WFH: Lessons Learned
WFH: Lessons Learned
Musings on the transition and acceptance of moving to remote working
Architecture and building design is a collaborative process, no matter how you draw it. From meetings with the client, to design charrettes to user surveys, the input and work of many people go into a building’s development. Because of this, architecture isn’t widely viewed as an industry that would or could thrive in a remote work set-up. When the mandatory work from home edict was given in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it shook operations within our firm and across the industry as a whole.
So how has DiMella Shaffer weathered the transition to working from home, and what we have learned? We asked Randy Kreie, Principal; Nicole Hathaway, Director of Interiors; Alyce Packard, Interior Designer; and Cassandra Michaud, Interior Designer to share their experience thus far.
How has the transition been from working in the office to working from home?
It took a few days to settle in, but it was easier than I thought it might be. The first thing my wife and I realized was that with the constant video conferencing, our shared office would not work for us. I adapted our rooftop room, which is about 6’ x 6’ of usable space into a small office, which is a perfect set-up for two 4’ folding tables to accommodate my computer and provide sufficient desktop space. Our wireless connectivity is good, so other than the regular trips downstairs to the printer, it has been working out well. A bonus is my view of Back Bay!
Overall, it’s been easier than expected. Setting up and refining a more permanent home office has been very important to keep me productive and focused.
I’m also trying to bring some of my “office” habits home. I usually leave my desk at the office quite often during the day, whether to meet with co-workers or just to get up to stretch and move my body, which is a vital component of the WELL standard. At home, I find myself taking time to stretch, work at a standing desk, or simply walk around my house. These activities are helpful to keeping me alert and staying productive throughout the day.
I was originally pretty concerned when I learned that we would be working from home because I don’t own a personal computer. The office let me borrow a desktop computer, but my boyfriend and I live in a studio apartment. Our main source of life is our coffee table, we do everything on it and because of this I just didn’t see how I was going to fit a work set up in our place. Luckily, my boyfriend works in a bike shop out in Shirley MA with just his boss and they had a spare desk in their office that they agreed to let me use.
Although I still have a traditional desk set up, it’s definitely still been a big change. I was used to being in an open office with people buzzing around and stopping by my desk all day, so it’s actually been a more productive atmosphere for me working in the shop. As much as I miss some of my co-workers, I really love my current work situation. Working remotely has strangely made me closer to some co-workers too because now we take the time to call each other and check in, even on the weekends. Anyone that knows me knows that I hate phone calls so seeing that I actually like checking in on people has made me realize how good my office relationships have become, they’re my friends.
The other biggest change is not being in the city. The bike shop that I am working out of is in Shirley, MA which is pretty much the middle of nowhere. I still have about a 35-40 minute commute but driving around Shirley compared to navigating the tunnels on I-93 in the morning is a completely different experience. Shirley is very quiet, friendly; slow paced and just open. There is a lot of nature and it’s nice to be able to take a walk on my break without being on the 6th floor of a building surrounded by other buildings that are all on top of each other. After two years of my commute to the city, I did not realize how much it was affecting my mental state and physical health. I’m really grateful that this situation has given me the chance to gain this perspective and take care of myself.
For me, seamless. Honestly, I love working from home. It has opened up more time. I eat better/healthier meals throughout the day. There are fewer interruptions (granted, I do not have children or animals), which means I can get more work done. We are learning new, more efficient ways to communicate and realizing that some topics can be covered with just an email. If you need a walk outside to take a breather and clear your head or take some time to push through a headache, you can do that without negative connotation. I am also able to fit in more physical fitness activities throughout the entire day. Oh, and I am a huge fan of being able to wear lounge clothes to “work”! Overall, I feel healthier, well rested, and I would very much like to explore continuing to work from home in the future.
What were your initial challenges / frustrations, and how did you work as a team to overcome?
Our teams have been great at communicating. That is the key. We suggested daily regular virtual meetings, and our Project Managers took it from there. I actually think we have become a little better organized now than in the office.
As far as running the firm, the Principals and our Operations Manager have a daily video conference, which has proven to be effective. We usually talk for about an hour on various issues that need to be discussed. It’s a great way for all of us to keep on top of things and stay on the same page.
I can say there haven’t been many frustrations. If we feel like communication has lapsed in some area, we are easily able to adjust with a phone call or video conference, whether internally or externally. We have to go the extra mile to make sure our information is transmitted and understood by the necessary recipients. I feel like we have, for the most part, done that effectively.
Our firm, our profession for that matter, relies on collaboration, so adjusting to new ways of collaborating was our biggest challenge at the onset of working from home. Turning to Slack to trade knowledge as well as receive real-time responses to questions and feedback has been invaluable. Our video conferencing has also been important for checking on everyone’s well-being, communicating about the firm’s position, and doing a project and workload check-ins with staff. As a senior designer, I need to continue to be a resource to our younger staff. I am realizing that they are a resource for helping us keep up with the changing ways of communication in this digital world.
Prior to the work from home mandate, I would often work from home when I had tasks that needed my complete focus, i.e. proposals, submittals, and redlines. Like all of us, I’ve had to make adjustments to how I work. While producing design drawings/graphics can easily be accomplished at home, the tangible side of my job, selecting materials and checking my finishes, presenting to clients for example, initially needed to be rethought.
As an interior designer, the most difficult thing for me has been anything with finishes. I miss our material’s library. Even though we can still order certain samples online and have them delivered, it’s not the same. For example, if I need a plastic laminate, I could go to our library and see a few hundred different options in person. Now, I have to look online, narrow it down to 3-5 options, order them, wait a few days for them to get here and then hope they work.
This also creates difficulty with client presentations. Creating a finish presentation virtually takes a lot more time with less efficient results. Finding accurate and specific images can be difficult and time consuming. While this will take some getting used to, it has been a good learning experience for the interiors team. We have been working together to come up with creative solutions that meet the client’s needs.
As much as I love working from home, my home office set-up has been a challenge without having a designated desk to work at. Having to set up and clean up the kitchen table every day can be a bit cumbersome, not to mention uncomfortable. On the flip side, it is a great way to “end” the workday. Also, living and co-working with roommates can be a bit challenging. We have a daily exercise that we go through coordinating conference calls. Luckily, with a laptop and no designated desk, picking up and moving to another space can be a nice change of pace.
I am also figuring out what equipment I need to work effectively at home as we do more digitally and store more electronically or in the cloud. A “pen” for a tablet or my laptop would help tremendously, especially as we’ve moved to doing redlines digitally. While a printer would come in handy too, it’s also been great to see how little we actually need to print.
What have been the greatest learnings / takeaways so far?
My greatest takeaway has been the resilience of our team. Our change to working from home happened so fast. It was like flipping a switch. Suddenly, we went from an immense pressure on how to keep up with our workload to learning how to work remotely, while continuing to deliver to our clients. We’ve also had to figure out how to continue to build a pipeline of future projects in what may be a coming economic downturn. It’s been a challenge for everyone involved, but our teams have stepped up and made it much easier than I could have imagined. As we begin to think about returning to the office, I am confident that we’ll be successful in that transition. I can say that because of how our firm has come together, adapted, and communicated effectively.
I’ve learned that good communication really is the key to holding a team together. No longer do I take quick face-to-face interactions for granted. I’ve had to learn how to best communicate with each other, and to keep in my mind that everyone’s communications needs and preferred methods may be different. I have found that as important as the communication process is, the communication itself is equally as important.
What’s been most surprising for me is how well our teams have functioned remotely. While it was nice to be able to get up and go over to someone’s desk when you had a question, there is something about having to schedule a time to talk that really seems to get everyone on the same page. For example, one of my project managers had set up morning “coffee chat” phone calls each morning that really helped manage our deadline and work distribution. All of this has made people more aware of their personal schedules.
Our interior’s group has been having mid-week phone calls to check in which I also really like. It’s nice to hear how everyone else is doing and what they’re working on. We only chat for a half hour to an hour once a week so I think this is something that we could continue to do once we are back in the office.
Nothing is impossible! In the architecture/design field there was this thought that working from home was, to some degree, impossible. However, when push comes to shove, we realize that not everyone has to work the same way that we have always worked. Our creative talents and resourcefulness have proven that different people and abilities, and circumstances can all be accommodated.
Overall, our firm would much prefer to work together in person. Sometimes it’s just easier and better to have everyone gathered around of set of drawings discussing what they see. However, through working from home, we have realized that we can collaborate in ways we didn’t initially anticipate. As technology continues to widen the digital and virtual community, we are learning firsthand of new ways to create and design for human interaction.