Keeping It Collaborative: How a design firm based in collaboration works from afar

In a firm where our success is all about collaboration, how do we deal with forced distancing?  When our day-to-day business is filled with team meetings, putting together physical finishes and materials, and sketching together on plans to create consumer experiences, how do we fill that interactive black hole?

The first major ground rule is to use interactive technology to actually (gasp) talk to each other.  When you’re remote, e-mail is not your friend.  You must use your words and your voice.  Going back and forth via e-mail alone will squelch your already limited productivity.

Set Standards

Setting standards and expectations is key to making distanced collaborative work… Well, work. Things need to operate exactly like we’re all in the office together—except, we’re not. It’s important to establish daily and weekly goals so that there’s a system of joint accountability in place, and everyone knows what’s expected of them and their teammates.

Another basic? Make sure your system is set up so that people can work remotely without a major disruption—expand the server capacity, ensure employees can utilize technology with MACs and PCs, put remote desktop capabilities in place, equip team members with laptops and VPNs that can connect to the office. This is really about knowing exactly what your firm needs to succeed—in Shea’s case, this includes special Revit and Enscape licenses, programs for designing collaboratively.

Utilize Tech to Make Virtual Meetings Seamless

You don’t want to waste the first 30 minutes of each meeting setting up the technology, so use tools that are simple, intuitive, and easily available to everyone—and, if possible, ones that you use in day-to-day work life as well. Products like Microsoft Teams, Slack, Zoom, and other messaging apps offer lots of resources for employees. They can be as simple as an employee directory so that everyone can get ahold of one another easily and have group chats based on each project, or as in-depth as having channels for each project team to discuss and share visuals, by sending photos or screen-sharing.

To that end, screen-sharing and actually seeing each other is incredibly important. As much as we all hate the oh-so-flattering computer cameras, “eye contact” is a must when working with your internal team.

Newer tools make remote design easier, even when you have several people working on one project together. MS Whiteboard is essentially a virtual whiteboard canvas that allows for real-time sketching on an image, and also helps for sharing sensing images. Bluebeam team studio lets teams mark up and annotate PDFs in real time, so they can take notes and scribble ideas during meetings.

Keep In Touch

Open communication is the only way that remote officing works for any business, but for a collaborative, creative one, it’s especially important. Do daily team conference call check-ins, even if it’s a short call, to force voice communication.  It’s amazing how productive actually talking can be (and maybe it will be a lesson to rely on e-mail less when we all return to normal).

The same tech innovations mentioned above also allow instant communication between team members, and tools like OneNote bring thoughts together and let teams share meeting notes, checklists, and more in real time, where everyone can contribute.

It’s also vital, of course, for teams to be keeping in touch with clients. This can mean phone or conference calls, GoToMeetings with screen-sharing—whatever makes the client comfortable. As a collaborative firm heavily focused on client service, Shea never slacks when it comes to being responsive and solving problems in the most efficient manner. We get creative, whether it’s video-chatting with clients to maintain that personal connection, building conference calls to get all the players in one place, or sending and editing decks as many times as it takes to get things just right.

The Physical Parts

Of course, as a design firm, there are some tricky parts—what do we do about physical materials, like finish samples, furniture deliveries and installs, and meeting with vendors? Design is very much about how things feel and the overall environment.

This is where we have to go to actual interaction, one-on-one or in (very) small groups.  Schedule visits judiciously, or video chat for a walkthrough of an actual site.  And physical materials still need a physical touch, so it may mean keeping the courier services busier than normal, or scheduling times for people to be in the office on a smaller scale.

Stay Creative—and Remember to Celebrate the Everyday

People know that they’re working, and it’s not a day off—but still encourage workers to take short walks, take a lunch break and video chat each other (our group is using Facetime and group chatting through the crossword puzzles they usually do in our lounge daily, and doing virtual happy hours to stay connected), and check in with coworkers to keep each other up to date on non-work news as well

Shea is a firm that thrives on absorbing the world around us to inspire—when the element of person-to-person interaction is taken away, it’s important to keep the brain engaged and fresh.  Share inspirations and don’t forget we’ll all be out there again soon traveling and exploring.

Cash In On Your Trust

Key to remote work is being able to trust your employees—that their work will be done to the same exceptional standards as it would be in the office. This doesn’t mean babysitting. It means staying connected to everyone’s progress, participating in creating the best product, and not micro-managing with back-and-forth e-mail. When this trust is in place, the work gets done as well as it can, and it frees managers to spend time where it counts the most. At Shea, we know our team is dedicated to producing nothing but the best, and our focus on our clients doesn’t shift just because we can’t all be together right now.