Can architects work from home and still be productive?

17 March, 2020

These are strange, unprecedented times. 

Where I live, Amsterdam, they have shut down all cafes and restaurants, schools, museums and much more. As lockdowns take hold in various countries, we are being asked to undertake many things that may not be normal, like working from home.

In my case, I have been working from home for the past five years so it was nothing new for me in this current crisis. In fact, I now struggle to imagine a day where I will work permanently in an office ever again. At home I get a day’s worth of office-work done in half the time – and I manage to stay on top of both my work and my life admin. 

So here’s my advice:

Technology is fundamental

Some practices are well prepared. Foster and Partners told us: “We have been trialling home-working for some time – our Asia offices have all done it successfully. Around 50% of our teams in London are currently working from home.”

But many will struggle to adapt. Partly it’s because practices are used to working in teams and it will take a huge cultural shift to be isolated from their colleagues. Other reasons proving more widespread are that company servers can’t cope if everyone tries to access it remotely at once.

Some practices we asked are currently ‘test working’ working from home – which is more about stress testing their technology than their staff. Stiff + Trevillion sent all its staff home early this week to make sure they could all login and work and access the server and provides telephone IT support for those who need help.

Security as well

Remote working provides new challenges to practices with regards to cybersecurity. As a practice you will become more reliant on the security of an employee’s own devices and network. You also need to rely on services such as Google Drive or Dropbox for file sharing, and these need to be set up correctly to be secure.

If remote working becomes the norm, larger practices will need to keep better track of employee turnover. Rebecca Snow of Stiff+Trevillion points out that ‘there are always some security concerns with remote working but we’ve worked hard to mitigate these. We also need to be vigilant on ensuring members of staff who leave the company no longer have access to our systems.”

Further steps can still be taken to mitigate risk. The European cybersecurity agency ENISA has released a set of recommendations, which you can read in more detail here

 Getting a routine 

The routine where you get ready for work is essential. By all means, get up slightly later, given you don’t have to pack yourself onto a crowded tube – but once you’re up, get dressed and have breakfast. You’ll have sent your brain the signal that you are going to transition to work-mode.

Equally, find a way to switch off at the end of the day. I used to find myself working until late unnecessarily. I now have a short walk at the end of the day to try and replicate the daily commute – albeit in a more relaxed manner. 

Continue to collaborate 

As a result of coronavirus, certain technologies are in demand.

These includes Morpholio, a digital collaborative sketching tool, and IrisVR which allows designers to “see” each other and work on projects in 3D – regardless of location. Spatial, an augmented reality collaboration, has seen a 400% increase in interest in the past few months. 

More traditional collaboration apps, such as Trello and Blue Jeans, are also reporting increased demand. These are allowing teammates to instant message and/or video call each other – and adds important social contact points throughout your day. There are countless to choose from – some including Studio Egret West has chosen to go with Google Meet, where as others have opted for Microsoft Teams. As well as 1:1 communication, they also enable meetings to take place as normal – with most offering screen sharing, so presentations can be easily seen by attendees. 

However, ensure the ones you choose have a Do Not Disturb mode. People work different hours when they’re at home so they need to turn off notifications at downtimes so their evenings won’t be disturbed by unnecessary work chatter.

Water cooler moments

Working from home makes it more difficult to know when it’s OK to take a break. There’s less of a defined lunch for example. But finding your own method of stepping away is vital to staying refreshed and keeping your energy levels up. I have a 15 minute hourglass on my desk. When I feel I need to step away I set the time and allow myself to do something else, like  making a cup of tea or popping out to the shops. At the end of the day, the most important question to ask is: have I delivered what I needed to. 

A cultural shift?

Could the current crisis herald  a permanent cultural shift in how we work? “Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick… This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work,” Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr owner Automattic, told The Guardian

It may be that many practices will be surprised by the continued effectiveness of their staff working from home – and see its merits. Whether it will have a long term impact who knows but it’s likely that the concern many have about remote working will be reassessed. 

Ben Storey is Archiboo’s marketing director and based in Amsterdam.