These randomly scheduled missives will opine on a variety of topics, mostly intended to be germane to design, construction, capital program management, and other related issues.

For shorter trips through the countryside, take a look at our blog, also called Notes from the Road.
Notes from the Road

May 2012

Are you Virtually Working?

or are you working virtually?

I might use the topic to discuss my pet peeve about the misuse of the many related adverbs – literally, essentially, practically, figuratively or even actually; but I won’t.  I’ll try to address the subject as it legitimately relates to our business.

Many years agoMichael Krus, a good friend in Toronto, after a time of paying dues to other architects and interior designers, struck out on his own with a partner – forming his own company.  The thing of it was, they had no shared office.  Meetings with clients (and they had some) would always happen at the client’s location.  Michael would take phone calls either at his house or on his cell phone via a call-forwarding service offered by the telephone company.  The two partners produced documents in whatever expeditious manner got the job done.

At the time, I was invested in the conventional notions of what represented quality ‘professional’ service, and (secretly – he was a friend after all) I saw their approach as minor league.  In hindsight, I was wrong.  These two resourceful guys were at the front of a major trend influencing our business and many others.  He succeeded in many ways.

Then it was my turn

When I hung out my No Left Turn shingle, I knew that I intended to work without the trappings of a large company (LLC notwithstanding); but, I had to have ‘presence’.  There are two of us, we work at it, and we like to think there’s substance behind the impression we impart using as many tools as we are capable of.  You can judge if we’re succeeding.

However, there’s more.  A couple of years ago, my friend Mark Heroux approached me to become a collaborating partner of Performance Resource Partners.  He had taken Michael’s approach from years ago, and brought it up to date:

  • There are seven of us – Mark is managing partner, and the rest of us are collaborating partners.
  • We communicate regularly via teleconferencing, video conferencing, and web conferencing.
  • We assemble ourselves and devote time to projects, tailored to the specific needs of the assignment.
  • We draw our clients into the technology, when appropriate, by using communication tools in lieu of face-to-face meetings.
  • We rely on cloud-based productivity software for e-mail, scheduling, and document exchange.
  • And we’re tethered to our electronic leashes, AKA ‘smart’ phones.

attitudes are changing

Performance Resource Partners learned something we now believe essential to our approach.  Initially, we were concerned the apparent professionalism of our collaboration worked, since many of our competitors operate more traditionally.  However, independent interviews have told us our approach is viewed as valuable ‘custom tailoring’ – where clients get exactly what they need.  They also recognize the financial benefits of consultants who work with less overhead.

Other business colleagues see benefits as well.  For example, I recently met a financial analyst who had two affiliations, and was looking for one more.  The ‘day’ job entailed minding the store for a builder/developer, while her ‘virtual’ job involved doing due-diligence financial analysis of property acquisitions with a group selling consulting services to real estate investors and commercial enterprises.  She wanted another element of diversity that might only be possible as part of another ‘virtual’ company.

this is not just for the little people

In certain ways, some large corporations have been doing this for decades, while most others are now adapting.

For example, large accounting firms have long had work pool areas for their field audit staff.  They were minimal and impersonal – large rooms with rows of tables and banks of lockers.  I know – I designed some of them.

Now, most organizations and businesses have had to accommodate the physical absence of many components.  Paper has been replaced by electronic files.  E-mail is no longer on servers down the hall.  Moreover, the people can be anywhere.  The fact that many places are migrating away from enclosed offices to clustered work stations, I suspect has been partially instigated by this trend to informal, flexible working conditions.

Some of the jargon is entertaining.  The first time I heard someone talk about ‘free range’ offices, I had images of organic chickens.  It does, however. have another meaning; and refers to the maturation of the formerly sterile open offices of yesteryear.  A 2007 study compared the productivity of conventional offices to these ‘free range’ offices.  Does ‘working in the cloud’ seem like an air-headed notion to you?  Possibly not.

In any event, there’s an emerging coterie of consultants and contractors anxious to help with evaluations of the workplace.  Architects, Interior Designers, Construction Professionals, Information Technology consultants, Human Resource Managers, and Business Consultants are all obliged to be aware of future needs.  I’m no different.  Being in the office management and capital program consulting business, I have to be conversant.

two aspects
  • How we do business

Since we are all seeking to excel in our fields, learning about and appreciating the nuances of the ‘virtual’ work environment is essential.  The new forms of communication, the evolving ethics of the workplace, and the productivity advantages of many of the futuristic tools of the trade are all instrumental in our success.  Also essential is an appreciation of the risks, deficiencies, and pitfalls of this new environment.

  • How we serve clients in their business

For many of us, THEIR business, of course, is OUR business.  We design things, build things, and maintain things – things that have a new imperative in the environments we are molding.

But, that’s not all.  We advise, consult, and manage the human interactions extant in the workplace.  In many respects, we are the enablers for much of the essential interplay between invisible systems, teleported people, and conventional worker bees.  We need to know how to make it happen, both today and for a reasonably projected period.

some challenges

They’re varied.  For instance:

  • Technology

A recent discussion is timely.  I was at the Archibus International Users Conference, a major player in Computer Assisted Facilities Management (CAFM) and Computerized Maintenance Management Software (CMMS), and scores of users were haranguing the vendor’s representatives to enable functionality of the software on iPads.  Yes, wireless tablet connectivity is now seen as essential by many facilities organizations.

Quick Response (QR) codes, invented by Toyota to track vehicles during manufacturing, are now being plastered on the sides of building equipment, so maintenance people might have quick access to maintenance and operating information on their smart phones.

The speed with which these things happen challenges even the geekiest of our trades.

  • Infrastructure

Power sources (especially relevant in LEED© certified buildings), cabling requirements, provisions for adaptability, space conditioning requirements, hardware, and devices – these are all critical to the functionality of the systems viability, and needed to enable the ‘virtual’ collaborations we’re finding in this evolution.  Isn’t it interesting, by the way, how much work must be done to accommodate people and systems that sit elsewhere?

  • Personnel development
It used to be that staff training and development were often the result of a close personal and physical connection between mentor and mentee.  The ‘virtual’ connection, however, changes that traditional dynamic.  I suspect we’ll experiment with new and different ways to cultivate those at the lower end of the totem pole.
  • Education
This is not just a workplace issue.  Free massively open online courses, or MOOCs are now offered to hundreds of thousands of students from elite Universities around the world.  The recent announcement of edX by Harvard and MIT was major headline stuff at the New York Times.  We may be training people in how NOT to come to work.
  • Productivity
Old timers often have trouble adapting to the inability to directly observe the personal work habits of coworkers and subordinates.  Even when productivity seemed low, knowing that staff were ‘at their desks’ was somehow reassuring.  What, then, could be said about the appropriate measures to put on people who aren’t there?  I don’t foresee the workplace equivalent to nanny-cams, but traditional preferences are challenged.
  • Compensation
Similarly, how should ‘virtual’ employees be paid?  Is it all on the honor system, or will we find ourselves reverting to ‘piecework’ compensation?  The Department of Labor is now issuing interpretations about employers’ obligations to ‘Teleworkers’, but certainly this will evolve.

Are you prepared?

I think getting on board may be the only viable option – unless, of course, you enjoy life at the station.  Whether it’s face to face, or pixel to pixel, we’ll be meeting soon.  We’re virtually there.

Missed earlier newsletters? Find them here:

March 2012  “Your Huddled Masses”
January 2012  “Observing Observations”
October 2011  “I Want What I Want”
August 2011  “A Beach Read”
May 2011  “NeoLuddite or Technophile?”
March 2011  “Do Your Silos Leak?”
January 2011  “Plan to Live Forever!”
November 2010  “May I Have A Plan, Master?”
September 2010  “How do we choose?”
July 2010  “Good People Behaving Badly”
May 2010  “LEED: LEADing or Dead Weight?”
March 2010  “Why does it cost so much?”
January 2010 “Design/Builders show us your softer side.”
November 2009 “What the Facilities?”
September 2009 “Why Do Architects Make Good Owner’s Reps?”

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