MEDIA

How CO Architects Transitioned a 110+ Team to Work From Home

This is an adapted interview between Sean Joyner and Scott Kelsey, originally published on Archinect on April 1, 2020.

Team meeting before COVID-19

In this discussion, from Thursday, March 19th, I connected with Scott Kelsey, FAIA, the managing principal over at CO Architects to discuss how he and the rest of the leadership at the Los Angeles-based practice navigated this rapid call to transition the 110+ person team to a fully remote operation. We discuss everything from the emotional management of the staff, to lessons learned, to expectations for the future.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with me, Scott. Maybe we could start with how many people you have over at CO Architects.

Our office is about 122, of the 122, we have about six people in our San Diego office and there are another half-dozen people that work in different locations of the country. We have employees in Washington State, Arkansas, and Portland, Oregon. So we have some far-flung people that are employees. There’s maybe about 12ish people who work in different locations on a full-time basis and the other 110 or so are here in Los Angeles.

I imagine it was a challenge for the leadership to transition a team of this size so quickly. How did you facilitate shifting the team to remote?

For starters, I’d say we’ve always deployed a certain amount of “working from home” — either for individual employees, or for mothers or fathers who want to be able to work from home for some duration of time. That could be because of home care or people just want to, from time to time, engage from home. On the other hand, getting all of our project teams in a work from home model was something that came at us very fast. I think for us it was planning real-time as quickly as the situation evolved. When we saw it coming, first we said, OK, let’s make sure that our office infrastructure allows our teams to effectively connect from home. And there’s a whole issue about what does “effectively” mean.

CO Architects at work, before the COVID-19 pandemic

We surveyed what people’s working methodology was: whether it’s a desktop or laptop, for example. We looked at what they had at home versus what they had in the office. And so we spent quite a bit of time thinking through that about a week and a half ago. Obviously, we have big teams and big projects. One of the real issues that we were wrestling with is how remote teams can work in different home locations. They can mirror their desktops interface with the server and be able to work with the Revit model real-time as well as with the consultants. And so that was a study in and of itself led by my partner, Eyal Perchik. He spent quite a bit of time with, along with two other I.T. people in the office.

We simply told everybody that we’re moving towards voluntary work from home and basically the majority of people said they wanted to do it. It then organically moved very fast and we were just troubleshooting it on the fly. And, to be honest with you, in a period of about basically seven days, we’ve worked through a lot of technical issues. And I would say as of today, I’m hearing good reports that the teams are working pretty effectively. They’re not having significant issues with speed or access to the model. As well, we’re deploying a lot of the technologies like Slack and GoToMeeting in a way that we never have. We’ve set up Slack channels for teams where people are communicating real-time, all the time.

We’re presenting information so that the teams feel connected and they’re accountable to each other because our deadlines really aren’t changing. I am pleased to report that it’s been challenging, but it hasn’t been chaotic. Obviously, individuals who have young families are trying to figure out their childcare in conjunction with work and home. They had to set up their home office really fast. Some are working on a kitchen table. Some have a desk. Everybody has a different set of circumstances. We bought another dozen laptops, but we’ve had a fair number of people already work on laptops. So, you know, so far so good. It’s a work in progress.

I love hearing those positive reports, and especially when we see a lot of negativity during this time. So that’s great. Especially for a firm of your size, it’s good to hear.

One of our teams is close to 25 people working on one project. We do have an office intranet called COnnect. So there’s a lot of sharing going on on our office intranet and a lot of sharing going on on Slack. I have deployed weekly, if not twice weekly, town halls with the whole office where I and others report what’s going on, what’s changing and what’s our response. We want our community to understand what we’re doing. So for us, it’s about really over-communicating. We’re just communicating as much as we can and as often as we can. We want to have as much transparency so that everybody knows what’s happening. And I think our emphasis first and foremost is saying to everybody, your personal safety, your family and your significant other, that’s key to us. And so you have to make the right decisions and you’ve got to be a responsible member of this community in what we’re dealing with. And that’s the first priority. And the second priority is to make sure that you’re a fully functioning member of the office and the team and your work.

So it sounds like the staff has been responding favorably given the positive reports?

Yes. Things happened quickly and was so crazy in such a short time. Our management committee was literally meeting every day to talk about what we were hearing or what we should be doing. And then once we made a decision, we were communicating back out to the office and saying, OK, we’re adjusting, we’re readjusting. So we kept sharing as we heard things. And obviously, people are nervous and a little fearful. But at the same time, I think that we believe that the more we continue to be open and direct and exchange as much as we can, that it makes people feel more comfortable with what’s going on. Because we’re trying to stay calm and focused amongst this chaos around us. So, I think in general, people appreciate that and people have a pretty positive attitude. There’s some good humor going on in the office and people are trying to team up and share different perspectives. It’s interesting, these different ways we communicate and people get really creative with the new techniques. So we’re trying to make as much out of this as we can.

We’ve been talking to a lot of people just trying to learn more. And when you talk to some employees, they express their uneasiness with their leadership. Sometimes they’re kept in the dark and so it makes sense that your approach of transparency would put the team at ease.

We think so. We had a meeting with the whole office on Monday [March 9, 2020]. So the week before, we connected with 100 people in the office and on the following Sunday, we sent out a note and we said everybody needs to be voluntarily working from home, you’re 100 percent free to do that and we’re gonna figure this out together. By that Monday [March 16, 2020]., we had a team meeting in the office and there were 50 people in the office. The population went down by 50. Today in the office, Thursday [March 19, 2020], there are about 10 people. The office is so big that at this point in time, we’re really, well, socially distanced apart. You can come in here and work. And it’s comfortable and it’s really quiet and clean.

Tomorrow we’re gonna have another town hall. So we’re trying to meet maybe twice a week and then we communicate on our intranet. For us, it’s just about communicating as we learn things and as we adjust. We’re also exploring protocols and team building in a work from home methodology. We’re trying to share what we’re seeing, what we’re learning. Each of the team leaders has to figure out what their team needs and how it communicates and how it sets deadlines and how it holds each other accountable and how we keep the team rolling. We’re trying to empower each of the team members to make that happen.

Town-hall before COVID-19

When you say “town-hall,” what would that look like in this virtual setting?

Tomorrow there’ll probably be 8 people in the office and we’re just going to put it on a GoToMeeting. We’ll have a video feed and everybody will be on video and we’ll give people an update. What are we hearing? You know, where do we stand with IT? What are we thinking might happen in the future? We’ll make sure that we answer people’s questions because then people start writing questions in their GoTo chat, and then we answer the questions. They get posted, we answer them, and then we’ll be asking them to tell us what’s going on. What’s working? What’s not working? And we keep dealing with more and more layers of issues. For instance, we’re having this discussion now: everybody’s working from home, right? So some people have a great bandwidth on their Internet but the next person has half that, yet they’re both remotely connecting to the server. So now we’re trying to determine how to deal with that. I don’t want someone sitting on their hands for 30 minutes watching the model load. So we’re thinking, well, maybe we have to figure out some kind of fiscal stimulus program so that people all get better bandwidth. So, as this stuff comes to us, we think it through as a team and we say, OK, here’s what we’re gonna do.

 CO Architects has provided employees with an allowance for work-from-home purposes. It could be used to speed up their internet or buy equipment, for example.

Are people remotely connecting to a machine that’s at a desk at the office or is it just the server that they can access from home?

Yes. Ostensibly, what we’re doing is that people are remoting into their desktop in the office and that desktop connects to the Revit server. So you’re not doing it through a dial-up line or a third-party line. You’re trying to get in as directly as possible, which allows the model to download because we have large projects. So they’re huge models.

Eyal and his team have continued to adjust and look at different scenarios as the team is giving them real-time feedback, which I think is pretty cool. People are saying that the model is loading and they’re fairly happy. And now we’re trying to deal with the home Internet issues to make sure that everybody gets better bandwidth. So that’s our next frontier, along with troubleshooting daily things…

Screenshot of virtual leadership meeting

I want to jump back to the project managers. So there are multiple project teams and the leadership is giving the project managers room to be creative within their specific teams?

Correct. We’re a team-based office. We’re not studios. Our project teams are in different phases of the work. Some are in early design, some are in programming, some are in design development, some are in construction documentation, some people are in construction. Our teams vary from two to three people to twenty to twenty-five and they’re on different schedules, deadlines, and deliverables. And so our belief is that the people that can make the best decisions about how to stay at pace with the work and to harness the teams and have people engage are really the team leaders. Coming from me doesn’t make sense. I want to help set the framework and say, here are the resources. Here’s the technology and I’m going to keep posting as much as I hear from other peers and colleagues. We feed that into the office and we’re talking with the team leaders. But we’ve said, look, this is a work in process and you guys are empowered to figure this out, because it’s up to you. It’s not a one size fits all kind of model.

One of the demands of this pandemic is the expansion of the health care system. With CO’s specialty in healthcare design, is this something that you anticipate architects becoming involved in?

It won’t surprise us that this will have an impact on all of our healthcare clients and it will cause them, once they get through this immediate crisis of the next so many months, it’ll cause them to take stock of this and ask themselves certain questions: what does this mean? What are we going to do? And how will we prepare? In the case of health care, and about 30 to 40 percent of our work is health care, some of the architects that work on this are sharing intelligence. They’re starting to share notes back and forth. For instance, I suspect that in our projects we’re going to be asked to increase the number of hand-washing stations in all the public settings. There will, of course, be many changes in program and design. So I think it remains to be seen. But I would anticipate that it will impact our work significantly. Right now our health care clients are so focused on the immediate needs that they don’t have time to talk to us about any of these potential manifestations.

Team meeting before COVID-19

Do you have any thoughts for the next couple of months in regards to your practice or just the architectural industry in general?

We would say that we’ve been on a series of parallel paths, some of those paths are more short-term and some are longer-term. The short-term paths for us are making sure that our staff feels comfortable, that they feel safe, and that we’re communicating with them on a real-time basis and making sure that they know that they’re members of this community. And we want them to do the right thing so that we can help get this pandemic under control as soon as possible. That’s the first order of business. Second is we’re focusing on making sure that they can stay fully engaged with the work. As of now, we haven’t had many clients call us and say they want to slow down. Depending upon the duration of this, that may occur. But we are dealing with out tactics right now. We will adjust as circumstances warrant.

We’re also trying to look at this from a kind of longer-term business point of view, to truly understand how this is going to impact our practice over two or three months and making sure that we’re thinking through the business implications of this, the financial implications, and making sure that we’re understanding the dynamics of this and prepared that if this goes longer, we understand that, and if it goes shorter, we understand that. So we’re just trying to prepare ourselves as much as we can.

 

What closing words would you have for me? What should we be thinking about right now?

What we know is that we’re going to get through this. We’re going to get through this just like we got through 9/11 and just like we got through any kind of big significant tragedies in the country. We’re gonna get through this and we’re going to figure this out. For us, we’re really taking this as an opportunity that it may impact how we work. It’s going to impact how we think about working. For instance, we may say we don’t need an office of 120 people anymore, we need an office of sixty people because we figured out how to do this. I think it’s going to change our practice. And frankly, if we’re better and able to work more effectively in a combination of virtual and in-person, then that’s great. I think we’re trying to see this as an opportunity to re-imagine our profession and how we work. I don’t know what the outcome of that is, but that’s our approach. We want to stay optimistic and we want to solve challenges as we go and see the opportunity it could present for all of us.