How architects can do remote working better

Working remotely is not the same process as working in an office. Nor should it be. So how might architects do remote work differently?

When confronted with change the tendency is to try and rebalance and find a way to revert to the status quo. When everyone was forced to move home to do their work, the reflex was to find a new way to continue working the way people always had. With people telling themselves a story that the way they worked previously was superior. Instead they could have put their energy into new and better ways to do their work.

There is no right way to work remotely. Just new and different ways. The trick is to treat it as an iterative design process. Doing precedent studies and research. Trying something, if it doesn’t work try something else. Make tweaks. Asking for feedback. Do the obvious things. Go with the intuitive. Try something counter-intuitive. Go for good, not perfect. Et cetera. The point is, most ways might not work. That’s no reason to stop (after all you never stop designing a building until you find a way that works). Keep going until you find a better way to work.

Before the pandemic there were architectural practices that were already successfully working remotely and many more have now adjusted, but I still hear of resistance to changing.

Here’s my thoughts…

I’ll flag one thing at the start. Before responding that something is impossible, first consider the conditions in which it might be possible. Use “Can if…” thinking.

Starting by considering what a physical office is for. Offices are for proximity as well as centralising control over the work (& staff) – this is not always a good thing, often at the cost of trust. In the past an office facilitated communication and the sharing of analogue infrastructure such as printers, faxes and the like, no longer required in a digital age. It might also be suggested that an office is for collaboration, sharing of resources, ideas and learning, but I’d argue it merely facilitates these things. Similarly an office might be to establish and develop work culture but there are also other ways to do this.

The one feature of an architectural office that is valued and/or revered more than anything else is serendipity. That moment an incidental view of a drawing leads to a sketch of a better design, the overheard conversation a third party is able to constructively contribute to or something learnt through a pause in activity for a moment of sharing from a book, drawing or screen. I know serendipity is the part that confounds architects the most about remote work. It’s need for proximity is the reason architects suggest remote work isn’t a realistic full-time option.

If an office is for proximity, then to design better remote working we need consider how to maintain proximity? The key to proximity when remote is to over-communicate. Share plenty and share often, online and accessible to all. Whether sharing your steps, ideas, drawings, insights, questions, jokes, interesting things you’ve found, keyboard shortcuts, and so on. It’s vital that the sharing is not disruptive and it’s hierarchical, ie hierarchy of importance, is it of vague interest or requiring immediate attention. That way those you are working with know what to review and when, allowing for a smooth asynchronous work flow. There may also need to be agreed timeframes (deadlines) on each level of the hierarchy. There are any number of platforms on which this can be done, from a basic office Wiki, to proprietary software platforms such as Basecamp, Slack, Miro, etc.

While a culture of over-sharing sounds time-consuming, there are efficiencies that can be achieved to more than compensate for a little additional time reviewing and sharing and I’ll address this below. An advantage of over-sharing is to make all work visible to all the office, reducing the need for meetings whose sole purpose is to share. It also allows the necessary proximity for people to observe and learn both from the work and the culture. Staff can then work to their own timetables (within reason), more efficiently without disruption and at the times that’s most productive for them. Allowing for their input and reviews at suitable times for both the project and all staff.

Oversharing also reduces FOMO, which is a concern for some when working remotely. Instead, it engenders a culture of inclusion. In doing so it helps to build trust. Side-channels, while necessary for some things, should generally be discouraged if they’re done to consciously exclude.

It’s also worth embracing that the remote work environment is one that is entirely at your discretion to shape in the way that works for you and your office. For the purposes of this I’m going to ignore that you might be surrounded by children learning from home or partners unhappy that you’ve left the dirty dishes in the sink – in the long-term it’s likely this too will change. Introduce new time scheduling and management to your day.

With no-one able to swing by your desk with a question, or to discuss the band they saw last night, it’s possible to block out chunks of time for uninterrupted work. Carve out the most productive time in your day and work without distraction which means turn off your phone, email, notifications, and any other potential disruption. Set up auto-responders if necessary, indicating when you’ll be available and when you’ll respond. There’s very few things that are so urgent they can’t wait an hour, maybe two. It’s likely once you have been doing this for a month or two, everyone will have learnt your schedule and adjust to your time as apposed to the reverse.

For those times in the day when you’re less productive, such as perhaps the post-lunch malaise as you digest, set them aside for replying to emails, phone calls or the mindless tasks that can’t be avoided. There’s many many potential ways for being more productive, and that’s not the focus, it suffices to say that it’s an important consideration and an advantage of remote working.

One area of the architectural office that is often considered deficient remotely, is team brainstorming design around a table with rolls of butter paper and a fat drawing implements. It’s productive and time efficient. Software doesn’t yet cater to the equivalent remote experience and conceivably other ways of doing it are less efficient. We can if… we think about this part of the design process differently. So the trick is once again to try things. You could try, for example, short design sprints. 10-15 minutes each to go away and work on the part of the design you were discussing, followed by 10-15 minutes as everyone cones back together to discuss. It will likely necessitate working both in parallel and together.

Experimenting is the key to working out what works best and it might require different processes for different teams. Be flexible, observant, and ask questions. What’s working? What’s not? What could be done better? What else could we try? Then respond to those answers.

Be willing to accept it will take time. If you’re willing to try and fail, iterate until you find something that works better, I’m willing to bet you’ll begin to consider the hybrid office and remote work model of practice as the only way to work.

Photo by Maria Orlova on Pexels [edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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