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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