When Covid-19 challenged the way we work, businesses were forced to adapt to new ways of getting work done. AG Architecture responded quickly to support the health and well-being of our team and to continue to effectively serve our clients. By leveraging technology and leadership, we have been able to maintain our productive, collaborative team approach as well as our commitment to a sense of community.
The morning of Monday, March 16, 2020 is one that I will never forget. What had been a growing news story about people in faraway places getting sick was suddenly impacting every one of us. The Leadership Team at AG Architecture made the decision to send employees home to work remotely. The prospect of having 45 people do tech-heavy work from outside of the office was not something we had ever planned for. We were not eager to embrace this non-traditional concept, but for a week or two, we could make something work…right? Flash forward seven months to the present…and we are successfully working from our home offices, dining rooms and other household corners.
Since the governmental “Safer at Home” orders came out so quickly, we did not have time to order additional laptops for computer users at home. It was easier to have everyone take their entire desk set up home, allowing them to make it as comfortable as possible. This saved a lot of time imaging, configuring and dealing with software licensing. This also gave users a familiarity with the tools they use every day. Each little bit of ‘normal’ was helpful in a wildly uncertain time.
Prior to sending all the computers home, VPN client software was installed and bandwidth testing of the office determined that extensive VPN traffic could be accommodated. Our Managed Services Partner was instrumental in making sure the in-office network infrastructure was stable and robust. Recent upgrades to the managed network switches and fiber optic internet service were instrumental.
Once everyone scattered, the key to working together on projects was communication. Architecture and engineering are very collaborative disciplines. Not only do people need to understand who is working on what and when, but human beings are not solitary animals. We generally thrive on interaction. While the interaction with dogs and children sounds nice at first, it doesn’t help get the drawings done.
Conference calls turned into videoconferencing. An employee survey identified the greatest technology need was cameras and microphones for desktop computer users to feel included in the on-screen meetings. The need to be visible to coworkers provides some accountability, but more importantly it reinforces the daily routine of getting showered and dressed–even if pants are optional. This allowed everyone to participate in the company’s first all-office online lunch meeting in August. It was the first time some staff had the personal connection of seeing one another in five months.
Another huge help to this new working model was our use of Autodesk’s BIM360 cloud-based platform. Previously, it facilitated collaboration between our office and outside consultants. Now it works as if everyone was an outside consultant. Having the project data on the cloud servers also redirected internet traffic from homes to cloud, bypassing the office and preventing data bottlenecks. Bluebeam Studio allows for group mark-ups and effective discussions.
AG can’t control employees’ home internet, but we advised staff to take a look at what their services include and the age and compatibility of their modems, routers and cables to try to get the best performance. Staff received two cash bonuses to facilitate making their at-home work environment more productive, allowing them to make upgrades in networking equipment, printers or even a comfortable chair.
The same connectivity review was applied to the office internet connection, and we found that increased traffic from online conferencing was causing some VPN issues on the office network during heavy use periods. Discussions with our ISP enabled us to double the bandwidth capacity of our fiber connection for a small price increase.
It may be prudent to stay home or remain in our office space for the near term instead of visiting our clients. This doesn’t mean we can’t share the design process with them. Architecture is as much artistry as it is science. The creative process can be fascinating to participate in–in person. We can still share that experience with clients with a little ingenuity. An iPad as an overhead projector can share the initial sketching and brainstorming session over a video conference.
In addition to team meetings, video and other advanced technologies are supporting our involvement in a variety of virtual conference experiences. From recording webinar sessions and interacting via live chat tools to participating on panel discussions via Zoom to manning a virtual booth, the AG Team is embracing the latest trends for networking and sharing thought leadership.
When this all started, we expected to be spending huge amounts on new laptop computers and were unsure how well this could all work out. Future computer purchases will include additional mobile workstations for more worker flexibility. The office remains a resource hub of activity, used for the occasional meeting, large format printing and socially distant working. Ultimately there is value to having a team in the same space, to genuinely connect and look each other in the eyes. Until it is prudent to consistently do that, we have managed to provide our staff with the tools to do the job from the safety and relative comfort of their homes.