Updated April 10 with a response by Woods Bagot and the latest COVID-19 data.
Updated March 25 with a response by Snøhetta and updated COVID-19 data.
Updated March 23 with a response by Gensler and updated COVID-19 data.
Updated March 16 with developments from SmithGroup and updated COVID-19 data.
First published March 12 with responses from NADAAA, SmithGroup, Kuth Ranieri Architects, Proving Ground, Dyer Brown, ZGF, and CannonDesign.
The World Health Organization officially characterized COVID-19 as a global pandemic on March 11. As of press time, more than 1.5 million
nearly 375,000 332,900 168,000 cases and nearly 92,800 16,400 14,500 6,600 related fatalities have been confirmed worldwide. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. has grown to 459,165 44,183 15,219 3,487, occurring in every state 49 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands; 16,570 544 201 68 deaths have been reported. (The disease COVID-19 is caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2.)
The impact of the novel coronavirus on the economy, everyday life, and human interaction, has been more far-reaching and devastating than many could imagine when the first known case was reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. To control the spread of COVID-19, companies worldwide are now mandating telework, prominent international, regional, and local events have been postponed or canceled, and colleges, universities, and schools are transitioning to online classes for the next few weeks or the remainder of the academic year. Countries have responded by declaring states of emergency, national quarantines, and travel bans.
In this unprecedented time, ARCHITECT asked several design firms to describe the impact of COVID-19 on their staff, clients, office operations, and projects. This article will be updated continually with new responses and developments. If you wish to share the measures your firm is taking in response to COVID-19, write a comment below.
For guidelines on how to minimize your risk of infection and to identify symptoms of COVID-19, visit the CDC’s COVID-19 website.
Nader Tehrani and Arthur Chang, AIA
Principals, NADAAA, Boston
Tehrani: We met staff earlier this week to take them through possible outcomes and protocols in the coming weeks and months. We reviewed the basics of social distancing and health management—especially for those with weaker immune systems—and the basic protocols of having a clean environment and clean hands. Working online instead of in the office may become the rule, rather than the exception. We also reviewed all active projects and their needs, critical deadlines, and how contractors are changing their directives as per material shortages.
We will use this as a test of resilience, and an opportunity to better tune communication, efficiency, and design abilities. So far, clients, consultants, and contractors have not indicated any significant changes in their goals, but we understand that may change over time. The economic impact of this virus looms large.
Chang: We have not tested the capacity of our network to allow the entire office to work remotely. There will be a limit to each staff member’s home internet connection in order to facilitate the work we do.
Tehrani: I have canceled all lectures, symposia, and public events for this semester [Editor's note: Tehrani is also dean of Cooper Union's School of Architecture]. The firm has key interviews upcoming, but have heard they will be conducted online rather than in-person.
Chang: The basic protocols—social distancing, no handshakes, and maintaining personal space—have become integrated in our site meetings. We have rescheduled a current IPD (integrated project delivery) project at the Rhode Island School of Design to virtual meetings instead of our weekly co-located “big room” meetings. Construction sites continue to push forward with critical work as they remain separate from the active campus.
Office Policy Changes
Tehrani: Everyone can work from home. Those who do not rely on public transport may come to work, if they follow the protocols mentioned earlier. We’ve shifted meetings to Webex and online.
Tehrani: Beyond the basic buddy system for helping each other on projects, we as a small firm have little to rely on. We have dealt with health needs and crises—for example, cancer, parental leave—on an individual basis [but nothing like this].
Impact of COVID-19 Beyond Architecture
Tehrani: This has revealed the fundamental need for clarity in communication between the administration and the institutions that are meant to advise them; the inherent connection between health and planning, and the physical and spatial; the arbitrary nature of social conventions and how we might change them as other protocols take over; and the need to develop resilience as a mental state.
Mike Medici, AIA
President and Managing Partner, SmithGroup, Phoenix
Employee questions and concerns have been centered on understanding how they should be performing their jobs in the current situation: Should I travel? Should I host or attend group meetings, particularly if they involve travel? What should I do if I am sick or if someone close to me is sick? The way this has been communicated in the media has paralyzed some employees with fear, or conveyed the notion that they need to overhaul their daily behavior. Most of the guidance we are providing is simply reinforcing messages from the CDC and WHO that point to using good judgment.
Impact on Firm
To date, the primary impact on our business has been on travel, group meetings, and attendance and presentations at conferences, which were canceled. SmithGroup has restricted travel to the high-risk countries identified by the CDC, along with all non-essential travel. We told our staff if you don’t have to travel, don’t. If possible, meetings should be postponed; if not then they should be conducted by video-conference or phone. Our firm frequently collaborates on projects across numerous offices and has invested in technology to make that easier. Working in this manner is familiar for us.
Updated March 16: Over the March 14-15 weekend, we notified our staff that as of March 17, we are encouraging anyone who has the ability to work remotely from home to do so. (Although most people will begin working remotely today). We gave everyone today to go to the office to gather any tools and equipment that will allow them to work remotely—while urging them to follow appropriate social distancing practices during their time in the office. Our IT staff is working to loan additional equipment to those who need it to facilitate working at home. Our intent is to have this plan in place through April 10, recognizing that this could change as the situation evolves.
Office Policy Changes
In addition to the decisions noted above, the firm has restricted office access for visitors. We have postponed all vendor presentations, group tours, and events hosted in our offices until the end of April.
Because this particular situation is so unique and different from more typical disaster planning, we have been addressing this in real-time. We created a task force of key leaders to make decisions around employment and employee safety, technology and infrastructure, and business continuity. It fields questions that focus on firmwide issues requiring consistent application across our offices. We are encouraging local office leadership to address one-off questions that are more personal in nature. The task force convenes as necessary and is committed to providing responses within 24 hours.
We design places and spaces for our clients that can be prepared and adapted to a wide variety of circumstances. Now that we are living in one of those scenarios, we are experiencing how much this can impact our day-to-day lives.
Elizabeth Ranieri, FAIA
Principal, Kuth Ranieri Architects, San Francisco
Since becoming a bicoastal firm in 2019—and nurturing ongoing collaborations in other parts of the country—we have grown more accustomed to virtual meetings. However, as a relationship-based practice, we go out of our way to meet in person and are feeling the impact of COVID-19.
Our team, clients, and contractors all have growing concerns about possible exposure and transmission, if infected. We remain open for business and still gather in small groups—with the normal precautions—but have opted out of nonessential gatherings and events.
Impact on Firm
We have canceled or postponed lectures and panel discussions and will opt to present virtually to AIA Tennessee later this month.
Office Policy Changes
Our West and East Coast offices are experiencing different degrees of urgency, given their respective urban and suburban locations. We have ceased nonessential travel and are implementing some changes to our daily operations in order to minimize everyone’s exposure, including 14-day self-quarantining for international travel and, when in doubt, staying or working from home due to sickness or exposure.
We had a plan in place for natural disasters, but have had to quickly evolve policy and protocols for this pandemic.
Impact Beyond Architecture
No doubt, the impact of this growing pandemic has further exposed the fragility of U.S. policy and a broken health care system, as well as the incompetence of our current administration. However, each of us at Kuth Ranieri continues to believe that working together—and engaging in design thinking—can make a difference toward protecting our planet and making the future better for everyone.
CEO, Proving Ground, Omaha, Neb.
Internal and External Concerns
As consultants, my team members and I regularly have significant traveling obligations. As more details on COVID-19 emerged, I had open discussions with peers throughout the industry about their responses. In the last two weeks, we made a business decision to halt all travel. Our clients and collaborators have been understanding as they put similar policies in place.
Impact on Firm
We have had several consulting contracts delayed and rescheduled. These contracts were focused on tasks that required on-site visits, interactive discussion, and facilitation. We are restructuring these contracts to reduce the need for an on-site presence and set expectations for participating in virtual meetings. Culturally, many clients are accustomed to building trust with an in-person presence. With that said, most of our current work is accomplished remotely, and our particular business is set up around this expectation.
Office Policy Changes
Our business has already been set up based on remote offices; 60% of our staff worked from home prior to January 2020. That is now 100%. The majority of our client meetings are remote and virtual as well.
In the U.S. in particular, the emerging pandemic has revealed the shortcomings of our health care system. The fact that millions of people in our country are uninsured or underinsured demonstrates the need to remedy the failings of our current system in order to respond to emerging health-related crises. Will these Americans go to the doctor to get tested when they experience symptoms? Will they go to work? How will they get the care they need to recover? We need to look toward policies that safeguard the health of our citizens.
The business of architecture is geared toward in-person officing and collaboration. However, this pandemic is now requiring businesses to consider—perhaps for the first time—ways of working that more fully leverage technology to communicate and collaborate from a distance. To be successful, managers must think about how they evaluate their team's performance when they can't observe them or the number of hours spent at their desk firsthand. Remote working requires high levels of trust in staff. Businesses will find that remote work and home officing may create new opportunities. My company, for example, isn't limited by proximity when bringing on new talent.
Rachel Woodhouse, Principal and Director of Operations
Karen Bala, AIA, Director of Design
Dyer Brown, Boston
Internal and External Concerns
Woodhouse: From our large corporate and institutional clients we're hearing, “Stay away, but keep working”—effectively meaning that we should continue project work, but suspend all non-essential meetings and travel until further notice. Many also ask if we have a "disaster plan" in place, and we’re fortunate to be able to say yes. We recently made a number of key infrastructure investments, including initiating a cloud-based workflow and adopting the virtual desktop.
Example of Impact
Bala: Over the years, many of our product manufacturers have moved to China, and we've started seeing longer delivery lead times. This is particularly true with lighting products, which means, for example, that our construction teams could have to wait longer to close up ceilings. We’ve started looking to Canada for alternative products with shorter lead times, though we are careful to ask vendor reps about their supply chain—something the general contractor usually handles—so we don’t order a product that is ultimately sourced from China. We're staying out in front of the specification challenges. With Italy on lockdown, we may start to see similar delays with stone products next.
Office Policy Changes
Bala: Because we recently moved our entire working process to the cloud, working from home is possible for everyone in our organization. For now, we’re telling our staff to work from home if they want, and later we may make it mandatory. We’ve been able to leapfrog over many of the disruptions we're seeing in the industry.
Woodhouse: While our cloud-based workflow wasn’t intended to be a "disaster plan," some of our thinking was informed by the events around the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Continuing to embed all our capabilities into the physical location was a risk we weren’t willing to take any longer.
Woodhouse: While we're more prepared for this kind of eventuality than at any other point in our 50-plus year history, we’re still finding a few gaps. The reality of extended work from home will likely present somewhat differently than our planning has imagined.
Ted Hyman, FAIA
Managing Partner, ZGF, Los Angeles
Office Policy Changes
This unprecedented situation is forcing us to look at how we work, how we are set up to work both virtually and in person, and our ability to remain flexible in the face of natural disasters, pandemics, and all situations that require remote work. Just a week ago, we canceled all domestic and international business travel. Today, while our offices remain open, we are encouraging all employees to work from home, and all employees returning from overseas travel must self-quarantine for 14 days. At the firmwide level and within each of our six offices, we’re closely monitoring all developments and are following the guidelines issued by local and national health authorities. Our firm’s executive committee is meeting daily for updates.
We are looking at resilience on a whole new level. We previously approached resilience in terms of systemwide redundancy with a localized natural disaster in mind. This situation is different, and we have to consider the possibility that our entire firm may be working remotely for a period of time. To ensure we have the infrastructure in place, we’re running a stress test on our servers on March 16, when our Seattle office will work remotely.
We are ensuring that every employee has the technology—including laptops, video cameras, and headset—to work from home if they wish. All employees have access to communication and collaboration tools, such as Skype and Microsoft Teams. We’re holding trainings on these tools, and our People and Culture team is refreshing the conversation around best practices for virtual meetings.
We are doing everything we can to accommodate and support affected employees, while also maintaining our commitments to clients and keeping our projects on track.
The pandemic has revealed that we can question our current working environment, with the potential for working differently and innovating across the board. The going theory is that the AEC world requires face-to-face collaboration. Though we are in the business of building experiences for clients, which simply can’t be done 100% virtually, does every meeting need to be in person? Can we embrace technology to support meaningful and effective virtual meetings and perhaps reduce our business travel?
Despite the importance of virtual work, interaction and connectivity among employees at our office is vital to what we do. In an increasingly online world, we are hearing from clients and our own staff that the office remains an important touch point for building relationships, camaraderie, and collaboration.
Brad Lukanic, AIA, CEO
Charlene Miraglia, Director of Human Resources
CannonDesign, New York, N.Y., and Buffalo, N.Y.
Lukanic: CannonDesign takes our preparedness for situations we can and can’t control very seriously. We have a robust business continuity plan (BCP) that we’ve proactively enacted for our coronavirus response. Firm leaders are holding regular phone conferences with office leaders to help them prepare. Our key response teams are also helping departments understand how to bring the plan to life locally, refreshing the plan within their departments, updating their BCP components, answering questions, and clarifying their roles in the firmwide plan.
It’s too early to know the full impact of this situation. We’re truly taking it one day at a time, focusing on the health of our people, partners, and clients more than anything right now.
Miraglia: We are communicating constantly with employees about travel guidelines in accordance with the CDC, WHO, and the U.S. Department of State. We’re also reminding our employees about existing health options and benefits and remote work possibilities, rescheduling internal summits, and much, much more.
For the most part, we have policies in place to answer the diverse questions we are receiving right now. So we’re pointing to policies, listening to individual concerns, and trying to be as proactive as possible.
Diane Hoskins, FAIA, and Andy Cohen, FAIA
Co-CEOs, Gensler, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles
The unique Gensler culture is built on the idea of putting people first. Every day, we are monitoring the global news and information around the spread of the novel coronavirus while making decisions and taking the appropriate precautions that protect the health and safety of our people and clients to the greatest extent possible.
We have 50 offices around the world. More than 6,000 people work in those offices and hundreds of clients, guests, and visitors are welcomed in our offices every day. Due to our global footprint and people-first culture, we are managing through the evolving COVID-19 situation, with the following three principles informing every decision:
1. Our People: People first. The health and safety of our employees, clients, and visitors are of paramount importance, always. As of March 17, Gensler’s China, Asia, Europe, North America, and Latin America offices are all working remotely—successfully.
2. Our Clients: Our clients’ needs and projects will continue. Our Design Technology team has created solutions so all of our projects can be worked on from any office at any time. That does not change in these times.
3. Our Industry: Our industry will come out stronger, together. We aim to educate and help other firms cope with the current pandemic. As the world’s largest design firm, we know how to keep making progress during challenging times.
We also sent the letter below to our clients on March 13:
Our close and trusted relationships we have with you, our clients, are the lifeblood of our firm. Like you, we have been focused on addressing the increasingly complex challenges posed by COVID-19. In the most immediate terms, that means taking care of our people and our clients. Weeks ago, we made the strategic decision that our offices in Greater China and Asia Pacific transition to work-from-home. Our integrated technology and virtual collaboration capabilities allowed our teams to do this seamlessly without any disruptions to our typical business operations. Now, an additional 4,000 designers, architects, planners and consultants in our North America, Europe and Middle East offices are doing the same work-from-home strategy, for the health and safety of everyone.
During this unprecedented moment in our history, we are firmly committed to shaping the future of cities by making a difference in peoples' everyday lives. We are committed to working with you and your teams to create spaces where people can live, work, play, and thrive together. These are extraordinary times, and together we will come through this period even stronger.
Craig Dykers, FAIA
Founding Partner, Snøhetta, New York
Shift to Remote Work
In New York and San Francisco, we are adjusting to moving to remote workstations and to social distancing. As a hands-on firm with an emphasis on workshops, model making, and hand drawing, it’s certainly taken effort to make sure that we’re still supporting the creative and collaborative process, but from afar. Teams are checking in with each other daily over videoconferencing, video calls, Slack, and email. We don’t want anyone to feel as though they’re falling behind or becoming isolated from our studio life.
Perhaps most critical during this time is ensuring that we are staying healthy and are maintaining a good routine in order to achieve a day’s work. We’re encouraging our employees to take advantage of not commuting—to get up in the morning when they would normally and use the extra time to exercise or stretch, and eat healthily. Parents with young children are especially challenged.
Our studio life has always been lighthearted, so we’ve been digitally sharing ways to have fun. I’ve been keeping a morning email diary to share observations and thoughts. As a studio, we have a responsibility to support each other through this time, and I feel confident that we can weather this storm.
Office Policy Changes
Our operations team has really been a strong front line for us during this time. I can’t thank them enough for the diligence and care that they’ve put into making our office policies work for our whole studio. An important part of that is setting up more channels for communication. We’ve set up a messaging alert system to share important updates; we’ve also checked in with everyone to ensure that their remote working needs are met, whether it be equipment, software, or a little extra IT support. We have organized a living FAQ document for employees to submit their questions to, which our operations team monitors and responds to on a weekly basis.
Finally, we have doubled paid sick leave for all employees in this calendar year to allow for full recovery during this illness and all illnesses.
CEO, Woods Bagot, New York
All Woods Bagot employees in the U.S., Europe, and Australia are working from home. No one is traveling, so all interactions are via virtual tools. As a global studio, we have the experience and the technological capacity to adapt smoothly. Virtual meetings are second nature to us. Our project teams are equipped to work remotely on complex linked files and models. Our studios in China, which has provided uninterrupted client service during this pandemic, are now returning to the office.
Technology alone does not make a global studio. More important is culture and behavior. Nearly every aspect of our belief system and business systems—management styles, communication approaches, customized work schedules, knowledge platforms, mobility plans, a matrix organizational structure, bonus structures, and financial structures—ensures that we support each other.
Lesson Learned from Our Studios in China
Don’t panic. Keep your own mind and the mind of the studio as calm as you can.
Organize management. We established a COVID-19 committee, including human resources and legal personnel, to oversee procedures in all China studios. The agenda includes status, sanitation, IT, overseas staff and communications.
Not everything will get done. Accept it. We discussed with clients how we would continue to provide services, anticipated delays to contract deliverables, individual staff issues, and their safety and wellness. The hours led to increased stress levels among our senior team. This time-intensive, unplanned activity and effort does eat into attempts to hit “business as normal” monthly targets, develop new initiatives, and conduct long-term planning, but safety comes first.
Over-communicate. We informed our clients through multiple channels and social media that we are safe, active, and “open for business.” Once the first month passed, the situation became normalized. We’ve increased staff engagement, checking where they are, and asking if they have any difficulties. We encouraged staff to join online classes and to meditate to manage their mood and stress levels.
Continue meeting with clients. We started having a few fact-to-face meetings with clients. We found we needed to be flexible to client’s needs and their systems preferences, including Skype, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams, plus a range of a dozen other messaging and mobile platforms in China.
Expect to return to studio. We’ve found that staff prefer to work from the studio for various reasons, including the challenges of trying to work in small apartments with family and children. The social aspects of working together at a time of great social stress were highly valued. Some staff still pulled long days and all-nighters to get things done while dealing with family issues, difficult conditions, and social stress. This depth of commitment makes your jaw drop.
Look for the silver lining. Battling hardship has brought out the best in great people, and working relationships have deepened among colleagues. This has been a good time to reconnect with clients who have more time to discuss their challenges and plans post-pandemic. It’s been amazing to watch colleagues adapt, grow, learn, and navigate this together. I’m proud of everyone.
This is story has been updated since first publication.
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