The hybrid model seems to be here to stay, but firms will need to strengthen their design, social, and professional development activities to keep their practices engaging.
After passing the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, FXCollaborative, like many other architecture practices, continued to innovate and evolve our thinking on how to design collaboratively, grow professionally, and sustain our social equity initiatives. We are constantly being tested in our assumptions and our follow-through as the course of the virus changes.
Most recently, during the Omicron surge, we pivoted back to a fully remote work model for a few weeks to stem the tide and not contribute to the burden on the healthcare system. We’ve been back in the office since February 7, operating under our hybrid work model. Our expanded range of technologies allow us this flexibility, while our commitment to create inspiring work for our clients is unwavering.
When this all began in March of 2020, we adapted at warp speed to a fully remote work modality. We quickly embraced new digital tools for collaboration and communication and found a way to make it all work. Using video conferencing and project management and collaboration tools day-to-day, visual collaboration software, advanced modeling, and AR/VR technologies, many people felt that they were more efficient and effective than ever before, but there was something missing. With the technology learning curve flattened and the acute response abating, we can acknowledge that technology is powerful and we have an expanded tool box to work with – but there is no replacing face-to-face interactions for collaboration, communication, knowledge sharing, and opportunities for professional growth. Like many other firms, from the day we closed our doors and people scattered across the country, we were concerned about our culture and community. We understand that our creative and passionate designers and managers are essential to our success. With a people-first focus, our new mission was to bring everyone back together safely and redefine the work process so we can continue to design spaces, buildings, and urban landscapes that we all want to live in.
The challenge we faced was to determine what kind of an environment we could create with a hybrid workplace policy. We needed to respect individuals’ health and wellbeing, both physical and emotional. We also had to recognize that each person has a different personal and professional situation. We have a diverse population, with people at all different stages of their careers, different household demands, and different community responsibilities. These differences needed to be considered as we asked everyone to come together and bring their best selves to their work.
Hybrid design benefits. The hybrid work model has instilled more rigor in our design process, but it is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Just as each of our design solutions is a result of unique criteria and circumstances, each design team must define a work process that is appropriate for their projects. How often the team comes together, the duration of the interactions, and whether they are virtual or in-person, is defined and agreed to by all the team members. It is a process that is adaptable to the building typology, client demands, and team composition. The cadence and duration of these interactions evolve as the design takes shape. Fluidity and structure are counterbalanced to support creativity.
Confirmation. What we have learned over time confirms our initial belief that the collective office experience enhances and improves our design thinking, wellbeing, and professional development. Time with colleagues is valuable to sustaining the culture and cohesion of the firm and the quality of our work. The regular patterns of people coming to the office has given us a planning framework for collective activities that we will be rolling out this year, including in-person office meetings and celebrations related to design achievements and our employee resource groups/diversity initiatives. Many of these activities were curtailed in 2020, but now it is essential to provide engaging opportunities for people to come back together. Our most recent office survey demonstrated an evolution of thinking from an individual-centric hybrid work modality to a more office-centric one. The pendulum is swinging from a question of what is best for me as an individual to what is best for a collective, creative team. Moments of serendipity within the office setting are so important to spark new ideas and reinvigorate our design thinking. The social interactions, casual lunches, sketch crawls, and studio- and office-wide celebrations take on additional value when we are not all together all the time. As the imminent threat to people’s health abates, we believe the hybrid model will remain, but each firm will need to strengthen the collective design, social, and professional development activities to keep their practices vibrant and engaging.
Heidi Blau, FAIA, LEED AP is a partner and chief operations officer at FXCollaborative. Connect with her on LinkedIn.