Original photo by Lora Teagarden/RATIO

This guide has been adapted and edited from an online living document created by Evelyn Lee, AIA, and Je'Nen Chastain, Assoc. AIA. Find the latest version, which includes remote work policies shared by firms of varying sizes, at bit.ly/ARpoaC19. Lee most recently described how firms can transition to a remote workforce in her March 2020 article, "Maintaining Business Continuity with a Remote Workforce."

If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that we can conduct some, or most, of our work from anywhere. And architecture is not the exception. In 2017, Global Workplace Analytics found that 3.4% of the U.S. workforce, or 4.7 million people, were already telecommuting, a 91% increase from a decade prior. As of early April, 62% of employed Americans are now conducting their duties at home, according to Gallup. Perhaps more interesting, 59% of those individuals would prefer to continue working “remotely as much as possible once public health restrictions are lifted.”

And why not? Study after study has found that teleworkers are equally if not more productive and happier. Now that firms have established telework processes and invested in technology infrastructure, the future of work looks inevitably to be more remote.

Successful business continuity depends on firm culture and agility, wherever the employees are located. Discovering what works for your own company will depend upon the culture you have built and the people you work alongside. In the meantime, the most important thing we can do now is express empathy—for our colleagues, for our employees, for our managers, and for our clients. We are in this together.

Firmwide Best Practices for Remote Work

If it hasn’t already, the rapid shift to remote work will ultimately change your current office environment and culture, strain the typical work schedule, and redefine how your teams interact successfully with one another. Take this current opportunity to test and build agility into your firm, rethink the way you work, and continually challenge your existing operating procedures for the short and long term. What follows are ideas for setting up remote work for your entire practice with specific tips thereafter.

Update and upgrade your software. When you’re reviewing platforms for overall team management, keep in mind that the right mix of tools will likely differ for small and large firms. Identifying your needs will be an ongoing progress, but assume that one platform will not fulfill everything. As a starting point, you will need software to support the core functions listed to the right.

Radically rethink your meeting schedules. During the first several weeks of remote working, you’ve likely experienced an increase in the number of meetings on your schedule as well as in the amount of time you spend on videoconferencing applications. This type of employee experience becomes increasingly hard to manage when your workforce is now at home, wearing more hats than ever. Embrace a do-more-with-less approach.

  • Audit all of your recurring meetings. Remove yourself or cancel any that no longer serve a purpose. You can always re-create these later if needed.
  • Reduce meeting frequency. Try moving weekly team meetings to biweekly, and biweekly meetings to monthly.
  • Embrace brevity. Limit one-on-one meetings to between managers and their reports. Keep them at 30 minutes.

Conduct more effective meetings. Reconsider how, when, and why you meet, with the goal of maximizing time to get individual work done. You will find that by reducing meeting overhead, you will actually increase people’s ability to be productive and, in turn, to become better teammates.

  • Be prepared. Distribute agendas and preliminary readings for any meetings at least 24 hours beforehand.
  • Set clear goals up front. For example, “This meeting will be successful if … .” Make sure to include a recap and next steps, and then share them in the team communications channel after the meeting.
  • Cluster meetings during a certain time of day. This allows people to free up the rest of their time for productive work, caregiving, and other activities.

Best Practices for Managers for Remote Work

Supporting a fully remote team can be daunting. You may be accustomed to just swiveling your desk chair or poking your head above a partition when you want to talk to a co-worker. The strategies and best practices listed below can help ensure your team members are productive, happy, and confident in their roles and responsibilities. Ultimately, you know your team best. Leverage your knowledge of your team dynamics and individual working styles to support your employees in a way that makes the most sense.

Help your team feel integrated instead of isolated. A sense of isolation can creep in during remote work, especially for folks who are not accustomed to working alone for extended periods of time.

  • Create an environment for watercooler conversations. In whatever product you choose for communications, designate a project, channel, hangout, or breakout space purely for social conversation. Make it clear which outlets are for work-related communication, and which are more informal.
  • Warm up team meetings with an icebreaker. Consider holding a show-and-tell for each person to describe an item in their house or a picture that’s important to them. If they feel comfortable, individuals could give a virtual tour of their house.
  • Celebrate success. Just because you’re working remotely doesn’t mean you can’t recognize a job well done or a colleague’s birthday. Host a virtual happy hour at the end of each week. Invite everyone to bring a favorite beverage and take turns delivering toasts.

Ask your team about their experience. Remote work may be unfamiliar to your reports. If you didn’t previously hold one-to-ones with your reports, check in with each of them briefly. Sample questions are below.

  • What excites you about working remotely? What scares you?
  • How can I best support you through this time?
  • Do you prefer more or fewer meetings, or email, text, or telephone check-ins?
  • What might I misunderstand about your remote working style?

Be available. Employees need to know that they are being supported. In the same way that managers may wonder where their reports are during the day, employees may wonder where their managers are.

  • Share your calendar. Set a schedule every week when you’ll commit to being online so employees can reach out to you outside of your regular one-on-ones.
  • Create office hours. Offer drop-in sessions for your reports during which they can speak to you over videoconference. If your firm uses Google G Suite, turn on the appointment feature for your office hours.

Create clarity by over-communicating. Don’t make assumptions about things that may seem obvious to you. Instead, spell out the obvious. Describe exactly what you want, even if you think you’re repeating yourself. Not everyone has the same information you do. We need our team members to communicate more than they might be used to, which makes modeling this behavior even more important.

  • Edit and edit again. Read your messages and emails a few times before hitting send to ensure your words are driving home the point you want to make.
  • Check for understanding. Close your message or email with an intentional question. “Is my request clear?” “Am I forgetting anything that you think is relevant?” “Does anyone else have further context to add?” These will help ensure everyone is on the same page and feels free to contribute.
  • Leverage your one-on-ones. If you feel you are distracting your reports with frequent direct messages, try using a one-on-one channel with them to post non-urgent items and future agenda items. Encourage your reports to model this same behavior.

Insist that requests be specific. Common red flags that require intervention to attain clarity are phrases such as “Let’s circle back to this”; “Great idea—let’s do that”; or “Does anyone have feedback on this?” When should you circle back to the item? Who should circle back? Who wants to implement this idea, and by when? What type of feedback are you looking for, and by when? Make sure that every action item has a DDT—directly responsible individuals, a due date, and a tracking mechanism to follow up.

Press pause when necessary. Leverage videoconferencing if email threads and messaging are becoming increasingly unclear, emotions are escalating, or the right people aren’t looped into the conversation. Simply call a time-out on the conversation and move it to a videoconference.

Keep everyone focused during meetings. The tendency to respond quickly to email or a text while on a videoconference is tempting, but also distracting. Make it clear that multitasking on calls is not allowed. Remote communication, like in-person communication, requires everyone on a call to be mentally present and engaged.

  • Create a remote meeting policy. Write it down and discuss it during a team meeting or in channel and ask if they can commit to this.
  • Aim for 100% participation in team meetings. Participation and engagement can make individuals feel included and help counter feelings of isolation. Rotate who is facilitating the team meeting.

Shift your mindset to focus on results. Remote managing often requires a switch from focusing on your employees’ time, or activity-based work, to focusing on results, or results-based work. Instead of worrying about your employee’s whereabouts, assign clear deliverables that are easy to assess from afar.

  • Host regular stand-ups. In the communications channel or project that’s dedicated to your team’s work communications, ask your employees to post their deliverables, call out blockers (the issues hindering them) and dependencies (what tasks must be completed before others can go forward), and check items as they get completed. This gives the entire team visibility into each other’s work and limits duplication.
  • Specify custom statuses. If your communications platform allows for it, be descriptive to provide clarity on your status. Model this behavior yourself. If your kids are in home school for the morning and you can’t take a call, indicate that. If you want some heads-down time, let your team know you’re in focus mode.

Conduct business as usual. While the current situation might not feel like business as usual, it’s important that we maintain as much stability as we can for our employees. Don’t skip out on or cancel meetings last-minute—though feel free to delete meetings that you realize are unnecessary well in advance.

Best Practices for Employees for Remote Work

If you are new to the experience of working from home, particularly in a field that requires close collaboration, feedback, and check-ins, this period can feel unsettling. It’s not just you. Feeling lost, uncertain, or disconnected is to be expected. As firm managers and leadership adjust business practices and assess market conditions, work protocols may change continually, and you may find that they do not have all the answers immediately. Communicate your concerns with your manager during your one-on-one or in a communications channel.

Optimize your physical work environment. The work environment you create at home can have a significant impact on your happiness and productivity. Set up your desk to be ergonomically friendly by upgrading your desk, chair, keyboard, mouse, and monitor to be more conducive to long-term work. Check with your manager to see whether your firm will cover the costs.

Videoconferencing has become a stay-at-home lifeline, especially when you have something important to discuss with colleagues. Elevate your presence by creating a distraction-free background and buying a high-quality luminaire to illuminate your face.

Set work boundaries. When you work from home, it can be hard to “turn off,” because your physical environment never changes: Your workspace is the same as your life space. As a result, you might feel pressured, internally or externally, to stay online beyond normal working hours. Delineate your workday from your life, as you would if you were in an office.

  • Don’t work from bed. It’s tempting to work from the most comfortable spot in your house—your couch, your bed, or that beanbag chair from the set of Friends you bought on eBay—but save these places for unwinding at the end of the workday. Designating work-free zones is instrumental to differentiating working from resting and recharging.
  • Set expectations with your household. Your family or housemates may have unrealistic expectations of what “working from home” means. Make sure all parties are aligned on what the new arrangement will look like. Share your working hours with them, including the times when you cannot be interrupted.
  • Create a work routine. A solid routine can help you stay on track and set boundaries that prevent burnout. The routine should include start and end times for work every day. Build in time to cook and eat, take breaks, walk around your home or neighborhood, stretch, and give your eyes a rest.

Reset expectations with your team. Remote work can shift team dynamics. Approaching this transition thoughtfully can go a long way to set yourself and your team up for success.

  • Talk to your manager. How might you want to change your dynamic now? Do you want to check in more or less often? If you’re used to nontraditional one-on-ones (walking, lunching, coffee), how can you replicate the benefits of these sessions remotely? What should your manager know about your remote working style?
  • Know when to jump on a video call. If a conversation gets confusing or heated, call a timeout in your text-based communications and get on a videoconference. It can be easier to talk out issues and clarify next steps face-to-face.

Over-communicate. Like your manager, you should not assume everyone knows things that may seem obvious to you. See additional best practices in the preceding managers’ section of this guide under “Create clarity by over-communicating.”

During times of rapid change, mistakes are inevitable. Regardless of your title, own up to them if they’re yours, and be empathetic to those who make them. Document important lessons to prevent other team members from committing the same mistakes.

Pandemic or not, ensuring that your business continuity plan is holistic and scalable will improve the dexterity and flexibility of your firm. Ultimately, preparing and cultivating an adaptable culture will help ensure greater longevity for your business.