all over to meet and make deals? Not likely. Offices will get much smaller — I’m predicting this property type may shrink by 50%. But homes and apartments will get larger and more multifunctional. People are going to spend more money on their homes and will love doing it.

Bisnow: What are you most hopeful about right now?

McKissack: Disruptive moments power change. I’m encouraged about the reset the Earth is getting; if the Earth could talk it would be saying “Aha, I got myself back again.” That relates to many of us right now; we’re going through a terrible time and trying to come out better at the end of a crisis. We needed to catch up on a lot of things because life and work were moving so quickly; gave us time to breathe and the motivation to make things better. I’m hopeful about where people are going to be after this — their mindset and how they will find ways to be more sustainable and productive and use all the energy they’ve stored up for doing good.