Working remotely can be challenging and disruptive, and requires realistic expectations and a flexible approach, says Charmaine Kai of Brisbane-based practice 8i Architects.
8i Architects is a small practice with three architects, two recent graduates and one interior designer. Located in Taringa in suburban Brisbane, 8i specialises in secondary and tertiary education, medical facilities and specialty technical projects. For more than 15 years, 8i Architects has delivered functional, cost-effective designs for projects ranging between $1 million and $110 million. Work is predominantly for the Queensland state government – primary and secondary schools and TAFE, specialist police facilities and community facilities. 8i is also designing an IVF lab in Melbourne.
What measures has your practice put in place in response to COVID-19?
We are currently alternating staff between working from home and the office. All staff have been given remote working guidelines, policies and agreements with a WHS checklist, so that when they are working from home, everyone knows what is expected.
Remote staff communicate with the rest of the team via Trello for task status, chat with the rest of the team via Whatsapp video calls, remotely access the server for design and documentation, and access QA policies and procedures via Talent LMS. We have group check-ins every morning and afternoon via Whatsapp video calls with one on one consultation via phone as required.
We’ve provided all staff working remotely with an office chair, computer monitors or computers, and any other peripherals they need.
While we have staff in the office, we have taken a rigorous daily cleaning and sanitising regime of everyone’s desks and common areas. Everyone’s desks are at least three metres apart.
Site visits have been restricted to essential inspections only. All other meetings are over the phone or via video links.
This has been working well so far with minimal disruptions to our deliverables.
What are you looking at doing next?
We are prepared to work remotely if required. We’ve found we need at least one person in the office as our “designated survivor” to make sure the remote access for our server works properly.
Do you have staff working remotely?
We have some staff working remotely, including myself. I’m working remotely for family reasons in trying to juggle home-schooling with work. I’m allocating time for home-schooling as if they are meetings into my schedule to help reduce the amount of disruptions during the day. I’m fortunate as my kids have grown up in the office and are old enough to be fairly self-sufficient, so that will help with the amount of interruptions.
Do you have any tips for creating successful working relationships remotely? With colleagues, clients and others?
We’re in regular contact with remote team members. Being a small team has been advantageous as we can cover many issues quite quickly.
We’ve made sure we’ve kept in touch with all our clients and consultants. We’re finding that we’re having more phone conversations, which has been great.
What challenges have you encountered to date?
Internet speed is our biggest challenge for remote access to the server. We’ve added an extra internet connection to the office and investigating 5G technology to increase our internet speed.
Maintaining workplace culture is another challenge. We have an open office culture with a mix of more experienced and less experienced team members that allows for lots of informal discussion and communication. Working remotely can make informal banter more difficult. We’re hosting regular Whatsapp video chats and telephone catch ups with our team to encourage these invaluable informal discussions to take place.
Finding new work is our next challenge. While we have enough current work proceeding, we’re eagerly seeking more opportunities to work with clients we’ve never worked with before.
Did you have systems and processes in place already that you have been able to build on (for example for flexible work)? If so, how has this worked?
Our office has always had a flexible working policy for staff. We’ve found that our staff have appreciated the flexibility we’ve given them to undertake personal tasks over the years. I think given the circumstances, the flexibility policy has been supported by staff. When we’ve needed to reduce some hours, they have been very understanding.
What advice would you give to other practices based on your experiences so far?
We started our practice at home 15 years ago and worked from home for eight years while raising two kids. Our advice for working at home is below:
Be realistic that remote working will be challenging and disruptive, not just with IT issues, but with the mental change of working in a home environment.
Motivation and communication from the rest of the team will be needed to keep the team positive and productivity going.
It’s best if you are able to have an “office” space at home so that you can “switch off” after hours. The physical separation between work and personal space is crucial for mental health – even if it’s physically covering the computer at the end of the day if you are working in the living room.
Expect that home life disruptions are going to happen – and it’s OK.
Workplaces need to accept realistic expectations of staff – they may not be as productive at home with their family.
Flexibility and acceptance are key to mental health – for the employer, employee and clients.
Charmaine Kai is a Director of 8i Architects and an ACA – Qld/NT Committee member.