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Scott: Our firm of 28 went from no one working from home to nearly everyone working from home in just one day. We had planned to do the transition in a more considered fashion but one employee, nearly incapacitated by fear of the virus, in mid March spent one morning on Skype, convincing our three offices everyone was about to die. By the time management got wind of it, about 10:00 a.m., our only move was to tell folks they could break down their work stations and take everything from their monitors to their keyboards home. Every employee was freaked out enough by the one to take this option.
In this situation there is absolutely no way to have an office as productive as it was before, if for no other reason anyone with kids, especially school age kids with no school or daycare, has two masters they are serving. Overlay that with the fact offices did not have time to embrace, codify and teach best practices for working from home and you have the wild west of employment.
Though I have spoken with a professional friend who extols working from home and claiming DESPITE employees (both spouses working) having kids at home, billable hours are up; I would say reported billable hours may be up but actual cannot possibly be. Architecture is collaborative and though we had three offices so folks were use to Skype and remoteness we are already seeing problems with lack of coordination, assumptions being made over actual discussions and contact etc.
That is our negative. Our positive is that we have a great and close group, a third of whom survived the recession with us, and they understand that we need to hit deadlines, need to keep clients happy, need to strive for the same quality work if we are all to keep our jobs. I think folks are working at about 65 to 75% but if you take out chitchat, coffee breaks, social media and needless travel for meetings, maybe 75% is not so bad. My partner is my husband and his schedule use to be very meeting heavy often spending a good part of the day in his car going from one meeting to another on the other side of the city. He has been pleasantly surprised by how much time he has picked up having virtual over in person meetings. Our CA guys have a remarkable amount of extra time not having to fly to jobsites.
We have two all firm virtual calls a week, one a coffee and one a Friday happy hour. From the feedback I am getting, most of our employees, especially those with young kids, are eager to get back to the office which surprised the cynical boss in me since I thought they would embrace the unsupervised time at home with the kids. Not so, the lack of being able to fully focus is driving them nuts. Most employees miss the collaboration and contact. Interestingly we have two single employees who seem to really enjoy "working" from home and if the reports from their PMs are accurate, they are working at more of 40% productivity despite several discussion with leadership. This cycle might be harsh for them. Happily, at the moment, our workload has not reduced, we are still getting new project inquiries although a few existing projects in SD have gone on hold. We have not had to let anyone go or reduce salaries.
All in all with this unexpected experiment, if we have to stay this way for a year, we can. However, once we can go back to the office, it appears nearly all employees want to return to a studio over the isolation of home.
Follow up observations to my April comments. As general background our firm of about 30 is having its busiest year ever and, since our lease is up in October, is in the process of purchasing a building (longer story). We have hired two people since March, both are happy to work in the office. We now have about 5 of 27 folks working in the main office, 5 of 5 working in our Nashville office.
1. I have yet to talk to an employee in ANY industry who does not believe they are way MORE efficient from home. In fact to try to suggest otherwise elicits a pretty strong response. As an employer, I am not seeing this as the case. While we are still hitting deadlines, collaboration and coordination is lacking. Sets are requiring a level of redlining that we previously had not had to do. Moreover, it is has occurred several times that I called an employee to task them out but got no answer, a situation that clearly does not happen in the office. Interestingly two of those times I was calling a junior employee to offer them a design opportunity working with me. Due to the no answer I moved on to someone who did answer. (I suspect the employees did not have my number in their cell so they just chose not to answer an unknown number).
Which brings me to my next observation.
2. This is seriously detrimental the the professional growth of junior employees. They are just not exposed to as much, there is not as much mentoring or those wonderful random moments of education that occur in an office. We have started our Friday continuing ed through Zoom but it is easy to tell that several employees are not paying attention, instead are clearly watching a second screen.3. There are a number of employees who, I am certain, due to covid will not be comfortable in an office setting until there is a vaccine, herd immunity and the CDC, the WHO and Dr, Fauci unanimously declare all clear. Additionally there are employees who are enjoying working from home and will probably never want to work in an office full time again.
Interestingly, with two exceptions, both groups happen to be made up of our youngest employees. I am deeply concerned about their professional growth which, currently, is not a problem they see. We are struggling with how do you grow your junior staff if they only want to be in the office one day a week? A year ago I would have said no way to them working from home but now, even if it is against their best interest, post covid I need to let them continue to work from home if I want to retain the staff.
4. The most unexpected, and disturbing, result of the months of remote working is a changing mindset of our management. Our firm prides itself on being a cohesive team, being a large family. Folks genuinely like each other, went out together, helped each other move. The firm financially supported an employee three years through cancer treatment, sponsored kid's schools , sports teams, employee races and endeavors. Generously gave time off for bereavement, family issues even sabbaticals. I know all my employees spouses, their kids, heck I even know their pets!
However, the remoteness, the lack of daily contact and small human connections that occur naturally in an office or at the office baseball game or bbq is changing this. I had thought this was just me but have spoken with a few of my most trusted employees and they told me the same thing. They are beginning to see other employees as a means to an end, cogs in a machine that is getting the work done. One told me last night he finally understands how some firms simply hire up or fire down as needed. He realized those firms just view staff as interchangeable means to an end and was disturbed to realize he was beginning to think that way.
Since the current situation is clearly not changing anytime soon, I would be very interested on how others are weathering all of these changes. How is this effecting your practice, your staff, your personal perceptions? How are you maintaining normalcy?