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Work From Home 2: Electric Boogaloo

Microsoft recently released a set of reports regarding “remote work and collaboration”. The cool, easy-to-digest version can be found here and the underlying data can be found here. I highly recommend, especially if you’re in a leadership role, perusing the former link.

The problem is that Microsoft can’t really speak to the *quality* of collaboration, or indeed the direct impact of remote work on collaboration due to the subjective nature of the subject. What they can, and tried – to do was to metric out the patterns and behaviors that encourage collaboration.

My own takeaway is that there are far more negatives inherited from WfH *from a firm leadership perspective*. There are also significant negatives for the workers as well, but their situation is strongly influenced by leadership actions and attitude.

From a purely collaborative aspect, Microsoft found that while digital comms increased between tightly-knit teams, communications outside the team dropped dramatically.

This makes sense. If you can’t lean over and ask the person next to you a question, you need to IM/email/call them. What used to be instantaneous and personal has transformed.

Additionally, the “external” outreach decline also seems to make sense. When I think back (oh so long ago) to my office days, a very large percentage of my external contact came from organic connections. Wandering around the office. Hanging by the water cooler. Seeing someone I knew well talking to someone I didn’t know well, and being able to join the conversation. And of course, the post-meeting hangaround. The walk and talk. The “oh hey, can I ask you…”.

Nowadays, I feel guilty IMing or emailing people I think are swamped busy. Casual / minor items don’t make the cut. When you can visibly see if someone is engaged or not, seems stressed or not, or even just asking “hey, got a sec?” those are all performed much easier in person than in IM or email. Even for the most digerati of us.

Keep in mind the distinct difference between Productivity and Collaboration. Yes, they may influence each other, but each require different soil in which they thrive.

Many of our clients say productivity is as good or even better than before. According to Microsoft, that’s true, but only because people are working far more hours and absolutely exhausting themselves. Remember being worried about the line between work and home life? They’re both now in the same wok.

Ultimately, your Senior Leadership will be the ones to determine if the firm, as a whole, is maintaining whatever design/creativity/collaborative production as it did pre-covid. Are you as innovative? Do the sparks still happen? Is your work product that relies on collaboration and creativity still winning projects?

But regardless of that, Microsoft makes some strong claims about the worker force and productivity. Let me intertwine them with some of my own observations.

  1. WfH is here to stay. Mike says: maybe. I wouldn’t assume it as a forgone conclusion. In a low-unemployment economy, yes, WfH can be a talent attraction/retention component. When firms have the upper hand, they’ll default to whatever their middle management is demanding, which leads to:
  2. Leaders are out of touch with employees and need a wake-up call. Hey, Microsoft said it, not me. But yes, yes they are. 61% of managers say they are “thriving” as opposed to 38% of staff.
  3. Gen Z is at risk and will need to be re-energized. Some of our clients have the full range – Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, and Zoomers. Generational gaps have a huge impact in terms of varying culture, not to mention technology adoption and usage. 60% of Gen Z polled said they were either “merely surviving” or “flat-out struggling”.
  4. Talent is everywhere in a hybrid work world. If you truly believe in a full remote option, you can now source from anywhere in the nation, anywhere in the world. Time Zones now matter more than distance from the office.

My own gut feeling is that the Senior Leaders I’ve spoken to are split roughly down the middle. A large percentage feel like this is a Good Thing, better for the staff, and hence, better for the firm. The other half view it as a necessary evil, but with some potential (financial) benefit. The latter tend to be the types where a vocal set of project or studio leaders really, really want their staff back onsite and in the office. Whether for communication, collaborate, or even ease of management, who knows.

If you are one of those in charge of plotting the course for your company, I would make the following suggestions:

  1. Hoteling really doesn’t work. Desk sharing *really* doesn’t work. Hotels are great if someone is coming in for a meeting and wants to stay an hour or two before or after, but in general, why work at a hotel station if you can work from home? And desk sharing? Even with two people? Fugghedaboutit.
  2. Understand the massive inequality of meeting experience between people in the room and people joining remotely. It’s nowhere near the same, and significant effort should be taken to attempt to equalize the field.
  3. Don’t half-ass the home work environment. If you’re really going to do this, make sure that work done from home is as close to a replica as being in the office is. That means good equipment, multiple monitors, etc., etc. No personal devices. It needs to be factored in to WfH budgeting, and doing it sloppily will hurt a lot in the long run.

Happy to hear from those who think I’m wrong / an idiot / a luddite / a Browns fan. The fun part is, time will tell.

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Gen 2 AED IT Leadership

As troublesome as it is to write this – I’m entering my third decade of IT in the AED space – it does allow me some sense of perspective.  There is a change underway in our IT leadership, and it is an opportunity for firms to step up their game, tech-wise.

For as long as I’ve known CIOs in design firms, they’ve always “fallen” into the CIO role.  They were Architects with some level of technical expertise or interest, one thing led to another, and boom – CIO.  Larry Rocha at WATG.  Ken Young at HOK.  Even Joseph Joseph of Gensler, with a deep IT background, started as an Architect.

If you consider the timelines involved, it makes sense.  While our industry didn’t accept the shift to digital as quickly as some others, once the ball started rolling, it started rolling quickly.  In a rush to catch up/get current, firms first looked internally for whoever had even a basic understanding of pcs, servers, and networking.  I’ve heard stories of people being tapped on the shoulder just due to their knowledge of WordPerfect.

It worked for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, these trailblazers were already familiar with the unique culture of design firms. Second, their knowledge of the business allowed for close alignment of technology with firm leadership. Maybe not all spending was optimal, maybe there were skinned knees from the learning process, but it was an effective, practical solution.  This differs significantly from other support groups such as HR or Accounting.

The downside – if there was one – is that people were needing to learn a new career from scratch.  They had gone to school to be Architects, and now a significantly different path lay before them.  For many instances where technology was truly someone’s passion, I’m sure there were those who accepted the role because it was a safe landing space for continued employment.  For some, with a decent-sized pay raise.

These leaders – predominantly white and male – just a side note – started entering into their 50s and 60s in the 2010s.  As they transition into (happy!) retirement, firms now have a wider range of choices for their replacements.

The good news is that we are now seeing the first wave of “pure” technical professionals.  Those who always intended to have a career in technology.  Those who have an existing knowledge base accompanied with a passion for the work.  And in many cases, they can still come from within AED firms.  If we consider the Larry Rochas of the world as Gen 1 CIOs, the time is now for Gen 2.  IT from the ground up.

The pluses are that there will be a deep understanding of technology, the ability to discern cutting edge from bleeding edge, the ability to implement and manage with a lessened reliance on external contractors.  And if they’ve spent their career supporting designers, they’ll understand the culture and the business.

However, even with a common culture, firms have their individual quirks.  One of these is the perception of support groups vs. the designers.  I’ve worked with firms that considered support groups to be monolithic, faceless automatons that just get replaced as needed.  Only the voices of designers held any weight whatsoever.  If this is your firm, a “pure” IT CIO will struggle to achieve that which a “hybrid” CIO can do – even if the hybrid CIO is demonstrably worse – due to the oversized emphasis on a design background.

I’m not passing judgement on that per se; as one of the Morlocks, it’s easier to see that stratification.  Every firm is different.  But I would contend that firms that can promote that pure IT leader – the Gen 2 – will benefit from it.  As much as Gen 1 was critical for the evolution, Gen 2 will be as the Internet Age matures.

 

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WfH in AED – fun while it lasted?

TEN months ago, I did a web panel with four AED leaders from various-sized firms about their approach to Covid and the work-from-home ramifications. The video can still be found here.

The takeaways from that call – and from what we’ve heard in the months since – is that firms expect the WfH / Flex split to continue on, post-covid. The primary reasons given are:

  1. Talent Attraction/Retention. Quite often, especially in major markets, finding high-end, experienced staff can be a challenge. The ability to offer WfH can both attract potential recruits, and to keep existing staff happy.
  2. Productivity. Productivity – at least that which can be measured – didn’t seem to suffer much. I think the jury is still out in terms of individual’s productivity levels, but especially from a production standpoint, it was same-as if not better.
  3. Office Space. The only thing firms spend more on more than IT are staff and space. With WfH, there’s a current of “can we shrink our floorplan” and “if we do a every-other rotation, can we use hotel stations at half the existing number?”.

A very small number of our clients have defined plans in terms of who comes back, when, and in what manner. We have achieved a technical equilibrium, for the most part, for home users. It really is now about people and process.

THAT’S where everything falls apart. In the panel conversation, I’m pretty clear that I don’t think WfH works in a collaborative environment. For Architects and Designers (and yes, you too Engineers), that is essentially the work product. The requirement for effective collaboration to produce excellent work isn’t uncommon in professional services, but the A/E/D space relies on it *much* more heavily than say, insurance, legal, or other service types.

I’ve found over the years that AED firms aren’t much on “soft costs” – natural, given their constant adherence to project budgets. But that collaboration requirement goes beyond an undefinable metric. A firm’s ability to execute collaboration well can be a make-or-break component.

There’s a reason why studios are clustered physically in offices. There’s a reason why clients pay for first-class tickets to get everyone into a charrette. There’s a reason why the predominant seating layout is a U-shape with an A0 or A1 sized flat-top cabinet in the middle. Because we know, at some instinctive level, that close teams create better work. That the “magic spark” of great design can not only sprout from a single talented designer, but from a team all standing around a set of plans.

But with understanding that, and missing that, it may not be the biggest obstacle to a long-term WfH flex.

THE biggest deciding factor may be the unwillingness of leadership and project managers to take on the headache of managing remote teams.

Let’s be honest – it is just harder. I’ve been doing it for a long time and I’m still Very Bad at it (though last year, I was Terrible, so improvement!). Harder to communicate. Harder to review. Harder to engage. Harder to gauge productivity.

Architects and Engineers are extremely conservative in terms of approaching change in the industry – see “years to adopt CAD” and “years to adopt Revit”. This is the classic case of we know what works vs. what we’re still unsure of. Don’t underestimate that rip curl of thought in the company.

BUT Mike, you protest, what about tech? What about A/R V/R X/R drones and 3d printers and all the other twenty-first century tech? Why can’t we recreate the office virtually?

Two reasons. First – the tech isn’t there yet, and honestly, not even close. There’s few offerings now – The Wild is one of the few that look promising- but as much as a leader it can be, we’re still below achieving 50% of that in-person experience.

Second – and this is a hard truth – I apologize in advance – but leadership in A/E/D *loves* shiny things. Where that comes from – and I suspect it may be in part due to the Keeping Up with the Joneses effect – contrasts a bit with their normal conservatism. If I had a dollar for every dusty laser cutter, 3D printer, VR station, VR goggles, I’d have… a lot of dollars. Which is not to say the tech can’t be effectual. It’s just that the shiny-shiny aspect of a tool isn’t always matched by the necessary level of effort, support and training to *make* it effectual.

BOTTOM line – We will ease back into normal work conditions in much the same way we eased out of them. All it takes is a few key firms making the decision to bring everyone back, and the rest will follow suit. Hotel stations are a horrible idea that sounds great but never works in practice. Managers (and staff) don’t want the continual exhaustion of Teams meetings. And if the decrease in collaboration capability hasn’t shown itself yet, it certainly will in time.

Once leadership feels they won’t lose staff due to the Great Come-Back, they’ll accelerate. Then pressure (of various sorts) will be placed on those not coming into the office, even if “technically” allowed. Or people will be offered a choice to accept a remote/flex position, but at a significant pay cut.

And I’m not criticizing this in any way. It is what the industry is. But 10 months from today, the 50/50 worker will be the exception, not the norm.

Tell me why I’m wrong. I probably am. 🙂

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Security in the AED industry

I’ve been doing IT for a long time – a healthy chunk of that within the AED industry. There’s a bunch of variances that set apart the AED world, both within IT and without.

One of my favorites is how open most firms are. They’re open internally – “we want all staff to be able to see all projects” and they’re open externally – “sure, yes, let’s share what worked or didn’t work with them”.

A deeply cynical person might say that these are due to the desire to easily shift labor resources around, and to maintain the “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses” culture that’s fairly prevalent.

But as cynical as I am (I make Diogenes look like an optimist), I don’t buy those reasons. Leadership I’ve dealt with do want to make project information widely available, for all sorts of reasons. They do want staff seeing different approaches, different methodologies. Hell, many firms spend thousands every year sending people to Knowledge Management conferences, which, to be honest, I *am* deeply cynical about.

They do enjoy sharing information with other firms. The associations I’ve been part of – AECIT, LFRT, etc., have been a great resource due in large part to the willingness of firms to be open about things other industries would jealously guard.

I am going to make some general statements here. They’re all worthy of commentary in and of themselves, but here, they’re just laying the context for the security vs ease of access conversation.

  1. Most firms follow a traditional career ladder system, where leadership is comprised of older (50+) staff.
  2. Those who were born prior to the Internet, in general, have a harder time adjusting to new/different technology.
  3. C-suite individuals, whether in AED or other verticals, have a bottom-line approach and don’t like to be mired down or impeded when trying to do their job.
  4. AED firms tend to govern by consensus rather than mandate. (Engineering firms are a *bit* more ok with mandates than Architects/Designers, but not by much.)

Just putting those out there. There is no judgement attached, but if you disagree with me, please let me know – I’m always keen to hear other takes.

For the first 10-15 years I spent in AED IT, nobody really cared about security. Let’s be honest. Do we have the basics covered? Yup? Ok. Moving on. Any security discussions were had post-event, never before. And if they did, they were brought up by IT, not leadership. The problem was, that proactive conversation was always had a cost component (we need better A/V-Backups-Firewalls-etc). And explaining how big a risk there is between using Defender ATP vs. Webroot is *really* hard to explain, let alone explaining that doubling your expense is worth it.

So firms would be lax on anti-virus, and then there’d be a virus, and then the anti-virus would be an important expense. And then there’d be a virus from email, so anti-spam/email anti-virus became a big deal. But in general, when IT expenses result in *soft cost* savings rather than *bottom line* savings, it is hard to get AED leadership on board. Which I don’t think is purely unique to AED, but when you’re dealing with people who *always* think about the bottom line, project budgets, profitability, resource planning – the concept of soft costs is even a bit more ethereal.

But that has changed in the last five years, just a bit, and *really* has changed in the last two years.

Obviously, the anonymity Bitcoin provides is part of it, but really the explosion came with the massive increase of Office 365 migrations. When email is hosted with Microsoft, it is very easy to just attempt to log in as a user. *Everyone* gets their webmail by going to outlook.office.com.

So if your work email is floating around out there – be it one scraped off the company website, or one used on a different site that was breached – the attackers now have 2 of the three items necessary to get into your mailbox. 1) “where” it is on the internet. 2) your username. The last third comes down to your password. As you might expect, this is not as hard as you might expect. The need for dozens of accounts for various websites means people keep passwords simple, keep passwords for a long time, and use the same passwords on a bunch of different sites.

This is why MFA (multi-factor authentication) is an *absolute* must have. No discussion. No “but this, but that”. No. Shoosh. But across our industry, IT continues to run into roadblocks concerning MFA and security in general.

There is a one-to-one correlation between security and ease of access. A great example of this is MFA. Before it was, go to website, punch in username/password, hit go. Now it is go to website, punch in userinfo/password, get an MFA prompt, get your phone out, get a code, punch the code into the site, and go. There’s a dozen variations on that, but it can be a hassle.

This goes into all aspects of internal security as well. Restrictive permissions on a project? “Why can’t I go there?” Requiring passwords on file links sent via email? “Why can’t they just click it?” As security increases, access decreases. To increase ease of access, you lower security.

The true trick, the true slight of hand for IT, is to attempt to increase security to a decent level with the minimum of headache for end users. Because there isn’t a lot of buy-in, especially at the leadership level. Yes, you can implement MFA, but not for the C-suite. Well – they’re the ones who need it most. I can cite a dozen instances over the last two years where firms have lost money due to impersonation via email.

So if you are in leadership, please take these suggestions onboard.

  1. Set the example. It is hard enough to enforce security measures of any stripe if others know you’ve decided to ignore it.
  2. Understand that email impersonation fraud is the #1 risk right now. If hackers encrypt your files, you can go get backups (or pay them off). There is *no* backup of your bank account.
  3. Many of the frauds that occur happen because there is no secondary verification. Almost all of the frauds are “this is urgent, I need this asap!” requests. Train your staff that when any email is received with a nonstandard request regarding money in any way, especially if it is urgent, to have them *call* the originator. It takes ten seconds. If it is a legitimate request, it shouldn’t bother the requestor. Another step? Yes. Important? Very.

For the AED IT folks:

  1. Don’t give up when security is concerned. Your obligation is to the best interests of the firm, and if that means sounding like a broken record, so be it.
  2. Try to right-size your security stance with what your firm does. Firms with DoD contracts, for instance, will require a unique posture.
  3. Don’t stop with MFA. There are many items you can take to increase your O365 security, not the least of which are Conditional Access rules and some other fairly straightforward policies which don’t necessarily impact end users directly.

 

In summary – I think everyone gets it. We work in a culture that strongly values openness and sharing of information. But we need to figure out together how to accomplish that while still protecting the firms we work for. If that means another 10 seconds out of your day, or a small fractional increase of the IT spend, so be it.

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