Just six months ago, work from home, for most of us, meant an occasional day or two in several weeks or even months.
However, the rapid spread of the novel Coronavirus has turned those rare days into a prevailing way of work. Offices throughout the world have been forced to adopt this change, and the transition hasn’t been easy. But have you ever wondered what happens behind the scenes? How have bigger firms in particular transitioned to the remote work model so quickly?
Our curiosity led us to the Los-Angeles based CO Architects, where we got in touch with the managing principal Scott Kelsey, FAIA, to understand how the leadership transformed their team of 110+ employees for a fully remote operation.
Read on as we share the various aspects of employee management and the subsequent response from the team members.
Note: Our editor tried to keep the answers as close as possible to what was actually said. Some paraphrasing and simplifying was done to make it more relevant and relatable.
Let’s start by having an insight into the employee distribution, as explained by Scott.
- We can only imagine the challenge! What were some of the things that sat on top of the priority list?
- We can already figure out the emphasis on communication.
- So, will it be safe to say that the staff has had a positive response?
- Going back to the transition, how did it all begin?
- And what about the town hall?
- On that note, can you elaborate more on how the team leaders are functioning at this time?
- Are people connecting to their respective machines in the office or directly to the server?
- The need of the hour is an expansion in the healthcare system. With CO’s specialty in the healthcare domain, do you anticipate your architects to become more involved in this area?
- How do you think will your practice or just the architectural industry, in general, operate in the next few months?
- Before we wrap up, what are your closing thoughts? What should we be looking at?
Our workforce consists of about 122 employees, of which almost 12 people work in various parts of the country like San Diego, Washington State, Portland, Oregon and Arkansas on a full-time basis. That leaves us with around 110 employees in this (LA) office.
We can only imagine the challenge! What were some of the things that sat on top of the priority list?
We’ve always had the provision of work from home, so thankfully, this ‘new normal’ wasn’t an alien concept. But of course, remote working on a regular basis comes with a set of distinct challenges. The first thing that we took care of was to ensure that people could actually connect from different home locations, even before they start working.
One of the first steps that we took was to assess what people had in the office versus what they have at home. That prompted us to buy about a dozen more laptops, though a lot of people already had one. After all, the working methodology and productivity will depend on the available resources.
My partner, Eyal Perchik, had extensive discussions with a couple of Information Technology personnel in the office to make the best use of whatever is available. As a result, people can now mirror their respective computing interface with the server and work in real-time with the Revit model, as well as with the consultants.
However, the process was easier said than done. We did face many technical issues in the first week itself, but things are better now.
Moreover, we’ve also started utilizing technologies like Slack and GoToMeeting like never before. In hindsight, I’d say that the focus is to ensure as smooth a communication as is possible. And since the deadlines remain the same irrespective of everything, it’s crucial that the team members have every piece of information and are answerable to one another.
I must also appreciate how our members have overcome the different trying circumstances. Some may have built a work schedule around their toddler’s routine, while others may be working from their kitchen platforms. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m pleased with how things have slowly evolved for good.
It wouldn’t have been possible without the sincere, unwavering effort of everyone in the team.
We can already figure out the emphasis on communication.
Absolutely! For us, it’s really about communicating as much as we can, even if it’s not exclusively related to work. And one of the most effective ways to do that is through town halls. I have tried to bring together the whole office at least once, if not twice, in a week and share the current situation, the changes, and our subsequent response with them.
I can’t stress enough on the importance of transparency, especially at a time when we are witnessing a paradigm shift. We are hearing and learning new things every day, which needs to be shared with all of our team members.
Apart from having an idea of what’s going on, our employees should also know that our primary concern is their personal safety and that of their family. As members of this community per se, they should be empowered to make the right decision and fulfill their responsibilities towards each other.
At the same time, they should be made aware of our efforts that are in place for making them a fully functional individual of their team and the office. In uncertain times like these, knowing that each of our team members has faith in the company is quite reassuring. So, we do our part in terms of communicating proactively.
You may call us communication fanatics, but that’s one thing we’ve always strived for, even before this global pandemic forced us to work from home.
So, will it be safe to say that the staff has had a positive response?
Well, from the reports that I’ve received so far, I think our employees have adjusted very well. Although we did have a fair bit of time allotted for work for home in the past, there’s no denying the fact there was a sense of fear and nervousness initially. But then again, communicating with each other made things easier.
Because we didn’t have a lot of time, our managing committee was literally meeting every day to discuss what was happening and what we should be doing. And as soon as they made a decision, the first step was to communicate it to the employees. Even the slightest changes were being reported back to the office.
Now when I think of it, I feel there is a firm belief that as long as we continue to be open and direct in our communication, we will be able to build an environment of trust and comfort. In fact, keeping our members in the loop throughout also helped us stay calm and focussed in the midst of this unprecedented storm. We didn’t have to put in extra effort to pass on instructions to the members.
From what I’ve observed, people have appreciated this approach and have maintained a positive attitude.
There is an increased effort among our members to team up and share the various perspectives. The different communication methods have made people more creative in terms of how they create and share information. So, it’s a win-win situation for us, at least so far.
Going back to the transition, how did it all begin?
We arranged for a meeting with 100 people in the office to discuss the plan of action. That weekend, we sent out a note saying that we will be moving ahead with a voluntary work from home model. Most people agreed readily, and the following Monday, about 50 people came to the office.
This also gave us ample space to accurately follow the social distancing norms. So, those who continued to come in have been able to work in a safe, clean, and quiet surrounding. Today, there are only 10 employees present in the office. No doubt that the transition has been gradual, but it has successfully happened in a few days’ time.
If you think about it, it worked better than enforcing a work from routine for all of the team members from the get-go. Because it was a gradual transition, people got enough time to make necessary changes and preparations to transition to working from their homes.
And what about the town hall?
There’s no way we are giving up on that! But of course, we needed to make some changes accordingly. To ensure maximum participation, we put up the entire session on GoToMeeting in a live video feed for everyone to join.
The purpose was to give them an update – what do we think about the future? What’s the status of IT? Besides, we also wanted to understand how things have been at their end. They told us what’s working for them and what’s not.
The participants typed their queries and concerns in the GoTo chat, and we answered them as and when they got posted. For instance, one of the prominent issues that came up during the discussion was the problem of slow internet connectivity and low bandwidth.
As I’ve already mentioned, there’s no extension of deadlines, so people have to keep up with the pace. But you can’t expect that to happen when some employees are waiting forever to connect to the server.
I wanted to solve the problem as early as possible. Shortly after the meet, we formulated an allowance program for work from home purposes, so that employees can improve their bandwidth or buy the necessary equipment.
Had there been no town hall, we’d have probably been kept in the dark, while our productivity would’ve taken a hit. It also becomes much easier to address a problem as a whole. As of now, we are planning to meet twice a week, and then communicate over our intranet called COnnect.
Ultimately, it’s all about sharing our learnings and experiences. Simultaneously, we have been trying to implement effective team building practices and protocols for this (work from home) scenario. Team leaders also have an important role to play, since they are the ones at the helm of affairs.
On that note, can you elaborate more on how the team leaders are functioning at this time?
By and large, team leaders or project managers are responsible for what’s required by the team and how to run things smoothly to meet deadlines. As we speak, there are several teams working in different phases of their respective projects. Some may be working on early design, whereas others may have already moved on to the construction part.
As such, our teams vary from a size of 2 to 25, working to deliver on various schedules, deadlines, and deliverables. No matter the number of people or the stage of work, we believe our team leaders are the best people to decide on how to make the team work for the cause.
That’s how things have been around here, and it makes no sense to change the norm at a time like this. Now, I am not saying that I have no involvement, but I like to restrict myself to a point where my actions don’t become overbearing.
I will provide them with the framework, resources, and technology, but we’ve given them a freehand in terms of how they want to go about doing things. In that sense, you can say that the working model is different for different teams, but the role of the leaders remains the same.
In effect, it’s all about empowering them to make the right choices at the right time. They have all the help, but the final decision has to be taken by them.
Are people connecting to their respective machines in the office or directly to the server?
It’s a bit of both. What our members do is that they remote into their desktops here, and those desktops connect them to our Revit server. Since there’s no dial-up or third-party line in between, the process becomes direct and also improves the bandwidth efficiency at their (employees) end. This, in turn, helps them download the bigger projects, which is what we generally deal with.
Furthermore, there’s a lot of sharing that happens on our COnnect and Slack channels.
Here again, Eyal and his team have done a commendable job. Our team members continue to give them real-time feedback, which helps the IT guys to make adjustments in accordance with the different scenarios. Overall, people are happy with how the model is loading on their PCs. We are glad that there has been a significant decline in the number of speed and access concerns.
However, these technical issues keep coming up from time to time. So we also are working to ensure that people have uninterrupted access to better bandwidth. The whole process is a work in progress, and you have to cater to the requirements as and when they show up.
The need of the hour is an expansion in the healthcare system. With CO’s specialty in the healthcare domain, do you anticipate your architects to become more involved in this area?
Currently, almost 30 to 40 percent of our work is related to healthcare, and the architects who are working on these projects share intelligence regularly. It’s difficult to predict the exact outcome, but you can always make some assumptions based on the trends. At the same time, we do understand that our work will have a significant impact.
For example, I think we will be involved in building a lot of hand-washing stations in public settings from now on. This is just one of the many things that can happen. We expect a lot of changes in programming and designing as well, but that’s for the future to tell. We really didn’t have any discussion about the potential plan of action.
As of now, our healthcare clients are too occupied with delivering for the immediate needs at hand. I feel once the situation subsides, they will have a clearer picture of what needs to be done and how to prepare for the upcoming days. And once they know what to do, we will have an idea of how much of our workforce will be dedicated to the cause.
How do you think will your practice or just the architectural industry, in general, operate in the next few months?
You know, as they say, all fingers aren’t the same! I strongly feel that how different firms go about their business will depend on a lot of things. As far as we are concerned, I’d say that we have walked on parallel paths, some of which are short-term, while the others are more long-term.
The short-term paths are to ensure that our employees feel a part of the community. We want to promote an environment of comfort and safety, where they can make the appropriate decisions to get things under control. That’s the first thing.
Secondly, we want them to stay fully engaged with the work. There may be a situation in the upcoming days where clients may want to slow down a bit, and we must be prepared for whatever comes our way.
By short-term, I don’t mean that these will not hold any value after a certain period. All I want to convey is that we wanted to achieve these goals in quick time, so that our employees don’t remain confused and anxious.
Speaking of the long-term paths, we obviously want to analyze the implications of this pandemic on our practice. This means we want to be thorough with the business and financial implications, and understand the related dynamics.
Long story short, we want to be fully functional for whatever is to follow next. If this (pandemic) continues for the next few months, we know what to do. If it ends tomorrow, we should still know how to make things happen.
Before we wrap up, what are your closing thoughts? What should we be looking at?
First and foremost, let’s be confident that we will get through this, just like we have overcome so many tragedies in the past. We are in this together.
If you ask about us in particular, then I’d say such challenging times always bring an array of opportunities. It’s up to us to make the most of it. For instance, we may feel that we don’t need 120 people in the office anymore. We are good with 65 or 70 people, while the rest may continue to work from home.
If we see that the combination of physical-virtual is working for us, we might as well stick to it in the long run. It’s a good time for us to rethink our profession and way of work, and we’ve accepted that.
We can’t protect our work and thoughts from the impact, but the least we can do is adopt a positive approach. Standing at this point, I can’t tell you the outcome of all these changes. But that shouldn’t stop us from being optimistic.
We are taking things as they come, and all of us are working to make the required adjustments. The combined efforts at every level have helped us survive so far.
So, what’s the takeaway?
If you ask us, we will say that there are a lot of things to learn. Firstly, the architectural industry is a practical-oriented field that is not very familiar with the work from home culture. Although CO Architects had some experience, the process wasn’t easy for them either.
Apart from putting together an effective infrastructure, they also had to work extensively for proper employee management. Focus and concentration don’t come easy when the world is fighting a pandemic, but continued communication from the leaders gives the employees a sense of calm and togetherness.
Moreover, we also admire the flexibility in their approach. Not every team is asked to follow the same model of work, and the leaders are free to choose what suits them the most. But most importantly, the positivity and optimism speak volumes about why the transition has been so successful.
Here’s hoping that other organizations can draw inspiration from CO Architects’ transition to remote working.
Till next time, stay safe!