Is Now (Finally) the Time for Architects to Phone it in?
By Lauren Dundon, AIA, associate at Semple Brown
Telecommuting — depending on who’s reporting — is either the death of collaboration, or the solution to unaffordable real estate. At least those were the two alternatives before our new reality of imminent contagion and social isolation: now the topic is evolving as quickly as the nonstop news coverage of this unprecedented crisis. With the plausible likelihood that any employee could need quarantine without warning, remote work is suddenly mainstream. And as our profession’s paper trail dematerializes into the cloud, architects are newly positioned with the means and access to work away from work.
I recently tested my own readiness for involuntary isolation, as my 2020 started quite literally, with a crash course in remote access. An icy tumble at Breckenridge rendered my right shoulder fractured and helpless. As I choked back my selfish frustration at the sudden loss of both my ski season and the use of my dominant arm, more bad news: the urgent care doctor warned I was running a fever, “You’re coming down with something.” And that’s how I found myself at home for nearly two weeks, with a non-lethal head cold, improvised ergonomics, borrowed laptop and VPN instructions.
At the start of that first remote stint, setting up the technology left me little time to feel excluded from office culture. Our primary 3D design software, Autodesk Revit, is designed for multiple users, and aside from occasional lag time over our VPN (Virtual Private Network) my cable broadband internet kept me connected. But like any middle manager, I’m responsible for more than just whatever I’m modeling in Revit. To keep internal teams and external consultants moving, we used Bluebeam Studio to manage markups, Ring Central for conference calls, and Glip, a Slack-like social add-on to Ring Central, for interoffice chatter. Luckily, my projects were in slow phases, and workflow didn’t significantly suffer. As my head cold gave way to cabin fever, and I felt the weight of expectation to be present in the office, I returned to my regular chair.
Once again, I’m back at home, and so are most of my colleagues. This feels different. With all of us facing the same situation, technology substitutes for collaboration and culture. Short-term, the Glip chatter keeps us smiling and connected, while helping us manage workflow in a live-action way that email cannot. And for distraction-free, focused tasking, my home office is far more accommodating than our open desk layout. But is a scattered workforce sustainable? Our junior employees, despite deserving more credit for professionalism than the Millennial generation’s bad rap, still need team direction and feedback. Managers need unforced opportunities for low-pressure interactions and informal guidance. Workplace 101: Work needs the Place.
The technology that serves us seems to have a bottomless capacity to fail when we’re not looking. Our own IT manager, already the most beloved staffer, who made it possible for the rest of us to work remotely, is himself confined to the office. Our network and servers are not unique in their demand for continuous attention to withstand the unprecedented siege of external pings per second. Like many medium and smaller-sized practices, we continue to weigh the economics of migrating to fully cloud-based BIM 360 software. For now we are reliant on local hardware, and a hero who’s taking one for the team.
Our clients are accustomed to conference calls and video presentations, so much so that we’re carefully considering how we can meaningfully add to the deluge of mass emails reminding everyone in our database, “We’re still here for you!” We’ve already had some clients reach out for reassurance that we’re still working. Yes, we’re still here for you! We are profoundly grateful for those of you who are also still here for us, and who optimistically press on with your projects while we all wait to understand the emerging financial paradigm. I’m heartbroken to see our newly opened bars, restaurants and theater spaces already shuttered, while hopeful that enough of the show will go on, that we’ll keep the house lights burning.
My success at staying focused, as I sit here alone, depends on filtering the relentless drip of bad news. The latest gut punch is that everyone in Colorado’s tourism-heavy economy has now sacrificed the remaining ski season, along with the incomes dependent upon it. As one of the lucky few whose work is at least partially untethered to location, I have nothing but gratitude for the ability and permission to self-govern. Before this week, I’d reluctantly accepted that traditional attitudes about the definition of a good worker would throttle widespread adoption of remote work: from generational perceptions that junior staff need constant supervision, to senior managers’ overreliance on red pens and layers of trace paper. After this week? I’ll believe anything is possible.