Much has been said about technology and the future of the workplace being more flexible, allowing remote working of staff from around the country / globe to collaborate on projects as easily as if they were in the same office.
The recent Coronavirus Pandemic, subsequent social distancing measures and closure of non-essential workplaces has thrust upon many employers (and employees) the need to embrace technology and home / remote working. Some would say this shift to working from home is long overdue. Putting that discussion to one side we thought it worth looking at the benefits, and downsides plus future roles that may arise from this opportunity to explore the use of the home office.
It is fair to say that some businesses are more naturally suited to working remotely. Within the Construction Industry the design side of the business is in theory uniquely positioned to embrace this potential. Architects, Engineers, Services Consultants as well as nearly all sub-contractor design teams are these days exclusively computer based and well versed in the exchange of electronic info between disciplines. As such the switch to working and meeting from home, is less of a stretch than in some other industries.
Sharing of information via email or online share portals is already the mainstay of the construction industry - long gone are the days of posting huge bundles of drawings out the office. With the advent of cloud computing, cloud servers and software subscription etc, everything is already moving towards decentralisation of the office and removing the need for a central server and minimising physical hardware. Software also is switching over to subscription based provision as opposed to one off purchases of products, which gives a company the opportunity to be a little lighter on its feet and easy to scale up or down teams to suit work load and resource requirements. So whilst the distribution of information is not an issue with our industry, it is more of the design coordination side of things that is impacted the most. Video conference apps with the ability to share screens and meet remotely can largely make up for face to face meetings and do have the benefits of significant time savings and reduced costs from travel. Whilst to some extent this may alleviate the need for frequent face to face meetings it is unlikely totally remove them. Many might prefer sitting down around a table with fellow consultants, colleagues and clients is an intrinsically natural way to discuss matters, resolve issues, however as we become more at ease with virtual meetings we may be inadvertently crossing a threshold into the new norm.
Staff satisfaction is an area always heralded as of major importance & rightly so. Less commute time & associated costs to employer & employees alike. Increased productivity and staff retention are all quantifiable benefits that should hopefully surface as we get use to home working. We’ll await to see exactly how the current situation develops. Whilst it can be argued that there are no office distractions, there is certainly the potential for greater home distractions. Without the rigour of office life, home workers need a certain self discipline to ensure productivity is retained. The benefit of more flexible working hours needs to be weighed against the need of a practice to maintain core hours when staff can be contacted.
One of the areas our practice has always prided itself on is the studio feel to the office with it’s open plan layout. There's the continuous overhearing of conversations around the office that help keep everyone in the loop as well as assist in gauging how projects across the business are progressing is the life blood of the practice. Working within the office has a certain buzz and urgency at times that helps instill a sense of purpose across the team. Spontaneous sharing of ideas and chance discussions take place that all help add a liveliness to being in the office which can be missing from being at home. Without all this, there’s the risk of losing the wider understanding of the office outside of a person’s own workflow.
Successfully utilising home working is dependant on the individual but ultimately comes down to being able to efficiently share information and communicate clearly with collaborators. In all areas of remote working, access to reliable and fast internet connection is paramount - without which home working is just not an option. There could easily be a case made for arguing a greater productivity, but this comes very much with the caveate that, this is possible, but only once any technical issues have been resolved, whether they be communication, data transfer, coordination etc..
Aside from the technical challenges, the main difficulty is in adjusting current work practices and quality control measures to adapt. With people potentially working more automonously, office QA procedures current employed may need reviewing and updating to catch up with any changes to working practices. Opportunities for staff updates and interactions are vital in ensuring harmony and a cohesion.
With so many Pro’s and Con’s to decentralising work, as an industry we’re all very much still feeing our way in many areas, and no doubt the process will become more streamlined as time progresses. As a practice we’re already seeing major benefits in embracing the opportunity to work from home and need to take from this period of enforced remote working the most desirable and beneficial elements for wider implementation going forward. Time will tell over the coming weeks or months, what that may be, and we will return to this subject with an update in due course. Watch this space.