Where and how we work has transformed for many designers after the outbreak of COVID-19. With an estimated 900 million people around the world to remain at home, more people have begun working remotely to prevent the virus from spreading. As one of the largest design, engineering and planning firms in the world, SOM operates across timezone and locations. In this interview, Managing Partner Carrie Byles outlines SOM's approach and how other designers and firms can work better remotely.
SOM is a global practice with many offices and diverse teams. How is SOM set up to work collaboratively and utilize technology for digital work?
Collaboration is at the heart of what we do at SOM – working remotely is just another tool in our toolkit. For decades we’ve realized work using virtual working technologies – one of the earliest examples was our work on the Hajj Terminal in Jeddah in the 1980s, which we designed using early digital technology, working across oceans with teams in Jeddah, Chicago, and New York. Fast forward to today, and we’re more networked than ever, with seamless digital collaboration between our offices and teams located on nearly every continent.
We’re proud to say that despite the current uncertainty and widespread challenges, this situation has created a tremendous opportunity to enhance culture and community within our teams. More than ever, our teams are reaching across cities and countries to make sure our work gets done efficiently and using the best tools for our projects and our clients. Our tried-and-true global digital workflows have grown even stronger as colleagues from London to Los Angeles connect to solve problems collectively. This culture of virtual working enabled us to quickly transition our global studios to remote working without interruption to our work.
What technology and software is SOM currently utilizing?
With the help of our Chief Technology Officer, Rob DeMillo, with a background in tech transformation at NASA, and leading tech, media, and computer animation organizations, we’re in the middle of a major transformation of our tech platforms. In the time since Rob joined, we implemented an array of collaboration tools, from Zoom to Slack and beyond, giving our teams the ability to collaborate in real-time globally. Currently, we’re restructuring our cloud infrastructure and pipelines to give people enhanced ability to work from home.
How has it worked so far?
Our ongoing tech transformation, which is now well underway, enabled us to proactively respond to the challenges of running a design firm through the outbreak of COVID-19. With the help of tools like Slack, we can troubleshoot challenges with colleagues, wherever they’re located, while our global technology team works in lockstep with our designers to troubleshoot challenges as they come up. Overall, our projects have been able to proceed as planned, regardless of where our people are based.
How does remote work influence day to day collaboration amongst staff?
We’ve heard feedback on both ends of the spectrum from our teams – some love remote working (seeing more of their pets!) and others love the in-person collaboration experience that being in the office brings. Overall, we know this isn’t permanent but we’re looking at it like an experiment – every day brings a new challenge and an unexpected benefit.
Last week, our global leadership team was able to speak to our team of 1,300 together using Zoom. Primarily, we wanted to educate everyone about Coronavirus and the steps we had taken to care for the health and safety of our employees, families, and our communities, and explain our phased response to COVID-19, as we were in the process of transitioning to working from home. The ability to connect with the entire team was both very productive (it led to a smooth transition to working from home) and reassuring for those who had questions and concerns they needed to address.
What are the biggest challenges of remote work?
So far, the transition has gone quite well given how rapidly we transitioned to working from home. In this case, the challenges of remote working for our employees have been wide ranging: trying to work while parenting/homeschooling their children, cohabitating with a partner or roommate who is also working from home, or self-quarantining from others they live with. Not specific to working from home but equally important, many of our team members have larger concerns, such as not being able to visit loved ones in the hospital, or fear that they, friends or family may lose their jobs, concern about family members and others at high risk.
To help support our teams while working remotely, we’re doing our best to provide support, guidance, and as much credible information as possible. We established a hotline to collect questions and concerns, offered a virtual medical advisor, and are adapting our practice to do what we can to help our employees and answer any questions they have.
Has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work operations in any way?
We learned so much from our offices in Shanghai and Hong Kong who were the first at SOM to experience the effects of Covid-19, back in January and February. Our people there are in a much better position now than they were a month ago – their proactive response to the outbreak led to a relatively quick decline in new cases. For Shanghai and Hong Kong teams, that meant an extended period of working from home – we’re gradually returning to normal operations there, with enhanced health and safety measures in place for our colleagues’ wellbeing. Knowing we’re still in uncharted territory with COVID-19, we took lessons from that experience and set out a proactive response plan to minimize the disruption to our teams in the rest of the world.
With many firms transitioning to remote work, what tips would you provide to firm leaders?
Stay as educated as you can and be proactive. Be flexible, communicate often, and listen to your people. There is so much unknown about Covid-19, but it is the job of a leader to plan for a range of scenarios and make sure all preparations have been made, and lead with a spirit of optimism. To that end, we’ve taken a very deliberate approach to communication as we work remotely, knowing that this is an uncertain and anxious time for a lot of people. We’re checking in with our teams regularly, taking feedback and making adjustments, and sharing updates from every city and every office, with everyone in the firm. In challenging times, our focus is on maintaining trust and keeping lines of communication open with our teams, collaborators, and clients. Perhaps most important, though, is that we don’t forget to take time to laugh and have fun – we all need a bit more joy right now.
We invite you to check out ArchDaily's coverage related to COVID-19, read our tips and articles on Productivity When Working from Home and learn about technical recommendations for Healthy Design in your future projects. Also, remember to review the latest advice and information on COVID-19 from the World Health Organization (WHO) website.