When Covid-19 hit, Gaunt Francis Architects (GFA) relied on emergency systems and workflows to support staff remotely. Two years later and these systems have now laid the foundation for a new way of working.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Gaunt Francis Architects (GFA), like most UK practices, had to shift its entire workforce away from the office. Now more than two years later and hybrid working has become “the new normal”.
As Simon Dodd, IT manager at GFA believes, those who claimed that working from home would never be as effective have all been proven wrong. “Two years after the first lockdown, GFA is still using the “emergency” remote working system that we implemented when Covid first started,” he says. “We are now pushing to establish a properly structured hybrid working system from the fundamentals that have been built since the pandemic.”
Many architects at GFA currently benefit from not having to commute for hours each day and enjoy a better work / life balance. However, working remotely can mean workers miss out on social interaction, which can stimulate creative ideas, increase work motivation, and improve engagement between employees.
Dodd believes it’s important to find some middle ground, “We prefer to come into the office for a few days per week,” he says. “Sometimes, it is better to work in a “positive isolation” environment where you can fully focus on tasks that require deep concentration. A hybrid working environment provides people the opportunity to manage themselves, and it also comes with the trust that is placed into people to work from home effectively.”
Microsoft Teams proved invaluable in maintaining communication between GFA’s staff members and clients and is still used to communicate internally and externally on a regular basis.
Throughout the pandemic, it enabled project teams to organise meetings more quickly, frequently and flexibly. GFA even used Teams to recruit internationally and onboard staff remotely. Despite never having met other team members in person, it enabled them to work on projects effectively, while feeling included.
Beyond communication, Teams made it possible for GFA to onboard new systems and familiarise staff members with new workflows.
In general, Dodd believes the pandemic allowed technologies that support remote working to develop rapidly. In some cases this has led to the disappearance of physical IT infrastructures, such as desktop computers or hosted server systems.
Dodd considers cloud-based solutions to be much more cost effective to operate compared to on-premise solutions. “The cost of moving to a cloud-based virtual machine environment is much lower than replacing a physical asset [to] keep it operating for another few years,” he says.
A cloud future
In a hybrid world, where everybody works from different locations, times, and shifts, one of the most popular questions raised in the AEC sector is whether it is possible to eliminate servers and make a complete switch to the cloud.
According to Marcus Roberts, technology director of Atvero, a developer of AEC-focused document management software, the answer is yes.
Because Microsoft SharePoint and OneDrive support collaborative editing in place, they are the natural homes of any Microsoft-based documents, he says. Therefore, users can easily store, access and work on Microsoft documents together on the cloud.
“There’s also good support for AutoCAD now, and Atvero has customers who run all of their AutoCAD projects off SharePoint,” he says. “With good protocols, InDesign documents can also be worked on in SharePoint and OneDrive.”
GFA’s Dodd explains that with Azure Active Directory approaches, the infrastructure of data storage and access management, along with its administrative processes, will naturally become cloud based. This has made hybrid working become a much better prospect, he believes.
A hybrid working environment provides people the opportunity to manage themselves, and it also comes with the trust that is placed into people to work from home effectively
Simon Dodd, IT manager at GFA
However, whether servers can be completely removed depends on the workload of each architect, says Atvero’s Roberts. “Many people think Revit can operate effectively over VPN until model corruption becomes an issue,” he says. “With Revit being extremely sensitive to latency and requiring good file locking, the only solutions for this issue at the moment are file servers, or Autodesk BIM 360. This means workstations need to be positioned next to the server, and remote workers will need to have their virtual desktops colocated with the server.”
The role of SharePoint
Before the pandemic, GFA already had a Microsoft 365 subscription that always remained running in the background and was not used on a regular basis by the majority of staff. However, when remote working came into effect, SharePoint instantly became one of the most frequently used tools to store, share and organise project information entirely on the cloud.
According to Dodd, there are two major benefits to SharePoint for architects: the avoidance of information silos and data security guaranteed by Microsoft’s data protection policies.
Providing a globally synchronised document library, SharePoint marks an end to the siloed approach to file storage, as Roberts explains, “With every user getting 1 TB of storage space on OneDrive, users’ files will no longer be in danger of being saved to local desktops and becoming permanently lost if any unexpected negative incidents happen to the hard drives or device storing those files.”
In addition, when project data is hosted in a SharePoint tenancy, data security is guaranteed by Microsoft’s data retention policies, as Dodd explains. “We don’t have to worry about how long we have to keep backups for, or whether it is secure enough to store data on the cloud in a Microsoft system.
“Microsoft’s data retention policies are the lifeline behind every project, helping us achieve immediate compliance in GDPR requirements and cyber security essentials. Having Microsoft’s multiple factor authenitcation and Microsoft Defender looking after our data means we no longer have to constantly worry about data security, saving us great amounts of time in IT management.”
When remote working and SharePoint were first implemented, some of GFA’s staff were resistant to this new way of working and were not convinced that they could execute the same workflows without physical infrastructures.
Microsoft 365 is an integral part of business applications for most organisations, but it can lack the industry requirements for architectural firms to manage project information.
A month before lockdown came into effect, GFA implemented Atvero as its primary information and document management solution.
Built on the Microsoft 365 foundation, Atvero is focused on AEC workfows and is designed to manage the full life cycles of documents and drawings from creation to issue and transmittal.
“Atvero was helpful because it makes SharePoint more user-friendly, especially to people who were previously not comfortable with using Microsoft products on a regular basis. Atvero helps us use SharePoint without any fear of doing anything wrong since all the required standardisations and processes have been included. This makes remote working much more feasible for us,” concludes Dodd.
Image credit: Audley Fairmile care community project in Cobham, Surrey. Image courtesy of Gaunt Francis Architects