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March 12, 2020

Designing alone: Local firms let employees work from home amid coronavirus outbreak

Special to the Journal

Photo from ZGF Architects [enlarge]
At ZGF Architects’ Seattle office, workers have the option of telecommuting or coming to work during the coronavirus outbreak.

When Jed Miller heads to the office, he isn't worried about coronavirus.

Commuting down a flight of stairs in his Shoreline home to an 800-square-foot office means that Miller, an architect, can focus on the job at hand and not on the fear of catching the virus.

“I think it's human nature to panic in a situation like this,” Miller said, referring to the coronavirus outbreak. “I'm kind of immune to that.”

As a principal with Casa Architecture and Interior Design, Miller collaborates — online and occasionally in-person — with another Seattle architect who also works from home. “We're both experienced and we know what to do and how to do it,” he said.

While Miller remains an advocate of what he calls “decentralizing” the workforce by working from home, many local architecture and engineering firms thrive on the creative connectivity of designers working under one roof.

But in the last month, with the spread of the coronavirus and escalating fears of a pandemic, firms have been challenged to rethink their policy of requiring designers and staff to work at the office.

Some firm principals say the coronavirus represents a tipping point in employers' attitudes toward allowing designers to work remotely, while others believe the work-from-home model is less productive and should be only a temporary solution.

Several firms contacted for this article declined to comment in depth on the effects coronavirus has had on their workplaces, but they reported that they are allowing employees to work from home.

That is the case at Seattle architecture firm The Miller Hull Partnership, where workers have the option of staying home during the coronavirus outbreak.

“We'll support anybody who wants to work from home until this (outbreak) is over or until it starts to go away,” said Ron Rochon, managing partner at Miller Hull. “It's left up to everybody's personal discretion. We ask that they check in daily and be available during business hours.”

Like most firms, Miller Hull is adhering to Public Health — Seattle & King County guidelines for workplace practices during the coronavirus outbreak. Anyone, for example, who knows someone with coronavirus should not come to work, Rochon said. Designers and staff are also not required to travel for work.

So far, Rochon said just two of Miller Hull's 85 employees have elected to work from home.

Most large meetings with clients have been canceled at the firm due to coronavirus fears, Rochon said. Instead, he said designers have made use of video conferences and teleconferences with clients.

“It's definitely better to have meetings in-person, but we are doing whatever we need to continue to get our work done and get through this outbreak,” he said.

Relying on technology

Artisans Group, an architecture firm based in Olympia, has been gearing up for a potential coronavirus outbreak in Thurston County, according to principal Tessa Smith.

“We've prepared all our employees to work from their homes, within an hour or two notice,” said Smith. “We've been talking about that contingency for a couple weeks.”

She said if there are reports of “more than a few” cases of coronavirus in Thurston County, her staff can quickly move workloads from the office to their homes.

“We already have a flexible company culture,” Smith said, referring to designers occasionally working from home. “So we're set up for having our employees work from home.”

Like most firms, Artisans Group leverages technology to make working from home easier. Video conferences are done on the Zoom platform and each designer has Revit and Bluebeam, architectural software programs, on their home computers.

“If we use Zoom, we can all be looking at a design and make real-time changes,” she said.

Still, Smith said there is a creative advantage to having designers together in close quarters — a phenomenon that she and others said can't be replicated online.

At ZGF Architects' Seattle office, managing partner Todd Stine said some employees have elected to work from home.

But, Stine said, it's better when ZGF designers can collaborate in person due the firm's multiple-designer approach to projects. “The primary challenge is that our project work is team-based,” he said.

In addition, Stine said having designers work from home using the firm's network raises technical issues for ZGF and puts a strain on the firm's available bandwidth.

“The types of software we use require robust network connectivity,” he said. “Certainly, the increased use of our VPN connection is testing our bandwidth capacity. Our IT team is monitoring it closely to ensure that our productivity remains high.”

With the impact coronavirus has had on encouraging workers to telecommute, Stine said there are questions in the architecture community about whether it will be a permanently disruptive influence on the workplace.

“There's already been some speculation about whether the telework policies implemented by some of the region's most prominent companies will normalize telecommuting for the rest of us,” said Stine. “If so, that may or may not create a sea change in how office environments are designed. My sense, however, is that when we emerge from this crisis, workers from a variety of industries will continue to recognize the value of consistent daily in-person interactions with their colleagues, which the best collaboration and videoconferencing software can't yet replicate.”

Doug Demers, senior managing principal at B+H Architects in Seattle, said his employees are allowed to work from home during the coronavirus outbreak.

Working from home, Demers said, “is always a challenge for design firms — as collaborative and creative activities are often team sports. But our employees' health and well-being is always our higher priority and we have the technology to support a variety of working approaches — including working from home.”

Demers added that improvement in connectivity and cloud-based tools has allowed even more complex building-information models to be accessed remotely. He said B+H's Seattle studio, for the last seven years, has “been committed to an entirely laptop- or tablet-based practice that would allow people to work from wherever.”

For Joseph Greif of Greif Architects, having a small office in downtown Seattle means he can accommodate clients in his conference room. But he said the four-person firm is increasingly open to allowing employees to work from home.

“I see working from home more as the new normal going forward,” said Greif. “I'll probably continue to allow it because our staff can be more productive and work at home at their own pace.”

Nevertheless, Greif said “It's kind of fun to start a project by brainstorming” with fellow designers in person. In addition to challenging attitudes about working from home, the coronavirus has meant postponement of many spring-season architecture events around the globe.

In New York City, the Architectural Digest Design Show was pushed from March 19-22 to June 25-28. In Seattle, the Women's Transportation Seminar Annual Awards and Scholarship Gala was postponed until June 11. And this week's 11th annual Passive House Northwest Conference in Seattle was canceled — an event that Smith said she and her Artisans Group design team were hoping to attend.

Whether the coronavirus will be the prelude to a recession is still unknown. Rochon said he expects that steel and cement supplies from China will be interrupted and could slow construction.

Greif said he's “nervous” about the potential that clients could back out of building plans if the economy falters.

But for Miller, whose specialty is residential architecture, there are “no signs of slowing” in terms of his business.

“What's happening now is a panic situation,” Miller said, referring to the coronavirus and slowdown of the economy. “It's a knee-jerk situation. I'm keeping very focused. Working from home isn't great for everybody, but it works for me.”

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