How changing my firm to a virtual practice allowed for a fuller life.
By Jennifer Kretschmer, AIA
I find myself reflecting on how the pandemic has altered many parts of architectural practice. I think that we are now well beyond looking at the last few years and believing that once the pandemic is over that all the architectural firms will go back to doing business and practice the same way they did prior. That’s not going to happen. Our profession has changed forever. And quite frankly, I believe that it is for the best.
Our architectural profession has had a culture of overwork, an obsession that has gone on far too long and is just not sustainable. We chew up young professionals and spit them out once they show any sign of wanting time for family, friends, and leisure. We don’t consider them “professional” or worthy of the title of architect. Early in my career and before I was licensed, I interviewed at a firm where I was told that the standard work week was 60 hours and 6 days per week. When I stated that I wasn’t willing to work like that, the retort I received was that I must not be dedicated to the profession and that I shouldn’t want to be an architect. How insulting!
Well, at that moment I realized that if I wanted to craft a life that had meaning for me and stay within the architectural profession, I needed to design a new method of practicing.
Identifying goals for your firm
In 2003 I set out to establish my goals and vision for my new firm. I took business law and accounting classes at a local community college and I also studied for the licensing exam as I had just two more tests to go. I attended any AIA session that discussed practice management and I read the Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice every night, focusing on the sections pertaining to the financial aspects of architectural practice. I wrote a mission statement and put together a business plan.
The key component of my firm goals included: a profit plan that set a revenue goal for the next five years; the types of projects that I wanted to do that supported my goals and vision; slow, purposeful growth and to intentionally remain a “small” firm.
And I had a vision for my firm and my life: freedom to make my own schedule and work when I want; time to enjoy my favorite sports and hobbies any time of day; great clients that I enjoy partnering with.
I started my firm as a sole practitioner working out of my home, but I was actively looking for an office. Once I found a space that met my budget and other requirements, I started looking for staff. I hired one administrative assistant and one person as an architectural team member. This first architectural team member didn't want to be an employee because he had other work, so we created an independent contractor (IC) relationship and he worked primarily from his home. This staff relationship set the foundation that made it possible for me to move toward a virtual office when the necessity arose.
Transitioning to a virtual practice
At the end of 2008, it was clear that a huge recession was underway. In an effort of firm self-preservation, I decided to let my administrative staffer go and move my office into my garage at my home. Because of zoning restrictions at my property, I wasn’t allowed to have staff working at my property, so my architectural IC would continue to work from home all the time. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had just transitioned my firm to a virtual office/virtual firm. That is a firm completely without a geographical location or base of operations for an entire staff to congregate and utilize making all owners and staff remote workers. This is different from a hybrid firm which is a firm that has an office but staff can work either remotely or in the office as a part of regular firm operations.
Here’s my warning... don’t do what I did back in 2008. What I did was react to outside issues that drove the transition. It’s probably something plenty of firms did in 2020 at the start of the pandemic. But the point is that it wasn't purposeful and intentional. Planning to make your firm virtual or hybrid takes careful consideration and planning. By jumping in without planning, it took me years to establish efficient and effective processes to run the firm and lead staff.
Once I realized that I had established a virtual firm, the next step was to create systems that allowed firm operations to run more effectively and to reevaluate my vision to align with running a firm virtually.
The vision of “Freedom to make my own schedule and work when I want,” transformed to, “Freedom for all team members to create their own schedules and to work when they want.” This became the cornerstone of my virtual firm. Once systems were developed to hire, train, retain “staff” as all remote, independent contractors, I was then able to grow and expand my team by the time we came out of the Great Recession.
Utilizing online tools for project management
Today we utilize online task management to assign work and schedules, cloud-based documentation, e-signatures with clients, online financial bookkeeping and banking, online whiteboards and visualizations, and video conferencing. Even our checklists, documents, manuals, CAD/BIM standards, and templates are available digitally and online.
The firm is currently dedicated to residential work because of the housing crisis in our area. We design projects from single-family residences, to multifamily and senior independent living facilities. We have also ventured into assisted living and skilled nursing. On occasion we will do a commercial tenant improvement such as offices, retail, and restaurants.
Technology is dynamic and changing constantly. Therefore we are continuously evaluating our systems and will improve or adapt them to meet the current needs of the team. This is a team that consists of myself, my first remote team member I hired in 2005, and five other licensed architects from all over the United States.
Once the pandemic hit, our firm’s internal practices did not change. We were already a team that met remotely using technology to facilitate. Our major change was in training our clients to work with us remotely. Up to that point we were meeting clients in person at our co-working space, a coffee shop, their place of business, or their home. We trained our clients to use video conferencing, and cloud services for file transfer and viewing of the design deliverables. Video conferencing allowed my team members who are out of state to participate in meetings with the clients. That seemed to improve communication, transparency and gave the clients an opportunity to interface with all the participants on their project. This improved the services we provided to our clients.
There are certainly pros and cons to running a practice as a virtual firm. Some issues that happened included clients who thought we weren't a real company, the anticipation of less expensive fees, and the assumption that I worked alone. I’ve mitigated these issues through early discussions with potential clients and the pandemic helped in changing perceptions about working from home. But working this way can be a bit lonely and so I volunteer in a few non-profits and the AIA for camaraderie. For me, the pros completely outweigh the cons.
Pros for me included being able to play tennis in the middle of the day, plein air paint, co-own an art gallery, and volunteer as an art docent in my children's school district. The flexible schedule also gave me time to raise two children, care for ailing parents, and support a husband to get out of a job he didn't like.
On-demand learning, turning your firm virtual
As an architect dedicated to running my firm as a virtual practice, I’ve had the opportunity to speak about my practice and train other architects on running a virtual practice through speaking engagements at the AIA Conference on Architecture and the CRAN Symposium prior to the pandemic. Once I saw firms struggling to adjust to staff working remotely, I decided to partner with Leah Alissa Bayer, a Principal with Architects FORA, to create a coursework to help other architects learn how to transition their practices toward the virtual practice model. This coursework discusses the fundamentals of running any practice from the lens of having remote staff. The course is available at the Practice of Architecture.
Our virtual firm has thrived during the pandemic, so much so that we need to adjust, once again, our systems and operations so that we can continue to live the vision of a healthy work/life balance. That’s okay because constant evaluation and adaptation makes us aware and purposeful in everything we do. The enjoyment of creating a practice that allows others to thrive too and to now move forward with training other architects to create a virtual or hybrid practice is my new purpose and vision for future fulfillment.
Jennifer Kretschmer, AIA is the principal architect at J. Kretschmer Architect and Art, and is licensed in California with over 25 years experience in the field of architecture. A graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, she is a member of the American Institute of Architects where she has served at the local and state board of directors. She also holds an NCARB certificate. Jennifer is credentialed as a LEED Green Associate. As a LEED professional she guides the firm in creating zero net energy, LEED Certified, energy efficient, and green home practices.