Home office setup of RATIO project architect Lora Teagarden, AIA
Lora Teagarden Home office setup of RATIO project architect Lora Teagarden, AIA

Many architecture firms are transitioning to remote work policies to help ensure their staff’s health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last Monday, my employer, Slack Technologies, likewise encouraged its 2,000-plus team members worldwide to work from home. This Tuesday, we closed all of our global offices and required employees to work remotely, executing plans it had prepared for preserving business continuity amid a pandemic. Below are lessons we’ve learned from the transition, along with insights from design practices accustomed to, or established with, remote staff.

Empower Your Team
Remote work and flexible work schedules are not the same thing. Your workplace must adopt both to be successful. Tulsa, Okla.–based Method Group co-founder and managing principal Josh Kunkel, AIA, has enabled his entire staff to work remotely, but also on schedules that maximize their productivity. Employees can start early, work late, and take a midday break to pick up kids from school. “There is never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution,” Kunkel says. “You have to find a way to adapt the environment to fit an individual’s needs.”

Get Everyone the Right Hardware
Pragmatically speaking, your entire staff needs access to a reliable internet connection and preferably one with redundant systems in place. When my home was undergoing construction last week, I had to tether from my cellphone when workers had to shut off power intermittently.

Laptops are already commonplace, but if you have been looking for a reason to upgrade your office’s essentials, this is it. If purchasing new laptops for everyone is not feasible, consider making arrangements to move some of their workplace equipment to their home office or reimbursing the cost of relocating their office setup. Some companies are offering from $300 to upward of $500 per employee so that individuals can purchase the items that best meet their needs.

Research auxiliary hardware that can increase productivity, such as dedicated webcams, extra monitors, and ergonomic accessories. Since I don’t have a door to my home office, noise-canceling headphones with a built-in mic for video conferencing is necessary to block yelling from my two young children.

Beyond outfitting home offices, consider purchasing equipment for fieldwork to reduce the number of individuals who have to go on-site (if construction is still underway): Construction cameras and site Wi-Fi robust enough to stream walkthroughs to remote team members can go a long way. Alternatively, wear a high-res camera like a GoPro or just use your smartphone to record meetings for playback. Spend extra time in the video to set up context, talk through any concerns, and capture the footage a person needs to support the decision-making process.

Get Everyone the Right Software
If you haven’t already, start exploring all the cloud-based platforms from the major CAD software providers, such as Autodesk BIM 360, SketchUp Shop, and Graphisoft BIMcloud. Besides composing drawing sets, firms will have to determine how to manage their files with a remote staff. Technology companies have long since migrated to the cloud, which means your data should in theory be secure, following best practices for account management and access, of course. In many cases, firms’ in-house servers will not be ready in terms of bandwidth and capacity to handle a workforce that is accessing them remotely.

Autodesk senior vice president of Design & Creation Products Amy Bunszel says that many AEC customers are “moving to and scaling up their use of BIM 360 Design software to facilitate remote collaboration on Revit and Civil 3D projects through the cloud. We will continue to monitor the situation and are committed to ensuring business continuity for our customers during this challenging time.”

While the move to your home office may test the limits of your current servers, put faith in enterprise software companies to ensure that their business continuity plans include uptime and 24-hour access to your files.

When you’re reviewing platforms for overall team management, keep in mind that the right mix of tools for small and large firms will likely differ. 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 below (examples of product in parentheses):

  • Cloud file storage (Dropbox, Box, Google Drive)
  • Collaborative documentation, reporting, and presentation platforms (Microsoft Office 360, Google G Suite, Adobe Cloud)
  • Creative process collaboration (Morpholio, Google Jamboard, Ideo Shape, Miro, Mural)
  • Project and/or client management (Asana, Monograph, Deltek, Newforma)
  • Team communication through messaging (Slack, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams)
  • Video conferencing (Zoom, GoToMeeting, UberConference)
  • Knowledge management, for large firms (Confluence, Guru, Bloomfire)

On the West Coast, EVIA Studio founder and studio director Leah Alissa Bayer, AIA, has already tried three different collaborative management platforms for her completely remote firm this year. “The hardest thing is to find a platform that works for the way everyone contributes to the creative process,” she says. “Some people are OK working in a digital space live, while others will want to be able to scan or take pictures of their sketches.”

Meet Your Employee’s Needs at the Policy Level
Your staff will have questions regarding sick leave, paid time off, and support for mental health and wellness. The last thing you want is someone coming into the office sick or making a decision that jeopardizes the rest of the workforce because they can’t afford the day off to care for themselves or their family. Be flexible with your sick and vacation policies to support the necessary quarantine period for those who do contract the virus—or exhibit any the known symptoms. Support the infirmed, the parents who find themselves without child care, and other staff members who need help.

This past weekend, Slack announced that none of its employees, including its contractors, have to claim any sick leave. It is leaving it to employees to work with their managers on realistic plans to accommodate changes in their work schedule, the additional responsibilities of daytime child care, and the like. They are also offering extended time for anyone who comes down with the virus or who is caring for someone who contracts it.

From a business perspective, make preparations for potential attrition from your employee base. I have had friends and co-workers who were contemplating a move closer to their parents for long-term caregiving, and who are now making those decisions based on the coronavirus. Many companies will not come back from this pandemic with their entire workforce intact. Ensure that your projects are covered while people regain their typical levels of productivity.

Communication Is a Two-Way Street
As nearly every other industry, architecture and design firms will have to establish and adapt to new norms and a changed culture. The unanimous support of company leaders and communication with your workforce are crucial for any transition, and especially this one. In particular, dialogue must flow in both directions: Employees must feel free to ask questions, know that they are heard, and promptly hear back from firm leadership.

Set expectations around virtual team meetings and check-ins. Find ways to signal or notify your team when you’re on a call, away from your home office, or heads down in focused work.

The value of face-to-face communication will never go away, but videoconferencing is the next best thing for a remote workforce. Get comfortable with video calls and use them liberally, especially as other means of communication are going awry. Our teams in Japan are staying connected by sitting together for an hour-long virtual lunch via Zoom, for example.

Nuance in expression doesn’t translate well in emails, texts, and messaging. At the first sign of misinterpretation, jump on a video call to make sure the other party understands everything correctly.

Accept That Mistakes Will Happen
During times of change, mistakes are inevitable. Own up to them if they’re yours, or 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.

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