5 Upsides for Small Architecture Firms Taking Work Online—From Home

July 8, 2020 Taz Khatri

The pandemic hit the world, whether it was ready or not. It impacted both the small architecture firms already equipped to work from home online and those that relied on an in-office culture to function. Everyone had to adapt. The question now is, will the way small architecture firms work be changed forever?

Once states deployed shelter-in-place orders, firms everywhere had to shift to online work regardless of how prepared they were for this enormous change in managing people, workflow, communication, and technology. Now, having made this leap, firms are discovering the benefits. Here, three small firms from across the United States—San Francisco, Phoenix, and Denver—share what they’ve learned so far about the upsides of this unprecedented pivot.

1. Newfound Resourcefulness

San Francisco–based OpenScope Studio, an architecture firm of 11, couldn’t have predicted a pandemic, but the founders intuited that setting up mobile infrastructure such as laptops and cloud-based file storage would be a good idea. When these tools had to be used remotely, a newfound team resourcefulness emerged as a benefit. Principal Ian Dunn says he has been surprised to see his employees, even the less-experienced ones, problem-solve more than they would have if they were surrounded by seasoned people in an office.

“We always encourage our staff to be independent and proactive,” he says. “It’s not us sitting 10 feet away from them listening to every phone call and conversation. Working from home empowers them to communicate and reach out to the city, sign up for a webinar, and research the codes themselves.”

In contrast, Phoenix-based TRUEFORM landscape-architecture studio, a five-person operation, relied heavily on face-to-face collaboration and physical proximity. Before stay-at-home orders, working remotely was not a practice or even an option. “Our office was particular about the hours that you’re there; everybody needed to be there from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.,” says TRUEFORM Landscape Designer Beth Johannessen. “We’re very collaborative, and we really pride ourselves on working together.”

But Johannessen has found new, more self-reliant ways to work. “It’s been nice for me to be able to have quiet time when I need it, do my sketches, and then trust my gut,” she says. “I can’t bug someone every time I need something—you know what I mean? I just have to do it on my own, move forward, make decisions, and be okay with that.”

2. Increased Flexibility

The most obvious benefit of working from home has been the flexibility. Johannesen is reveling in it. “I’ve been liking this whole schedule a lot because I work out in the morning; then, I can study for my licensing exam right after when my brain’s fresh,” she says. “If I start my workday at 9, is it really the end of the world? Probably not, because I’m working until 6.”

The flexibility of working from home has been great for other TRUEFORM staff, as well. “One of the principals is a single dad,” Johannesen says. “He has a kid in high school, so for him, having to come into the office can be very stressful. Having a little bit of flexibility has been great. This is probably the most laid-back I’ve ever seen him.”

online architecture work from home va+ videoconference
A VA+ team collaborates in a videoconference. Courtesy of VA+.

For OpenScope, the office’s already-flexible setup has seamlessly transferred. “We all worked on laptops in the office,” Dunn says. “We host our entire office up in the cloud, so you could get to any file anytime, anywhere. Everybody just picked up their laptop: They had a workstation, they had software, and they had access to every file in the office as soon as they went home. That was just the way we set up the office years ago.”

OpenScope has also used Autodesk BIM 360 as a key tool during the pandemic to work from home effectively. “We found BIM 360 to be seamless and really a great tool,” Dunn says. “It lets us work exactly like we did in the office in terms of sharing models and keeping things updated and current. It’s really helpful.”

3. Heightened Communication

VA+, a branch of Vertical Arts Architecture based in Denver, required employees to work in the office pre-pandemic but was equipped to shift to working from home. Because VA+ specializes in BIM (Building Information Modeling) and collaborating with designers, it already had systems in place to work with global teams.

“Much of our work and client interaction was already cloud-based,” says VA+ Division Manager Brian Patty. “So our use of Autodesk BIM 360, email, cloud-based markups of PDF sets, chatting, and videoconferencing didn’t change much. What did change was how much we began using it internally. Also, we found some client teams needed assistance getting comfortable with their remote processes, so we helped them with the transition in order to keep the work flowing.”

Not surprisingly, working remotely has presented challenges for teams. Patty says extra efforts to manage and communicate have helped the team stay efficient and coordinated. More important, these efforts helped foster a sense of normalcy and caring. “I have conducted formal meetings more frequently during remote work, just to give everyone more chances to connect,” he says. “We’ve relied on videoconferencing a lot to do our best to ‘see’ how everyone is doing.”

Beyond efficiency concerns, firms have tried to maintain camaraderie and the more lighthearted side of communicating while everyone’s at home. VA+ holds a “beer-thirty” videoconference every Friday to let the staff wind down and chat about life. OpenScope sent packages to its employees to show that the company cares about everyone’s well-being. And TRUEFORM has been having Friday lunches outdoors while maintaining social distance.

4. New Hybrid Working Models

After having a taste of working from home in an industry that has been slow to embrace it, employees may demand hybrid models that capture the best of in-office and remote work. Johannesen says as leadership transitions into a demographic that’s more used to remote work and has a natural ease with the associated technology, hybrid models may become standard in the design professions. “I would argue that, currently, leadership is used to the idea that you come in, you work until you can’t work any longer, and then you go home,” she says. “I think a younger leadership that already embraces technology would feel differently. It all depends on where you’re from, where you work, who your leadership is, and how willing they are to embrace new models.”

And what would these new models look like? Dunn says a long-term strategy might be “a three-day-weekend model where we all work from home one day a week to give people more flexibility in their schedules.” Johannesen believes the relative success of working remotely during this unprecedented era may spur a permanent change. “Maybe everyone’s there Monday morning, we do our staff meeting together, but then you switch off and can take Fridays from home or maybe do an alternate day,” she says. “So some people have Monday, Wednesday at home. Some people have Tuesday, Thursday at home.”

online architecture work from home va+ social distancing
VA+ employees practicing social distancing. Courtesy of VA+.

5. Readiness for the Next Phase

VA+ and Vertical Arts have returned to the studios as allowed by new guidance from state health officials. “We do a lot more cleaning, wear masks when communicating closely, and social-distance otherwise,” Patty says. Our staff still have the option to work remotely anytime they need to. Also, to do our part, we’ve developed a free add-in [for Autodesk Revit] that helps designers and office managers optimize the density of their workplace without compromising social distancing. We look forward to helping others open responsibly.”

The pandemic may be what pushes small architecture firms to reimagine the way they have been working for decades, opting for a more family-friendly, flexible approach. It’s now clear that the technological hurdles to working remotely can be overcome. The question is, how will small firms ensure collaboration, mentorship, and a sense of camaraderie while allowing employees the flexibility of working remotely? Time will tell how hybrid approaches will change how the profession works—for everyone.

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