When Sebastian Sergi’s employer asked if he could perform his job 100% from home this past March, it felt like a nonstarter. Sergi, who is a project executive for Sully Construction, typically spends 50% of his day in the field meeting with clients and visiting project sites. But Scully Construction is located in Westchester County, NY, the epicenter of the first widespread COVID-19 epidemic in the United States; typical fieldwork and client meetings would be off the table.
While Sergi’s work certainly looks different these past few months, it’s persevered, even in the face of a global pandemic. This is in large part because of the amazing team Sergi has helped cultivate at Scully; with the help of knowledgeable subcontractors and foremen, some creative scheduling and a strategic use of technology, it has been more or less business as usual. “The venue has certainly changed but my productivity and efficiency haven’t, surprisingly,” he says. “I thought there might be an overall drop, but it hasn’t slowed us down. It would be impossible without our team.”
Sergi grew up just east of College Park in Greenbelt, Maryland, earning his undergraduate degree in landscape management at UMD—a field, he confesses, he didn’t intend to join. “I never actually had any intention of practicing it, I always had the real estate/construction bug.” Shortly after graduating he went to work for Bozzuto, one of the largest development firms in the region. It was there that he met Julie Smith, president of Bozzuto’s management company (and now Bozzuto’s CAO), a former lecturer at Maryland’s Real Estate Development Program. “It was Julie who pushed me to check out Maryland’s real estate program,” he says. “She was really supportive and encouraging of me continuing in the field.” After the birth of his first child, Sergi and his wife moved closer to family in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and he took the job with Scully, a commercial general contracting company specializing in interior fit outs for office spaces. As a project executive, he cultivates a robust client base and oversees projects through their lifecycles. “In my role I’m responsible for my projects from start to finish, which is really rewarding.” Below, Sergi talks about how his company is completing projects during COVID-19, the pandemic’s impact on his industry and the first place he is going when given the all-clear:
How has the current situation changed your business? It’s definitely slowed things down, obviously, because there are restrictions on how we can perform work. It used to be that it was a blitz to the finish line with our projects. We would budget 3-4 months to complete a project, but behind the scenes we’d be pushing it to be finished in 8-10 weeks. Now, we can’t have three-to-four subcontractors on a job, each with a three-man crew, so we just naturally have to draw that process out. With some subcontractors, we’re scheduling them after hours. For others, we’re splitting up the day and having them run a two-man crew instead of a one-man crew. We’ll bring one sub in from 6am to noon and then have another lined up behind them from 1pm to 5pm. It’s unusual and requires more coordination on our part. But the reason we’re working this way is we don’t want to give our clients any reason for looking somewhere else to get their jobs done. Everybody realizes that it’s the world that we live in.
On the job, safety has been paramount. We’re doing temperature screenings every day. We keep a log of everyone who comes into a space and masks and social distancing are required. And we have a zero-tolerance policy on all of that. We do regular deep cleans on each site. It’s really just doing the right thing. Moving forward that’s going to be standard operating procedure for us indefinitely.
You regularly bring people within the construction industry together virtually to strategize and share experiences working in this climate; you have even extended invitations to competitors. What sort of benefits have you seen from these conversations? My initial goal was to bring together the different industry people that we work with on a regular basis. I wanted to have representation from the engineering side, the architects, the brokerage side, the construction side and to create a forum where we could have an open conversation about what everyone is experiencing: where they see the next couple of months going, how their operations have changed and what they’re seeing from their clients in terms of requests. For example, are architects getting new requests for interior layouts? How is the demand or the layout for open office spaces being changed? What kind of requests are they getting from building owners or the tenants that are going to be occupying these spaces? Or from a mechanical engineering standpoint, what kind of changes are they seeing as far as life safety is concerned? It’s critically important to have clean air in a space, so now, how do you assure a tenant or an owner that the air is being scrubbed as well as possible? And that can get complicated. Owners don’t want to spend money unnecessarily but, at the same time, they want to be able to assure the tenants that they’re meeting minimum standards for life safety. It’s been interesting. Clients are very interested in keeping their projects moving forward and are very driven by achieving a substantial completion date so that they can start collecting rent, even if the tenant isn’t physically occupying the space. It’s an interesting dynamic. They can’t force a tenant to move in but if they substantially complete they can legally start charging rent. So, there are these dynamics at play that don’t align necessarily between a tenant and an owner, especially with the uncertainty around COVID-19.
Do you try and provide any guidance to tenants as far as proactive things that can be done mid-job? We’ve had some in-depth conversations about how to retrofit mechanical systems with blue light systems that can clean the air. But it’s a financially-driven consideration at this point; they don’t want to spend tens of thousands of dollars to retrofit their system unless it’s been proven to be effective. But I also have a number of clients whose spaces are built that are now looking at how to prepare them for reoccupation. We’ve looked at over a dozen spaces and have retrofitted them with these very simple plexiglass barriers so that, on some level, it is providing a physical barrier between employees. There is also the psychological part of that, in that it’s providing a level of comfort to employees who are being asked to come back to work. We’ve installed them on reception desks and in lobbies of commercial buildings where there is typically heavy traffic, and we’ve just recently started to explore installing them within office spaces. There is no one-size-fits all, so we’ve conducted several surveys of existing spaces and put forth a number of proposals for how to do that.
What’s been your biggest takeaway from this experience? I think the biggest revelation is that I can effectively work from home. It helps that I have great people in the field that are on the job site for me; I can have a FaceTime call with any of my subcontractors and be just as productive as I would be going out to meet them in the field. Our team is absolutely invaluable; part of the reason we’ve been able to continue on is we have a great team in place. I think, moving forward, that’s going to be even more important.
The pandemic has flipped everyone’s life upside down, seemingly overnight. How are you staying sane? For me personally, getting outside is really important. Even if it’s just getting out on the deck for a change of scenery. My wife and I make sure we’re taking breaks and getting some time for ourselves and that’s been a real lifesaver. She is a teacher, so we’re both on calls a lot and have work to do. Plus, we have two kids who are really high-energy. We have a good system in place, with a daily calendar that shows when we each have calls, and a lot of open communication. It makes things a bit easier—not easy, but easier!
What do you miss most about pre-pandemic life? What is the first thing you’ll do when given the all-clear? I really miss the social interactions. That’s a big part of who I am both at work and in life. I was recently able to meet up with a client in person; there were just three of us and we were following all of the protocols, but just to be able to banter and talk shop gave me a small level of normalcy. Once the green light is given, I think the first thing we’ll do is go to a bar and get a glass of wine. I’m tired of making drinks at home!