Skanska's new digs are an anti-virus fortress
"I grew up in a cubicle," said Tim Johnson, the general manager for the Portland office of Skanska USA Construction.
Johnson is showing off the company's sleek new space in the Pearl. The multinational construction giant has 19 offices in the United States and recently took two floors in an old factory on Northwest Flanders Street, having moved from the KOIN Center. It's a classic Portland building of concrete, heavy timbers and large windows with small panes. Initially built for car and bike manufacturing, the 1921 building most recently was home to children's clothier Hanna Andersson on the street level.
When you step off the elevator, you can see across a wide swath of the 10,000 square foot floor plate.
"I'm used to open space, but we're nervous about moving into open space," he says, about the new fear of breathing in other people's virus droplets. Johnson's Skanska team and the architect, RDC, had to develop some quick solutions for an office, which even in February 2021 only had two or three people visible in each section.
One solution to keeping people socially distanced was to build a library. It's just inside the door on the left, next to the standing screen that checks everyone's temperature as they enter. (If they're not overheated, they proceed to reception and receive black plastic Triax tag to wear on their clothes, which beeps when they get within six feet of another fob. That way, the managers can contract trace more accurately if someone comes down with Covid-19, explains Johnson.)
"The library is so they can read contracts," he says of the white-collar workers who make up the most regular office visitors. "It's more like just a quiet space."
The whole remodel makes good use of acoustical tile to dampen sound. There are also white noise speakers all over the ceiling to soothe workers who put in long hours.
Comfort and joy
"In today's world, people's comfort was my number one priority," said Johnson. There are also multiple "mechanical units" on the ceiling for heating and cooling. People can tweak the temperature near their desk instead of doing what they often do — setting up fans and space heaters. The units also have ionization elements in them.
"Research shows ionization kills 99% of bacteria and viruses," Johnson said. They did not choose ultraviolet units to kill viruses, especially the COVID-19 coronavirus. Ultraviolet is a line-of-sight technology, but ionized particles circulate, killing airborne viruses and bacteria, especially on surfaces like desks and keyboards.
Even so, the cleaning crew comes in every night and cleans everything since no one knows who touched what that day.
These features were in addition to the tenant improvements that the landlord, Specht Development, had already made in expectation of an April 2020 move-in.
Come for the Wi-Fi
Johnson leads us to what looks like a large classroom with school desks. In normal times Skanska's HQ would host large meetings with subcontractors, who go through presentations about safety and other training at the start of a job. The large accordion doors open up so more people in the atrium can stand and join in the meeting.
"When we designed this office, the whole concept is I wanted people to be able to come here for a meeting and then have somewhere to go work." He points out multiple hot desks where anyone can sit down, plug in their laptop, and work.
As we walk by a conference room, a man is talking into his laptop, propped up on books. Johnson explains he is doing a hiring interview. In another area, two people from the marketing team are using the one-person phone booth offices. It's a space where they can make calls and not have to wear a mask.
Johnson cut his teeth as a Skanska project manager working on "dot com" buildings in the Silicon Forest, up and a down Highway 26 west of Portland. A lot of the job was done sitting in a trailer on site. There was also a lot of commuting. These days it is all different, as workers consult drawings on large screens inside trailers — or at home, in the car, or anywhere they want to.
"If you come in for a lunch or a lunch meeting, you could spend your afternoon here, as opposed to having to drive back to the job site."
It's particularly convenient to work on a job site out in Hillsboro and live in Vancouver.
"I've had to drive here for a meeting, then back to Hillsboro, then to Vancouver," he said.
Johnson's colleagues who are accountants "are nicely set up at home," and he hasn't seen them since April 2020. He himself has had few in-person meetings in the new space.
There is a method for counting people's work hours and measuring productivity, but Johnson says that's not how he thinks.
"There's no lack of 40 hours' worth of work. As long as they get their work done…." He adds, "We were pushing that work-life balance hard for the last three or four years, especially on job sites. Covid pushed it over the top."
After looking at the office on North Greeley Avenue near Adidas, and other sites on the east side, they chose the Pearl District. Although it is almost as quiet as downtown right now, it has more character.
"This just an intriguing area, a neat area. And it's hard not to fall in love with the building. To me, it said everything about construction in Portland: the wood, the timber, the old, old style and being able to build an open floor plan. I wanted an office that said 'Portland' versus our Seattle or New York office. They're all in brand new buildings."
Not too close
The meeting rooms are set up for WebEx, Skanska's preferred remote meeting software, but they also use Teams and Zoom. The cubicle walls are low, and the seating is naturally spaced at six feet apart. The file storage between the seats pulls out to form a barrier. It's all about bringing people in for face-to-face work while keeping them socially distanced.
During the pandemic, on a quiet day like a Friday, there might be just five people in the office — 15 people on average days. Before COVID, they expected only about 30, since so many people work in the field and need the office occasionally. However, an all-hands meeting with everyone from all the Portland job sites would be 350 people.
Other building neighbors include Verizon, which bought Skyward, the drone company. The landlord moved the mechanical on the roof and made some space for a patio with planters and rainproof furniture.
"I think people will be out here on the roof working in the summer," said Johnson optimistically.
Address: 1010 N.W. Flanders St. Suite 500
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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