Setting Up a Remote Architecture Office

Remote working can save your architecture firm money and make your employees happier and more productive, but it can also be a pain to set-up right. Here’s how to do it.
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The way Americans work is starting to shift away from the 9-5 in an office setting and towards more flexible, remote work. According to Global Workplace Analytics, 3.6% of the U.S. workforce works from home half of the time or more. That might seem small but that represents a 15% increase from 2005 to 2018.

It might seem like a profession like architecture is not conducive to remote working, but with improving technology that is no longer true.

Table of Contents

  1. Why Consider Setting Up a Remote Office?
  2. Fully Remote or Partially
  3. What Tools are Needed?
  4. Hiring Remote Workers
  5. Roadblocks to Successful Remote Offices
  6. Remote Working Can Work for Architectural Firms

Why Consider Setting Up a Remote Office?

Study after study after study into remote work has made one thing clear: Remote workers are more productive than their office-bound counterparts. But what are some other tangible benefits from setting up a remote office?

Better Employee Satisfaction

Simply put, what employees want is changing. Global Workplace Analytics found that “35% of employees would change jobs for the opportunity to work remotely full time (47% of Millennials and 31% of boomers).” 

In the near future, if you want to attract the best and the brightest, you will need to offer more flexibility. Millennials in particular view workplace flexibility as one of the most important benefits a firm could offer. Some are even willing to take a pay cut for the ability to work when and where they want.

Working from home, also known as telecommuting, also appears to make people happier with their work and better employees. A study done in 2019 by the video conferencing company Owl Labs found that full-time remote workers were happy with their job 22% more than traditional workers who never work from home.

The study also found that remote workers worked more than 40 hours per week 43% more than their in-office counterparts. They are also 13% more likely to stay with their current firm for at least the next 5 years.

Minimize Work Disruption

As this is being written we are all going through the COVID-19 pandemic. What the world will look like after we come out of this is all speculation at this point, but we can almost guarantee our world will look different – especially the way we work.

Many think and hope so many offices having to turn to remote working will open their eyes to the possibilities. More people may be realizing they can work from home.

It’s safe to say that those offices who had some remote workers were prepared for the emergency stay-at-home orders more than those who had no remote workers. In future emergencies, whether it’s another pandemic, a fire in the office, or even just someone in the office getting the flu, having a remote office set up will allow work to happen regardless of the situation. This could mean the difference between success and failure for your firm. 

Fully Remote or Partially

Are you considering setting up a fully remote office where every employee is working from home and there is no home office? Or are you just looking to allow a select few employees to work from home?

There are benefits and drawbacks to both and the direction you go will depend largely on your firm’s needs. A fully remote office will have lower overhead costs due to the lack of an office. However, you will have to work harder to keep the office connected – there is no local space that the majority of the office can gather in. Plus, a fully remote office might mean your office is spread all over the globe.

What Tools are Needed?

If remote offices are part of your company culture and you can find the budget, it’s a great idea to consider providing funds to help your employees set up their home office. Helping them out boosts morale and makes them feel like you support them working from home. It also helps make sure your employees have high-quality equipment vs. using a box as a desk. High-quality tools equal high-quality work.

Some of the equipment your work-from-home employees might need are:

  1. High-powered laptop or Chromebook if using a VM like Paperspace
  2. Monitor(s) -- some people like two screens
  3. A keyboard and mouse
  4. A desk
  5. Comfortable chair
  6. Printer
  7. Internet Access

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Consider it a jumping-off point and develop your own list based on the kind of services your firm provides. 

The vast majority of firms now provide their employees with a laptop. The nature of the design work means that they will need a laptop with good computational power that can handle the CPU or GPU requirements. Having laptops with a decent-sized screen should also be a priority – just in case your employee needs to work without the monitors nearby.

Many companies also provide their employees with a stipend for using their personal phone for work. Consider doing this for internet access as well.

Some common tools that people use now in a remote office include:

  • Ruby Receptionist: answers the phone and directs the caller to the right employee
  • Slack / Microsoft Teams: manages communication in the office through chat groups and messaging
  • Monograph: cloud-based firm management software (track time, projects, and budgets)
  • Zelle QuickPay: send invoices and receive payment
  • Dropbox: file sharing
  • Bluebeam: remote markup sessions
  • Zoom: video conferencing

There are many more tools that can be used – this is just a short list. Use what works best for your office.

Move to the Cloud

One of the biggest concerns for an architectural firm is the storage of company files and the management of licenses. A firm will typically have an onsite server that stores all the company files. Trying to move this offsite can be a headache. 

Accessing the server remotely can slow things down if CAD or some other bulky software is being used. Also, if there is no office, there is no place to store a server. To get around this many are moving operations to the cloud.

Dropbox or Google Drive will allow you to store a specific number of files for free, however, both services also have business accounts that allow you to increase that number.

Programs like Morpholio or Sketchup allow you to do all your sketching, designing, and sharing remotely. You can work with co-workers through both programs and even share with clients.

Programs like Autodesk BIM 360 and Graphisoft BIMcloud have been created to help maintain a shared network throughout your team. Or Apps like Splashtop allow you to mirror your office computer (if your employee still has a desk and computer in the office) onto a personal, home computer.

Alternatively, virtual machines like Paperspace allow for remote work by allowing software like Autodesk to be run in the cloud. With Paperspace, you are essentially renting and then working through Paperspace’s machines. One advantage of this is your employees can have fairly low capacity laptops because the virtual machine is doing all of the heavy lifting. 

Like almost everything we have covered in this article, the exact app and configuration you use will depend on the size of your company and how you work. If your company is small and you have no plans to expand, you might consider getting local licenses (preferably subscriptions) for your employees that need them.

Hiring Remote Workers

When hiring a remote worker, you will need to switch up your expectations and needs. One of the number one concerns managers have about hiring remote workers is they won’t be able to stop by and check on what the employee is working on. There can be a feeling of a loss of control over the office. How do you know your employee is actually working?

The good news is when you are looking for remote workers your pool of potential candidates is much larger. Look for the best and brightest. Find employees that you trust completely to get their workload done. 

During the interview, make the remote working the main topic of discussion. If they have worked remotely, ask them about their experience with it. If they haven’t, see if you can determine if they have the skills necessary to make remote working a success. If you are able to talk to past managers, see how the employee did with remote working or ask the past manager if they think the employee would be good at working remotely.

Know in what capacity you are hiring someone. Are you hiring them as a full-time or part-time employee? Will they be a contract employee? Communicate that clearly during the interview, so there are no surprises later.

A little note on legality: make sure you know the rules for the type of employee you are hiring. Each state has different rules around contract employees. For example, a recent change to the law in California makes it much harder to hire someone as an independent contractor. 

Once you hire someone, you will need to send them through training that is specific to remote working. Not everyone is comfortable working with new technology. Make sure they know how to use all the remote working tools. Those tools are there to make remote working a success, so you want people to be using them.

This applies to your current employees too. Don’t just assume everyone will figure it out. People pick up new technology at different rates – some will need a bit more hand-holding. That being said, try to work out your training in a way that isn’t patronizing. The less intimidated by the process your employees are, the quicker they will be to embrace it. 

Don’t forget that even your employees who will still be working out of the office will need the same training. They will be using that technology too to work with the remote workers.

Roadblocks to Successful Remote Offices

While remote working can be incredibly successful for architectural firms, there are several things that can derail the plan. Here are some of the problems other firms have run into and how they have dealt with them.

  1. Low Employee Engagement

One of the biggest advantages of a physical workspace is the chance for bonding and cooperation. There is a reason firms work hard to encourage co-workers getting to know each other. There is a belief that proximity fosters trust. But you can also build interactions and opportunities for connection without have to have a physical workspace.

If you still have a home office, it’s probably worth your effort to work out a schedule with remote workers coming in occasionally. Continue to host after-work events but try to work in some activities employees could call into remotely. As an example, you could have a trivia night and invite remote workers to video conference in and participate.

If your office is fully remote, it will be nearly impossible to replicate a traditional office environment. Encourage more video conferencing using Zoom and give employees time to chat some during the meeting. Try setting up some remote office activities. Some firms have a policy if two employees are in the same city, they can have a meal on the company to encourage face to face meetings.

Have regular company reviews or give your employees a way to provide feedback. Pay close attention to the feedback you are getting. Make a strong effort to implement ideas your employees have.

  1. No Place to Meet Clients

As architects, we do need a nice place to meet with clients. Typically, this meeting happens at the beginning of the project to discuss goals and ideas. Your client could still be trying to work out their opinion of you, so where you meet might matter.

That said, we're now entering a period where expectations are being reset and its more than likely you'll need to develop new workflows that focus on providing the best design service to your client.

There are now whiteboarding apps and tools like Bluebeam that allow for remote viewing sessions to collaborate during design review. Consider using tools like IrisVR to navigate 3D models together. Developing new protocols around remote client meetings might unlock new opportunities for your firm -- either in expanded services, new markets, or time savings.

  1. Pushback from Existing Clients

Especially when you transition to a fully remote office, things might change a bit for your existing clients. The design process you go through might look a little different. You might depend more on software or remote services for everything from answering the phone to processing payments.

Some of your clients might need some hand-holding during this period. Don’t agree to adjust things just for them but see if you can work out some of the kinks they have been experiencing. Help them to see how these changes could make things easier for them too.

  1. Loneliness

This is more personal, but it does impact your work. When you are used to being in an office surrounded by people, it’s natural to feel lonely when you start working from home. This is where networking can come in. 

Join a professional organization like the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and get involved in their events. Take time to chat with colleagues over the phone or a video conference. Meet for lunch when you can. At Monograph, we have a daily lunch hour where team members jump on to a Zoom call and eat together.

Remote Work Protocols that Work

Regardless of whether your teams are remote or colocated in the same office, one of the distinct features of remote work is that it forces you to think about how you structure productive collaboration by way of asynchronous and synchronous communication.

The key here is productivity -- according to the Harvard Business Review article “Collaborative Overload”, the time employees spend on collaboration has increased by 50% over the past two decades. Researchers found it was not uncommon for workers to spend a full 80% of their workdays communicating with colleagues in the form of email (on which workers’ spend an average of six hours a day); meetings (which fill up 15 percent of a company’s time, on average); and more recently instant messaging apps (the average Slack user sends an average of 200 messages a day, though 1,000-message power users are “not the exception”).

  1. What is Asynchronous and Synchronous Communication?

Also referred to as async, asynchronous communication is when you send a message without expecting an immediate response. For example, you send an email. I open and respond to the email several hours later.

In contrast, synchronous communication is when you send a message and the recipient processes the information and responds immediately. In-person communication, like meetings, are examples of purely synchronous communication. You say something, I receive the information as you say it, and respond to the information right away.

But digital forms of communication, like real-time chat messaging, can be synchronous too. You send a message, I get a notification and open up Slack or Microsoft Teams to read the message and respond to what you said in near real-time. Even email is treated largely as a synchronous form of communication. A 2015 study conducted by Yahoo Labs found that the most common email response time was just 2 minutes.

This trend toward near-constant communication means that the average employee must organize their workday around multiple meetings, with the time in between spent doing their work half-distractedly with one eye on email and Slack / Teams.

  1. What are the challenges of Synchronous Communication?

This highly synchronous way of working would be understandable if it produced results, but there is more and more evidence that all the real-time communication overhead makes it hard to focus, drains employees’ mental resources, and generally makes it more difficult to make meaningful progress on work.

Some of the general challenges behind synchronous communication are:

  • Leads to constant interruptions
  • Prioritizes being connected as opposed to be being productive
  • Can produce lower quality discussions and suboptimal solutions

When you prioritize synchronous communication, you're privileging shallow work in contrast to deep work. Deep work as defined by Cal Newport, is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task like designing a layout, researching.a product spec, interpreting the building code.

  1. What are the benefits of Asynchronous Communication?

Unlike synchronous communication, asynchronous communication privileges deep work. It's benefits include:

  • Control over the workday which can lead to happier and more productive employees.
  • High-quality communication versus knee-jerk responses
  • Automatic documentation and greater transparency

In the context of a remote office, this last point is critical as automatic documentation can help relay high impact updates that can be referenced by anyone at any time. Consider this in the context of meetings.

If you were to multiply the fully loaded costs of all meeting attendees, you'll notice really quickly that meetings are expensive. So what makes meetings worth the investment of time and money?

Meetings should be high leverage activities that allow you to get maximum value from the concentration of decision makers and project owners. In most meeting, its participants should either be gathering information, reaching alignment or making a decision in order to come away with a list of actionable next steps. Of those activities, gathering information can be purely asynchronous. Whether in Microsoft Teams or Slack, considering sharing project updates in a dedicated channel on a daily or weekly basis. Hopefully, you should see less and less of your time being eaten up by unnecessary update meetings with no clear next steps.

Email can also be considered the same way. Consider batching email responses at specific hours of the day in order to focus on deep work.

  1. Synchronous communication is still important!

Synchronous communications like meetings can still be productive and important activities. Depending on the level of urgency or impact, responding to an email quickly could be necessary. For meetings, having time to connect with each other as people is rewarding beyond productivity as it promotes trust, and a shared sense of being united as a team. Some suggestions for high impact meetings:

  • Regardless of the type of whether you're remote or not, everyone should have at least one monthly 1-on-1 with their direct supervisor (firm owner, or studio lead) to touch base, discuss roadblocks, set professional development goals, etc.
  • Consider experimenting with casual team hangouts via Zoom where people from different teams can get together to chat about non-work things.
  • Consider organizing yearly company and team retreats where people can connect on a personal level.
  • If you need to have meetings, make sure everyone has the right level of context to arrive at either a decision or align on next steps. Consider using Agendas to structure your time effectlvely.


Remote Working Can Work for Architectural Firms

There exists this narrative among many architects that remote working doesn’t work for an architectural firm. They view architecture as a very hands-on, physical profession – and this is true. But, the technology of today allows this hands-on work to happen from wherever. 

If you are looking for some inspiration on successfully running a remote architectural firm, read through this conversation Archinect Features had with Jennifer Kretschmer, founder of J Kretschmer Architect. Jennifer Kretschmer has managed a virtual architect team for the past 15 years. In her opinion, when putting together a remote team “[the] new mindset is: your firm is not a place, but a group of people brought together to accomplish great projects.”

Additional Resources

  1. How to Build a Million Dollar Small Firm Using a Remote Team
  2. Running a Virtual Architecture Practice With Jennifer Kretschmer
  3. Exploring Remote Work and 'Radical Flexibility' in Architecture With Diana Nicklaus
  4. Top 5 Tips to Travel and Work Remotely as an Architect
  5. Tips for Architects Working At Home During COVID-19
  6. Creative Ways to Keep Remote Employees Engaged

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