By Craig Park, Assoc. AIA
For most design practices, the last year reframed our perspective on remote engagement, both internally and externally. Client connections, that were almost exclusively in-person, flipped to virtual meetings practically overnight. Design teams that had used video for coordination meetings on rare occasions now found Zoom and MS Teams were the norms.
This new norm immediately changed the tradition of early- and mid-phase face-to-face coordination meetings. With everyone working from home, those occasional team activities quickly became weekly or even daily video calls. The immediacy of video, the effectiveness of BIM cloud services, and the socio-cultural shift driven by health and safety concerns allowed most practitioners to function at a reasonably high-level.
The new norm has also prompted many firms to have speculative conversations on the future of the workplace. Similar discussions were happening related to education, healthcare, hospitality, recreation, retail, manufacturing, and distribution. No sector was immune from the change to work, learning, health, and play caused by the pandemic. Resilience, flexibility, and elasticity became part of the vernacular when thinking about the next normal workplace.
In July 2018, I wrote Building an Office Without Walls for the AIA Practice Management Digest about how our firm had moved our staff of 80+ from physical locations to virtual, home-based offices while maintaining and enhancing our connections with our clients. In June 2020, I updated that article with an intra-pandemic perspective, Creating A Culture Without Walls - Covid-19 Edition, that focused on how our culture had evolved and shared some emerging tools that help bridge working in virtual space.
Today, with a year of significant adjustments to the way we work behind us, we enter 2021 with a clear view of the light at the end of the tunnel. As vaccine distribution ramps up, many firms are giving serious thought to what the workplace of the near future will include.
Where are we now?
While the recessionary impact of pandemic on the building industry was severe, it was not as bad as the 2008-09 Great Recession. Most architecture and engineering firms reported a 20% net reduction in revenue. Unemployment in AE peaked at 6% in July 2020 but has dropped to near 3% in early 2021. However, on the client-side, capital (new building) and operational (renovations/maintenance) budgets and spending remain reduced significantly. The result was fewer projects, delayed or slowed timelines, and recalibration of both new build and renovation project priorities.
Studies indicate that pre-pandemic, 4% of the workforce worked in home offices, mostly in data entry or sales. Those same studies now forecast that upwards of 30% of the workforce will be home-based, with roles spanning all aspects of the B2B continuum. In the future, clients in all sectors are rethinking how and where to meet their workforce's space needs best.
These trends focus on the why, where, and how we work, and how we design our client's workplace needs. The term "hyflex"—first used in the context of the hybrid/flexible classroom needed to accommodate both in-class and distant learners—can be applied to the workplace as well.
Greater productivity and the ability to identify and prioritize high-impact activities are the goals. Emulating the in-office work experience while delivering improved customer experience and outcomes is the objective — whether working in the home or on the road. We are modeling the best ideas, and working through the challenges of "hyflex" ourselves; this lived experience informs the design office, translating into better design/service for our clients.
Where are we going?
One of the outgrowths of prescribed isolation has been the recognition of the value of face-to-face interactions. As good as video can be—and it is much better than most believed—it does not replace the creative spontaneity or serendipity that often occurs when teams work in proximity. However, the quality of life that comes from minimal or occasional commutes has its upside. We created office spaces in our homes. We hang out with our pets, our children, our partners. And we get work done. Often just as well, sometimes better, than we did before. And we noticed this work-from-home (WFH) has its perks.
Not to say WFH works for everyone. One of my cohorts lives with his wife and three kids. He's a consultant. She's a teacher. The kids are all in school. On any given day, five simultaneous Zoom meetings—stress on each other for acoustic privacy, pressure on the network for bandwidth demands. But upgrades to their internet service helped, and headsets with noise-canceling microphones helped even more.
Those of us who espouse technology for its improvements of connection, communication, and collaboration—after all, we at NV5 are technology consultants—should be the role models. Some of us are. Some of us are not. We have our fair share of bad camera angles, low lighting, unintelligible sound, and the inevitable reminder, "You are on mute." In many ways, we are a microcosm of the workforce.
Future-forward organizations that invest in 1) learning, 2) adopting, and 3) training on the art of the hyflex digital workplace are few. Surprisingly, it's not that hard. But it is critically important. As technology commentator Craig Janssen noted in a recent LinkedIn posting How Smart Leaders Create Engagement in Zoom Meetings, "Those who adapt their leadership to the new digital reality are going to have a decisive edge."
How do we get there?
Trained to observe, synthesize, architects creatively develop a contextual response to meet each client's needs. Applying that same design-thinking process to the home or office makes the connection as transparent, effective, and seamless as possible. Translating hardware needs for the in-office workstation to that of the home office is straightforward. A simple study of camera angles, supplemental lighting, microphone placement, and network connectivity defines a set of best practices scales to meet almost any space. Create a set of scenario models. Select some hardware options. Provide supplemental funding/financing. Beta-test. Iterate.
Adapting the office setting to the home-based, small space, laptop, Wi-Fi-connected, workplace benefits from a bit of extra LED lighting and a good headset with a noise-canceling microphone. A slightly larger home office can accommodate dual monitors, a better camera, a better microphone, and a stereo speaker setup. Attention to acoustics and lighting improves almost every setting and every video-based interaction.
Is there an app for that?
Regardless of device or location, team members working from home should get the same experience. Beyond the necessary audio/visual connection, applications that enhance collaboration are becoming more popular and more effective with use-case experience. Recording and transcription capabilities are now built-into most video meeting software. Archiving digital recording of the meeting for later viewing and parsing the transcription for inclusion in the firm's intranet-based searchable Wiki files adds to its resources.
Two popular applications that provide meeting-support digital whiteboard tools are Mural and Miro. From pre-meeting idea-sharing, intra-meeting discussions, and post-meeting debriefs/brainstorms, cloud-based collaboration software platforms enable accessible communication. From sharing content and links to chatting or editing materials in real-time, creating virtual hubs allow in-person discussions to continue online.
An essential aspect of the hyflex workplace is helping the remote and in-office workforce become a seamless productivity-focused enterprise. Many organizations are moving from traditional Gantt-based waterfall project management processes and adopting and adapting Agile methodologies to streamline cross-functional project management processes and provide transparency to workflows at the organization's levels.
Learning from the rapid-deployment, work-from-anywhere, "done is better than perfect" Agile culture of the technology sector has led the forward-thinking design and engineering firms to explore applications like Asana, Monday, Trello, Demand Metric, or Wrike.
Many firms will suffer in the transition to the virtual team process from "the way we've always done it" syndrome. Undefined workflows, outdated methods, unclear roles, multiple (and often conflicting) systems, and few templates are too commonplace. With a third of the workforce at home, it becomes critical to have visibility across all teams. Unexpected change (e.g., the pandemic) can delay project delivery and impact customer satisfaction. Getting projects to completion faster, providing transparency and accountability, and increasing both top-line and bottom-line revenue have become critical to the mission for the professional practice.
Change management is critical for shifting to the hyflex agile workplace of the future. While these applications can improve workflow, increase productivity, and promote creativity, features to evaluate a virtual management platform include tool sets, consulting, customization, and training.
Look for a platform that provides cloud-based Agile task management that can roll up, filter, and view tasks across all projects and toggle between kanban board, calendar, or list views. Beyond supplemental tools, playbooks, pre-built project templates, training courses, reports, and how-to guides, evaluate the application provider's ability to give experienced consulting and coaching to operationalize best practices.
What comes next?
The future is bright. But the lessons learned from the global pandemic and previous recessionary economic shifts show that the practice of the practice needs to evolve to sustain. Adopting an open mind toward a flexible hybrid workforce, exploring new options, developing best practices, and experimenting with new agile methods are fundamental to the strategic change needed to survive and thrive in the next new normal. Taking those lessons to our clients, demonstrating the creativity that is the core competency of the design firm, provides value beyond the investment in change.
Craig Park, FSMPS, Assoc. AIA, managing principal for the Charleston office of NV5 Engineering & Technology (formerly The Sextant Group) has been active in the building industry as a technology consultant for over 40 years. He received a BS in Architecture from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. Craig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
(Return to the cover of the May 2021 PM Digest)