Office - Inevitech

Is the office obsolete for the AEC community?

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Despite the UK coming out of lockdown, the impact of Covid-19 will be felt long into the future. Mark Adams, co-founder of Inevitech, explores the new and evolving relationship between home and office working.

For so many of us that are usually office-based, the last year of our lives has been spent using our homes as our places of work. Whether you’ve set up shop in a spare room, kitchen counter or living room, your working environment is likely very different to the one you were previously used to – in the office or at a client’s site etc. And perhaps to the surprise of directors, businesses haven’t suffered too badly considering the circumstances (a pandemic, a recession and Brexit!) – more than half of workers have reported that they’ve been more productive while working from home. So, it begs the question – is the office obsolete?

Technology may make you think so

Answering the question has become quite difficult; not only because we’ve proven able to work away from the office full-time – something the majority of those in the architecture, engineering and construction sectors I’ve spoken to would have never previously considered. But, also because the number of technologies that enable remote working have increased, or at least become more visible.

There are many high-end technologies that enabled the industry to navigate the hurdles remote working has posed to the performance of both CAD and BIM tools. Let’s take the example of supporting the sharing of large data files between the office and home, all the while ensuring security across a cloud framework. Practices had two basic options: (1) sync design files to local devices using services like BIM 360 or Projectwise (which required powerful workstations at their home location), or (2) remotely access a workstation on the same local network as the fileserver – the latter being mode widely used as it enabled most companies to carry on using existing hardware at little additional cost.

A third way would be use of virtual desktop infrastructure; not too many companies have adopted this technology as yet, though that is likely to change in the near future as post-pandemic strategies are implemented with lessons learned from the past year and more innovative solutions are sought.

With the right tools and strategy, remote working can be both productive and generate significant cost savings from downsizing the office and saving on energy bills, for example, alongside offering benefits for staff welfare and the environment.

Take David Lawrence, director of Flanagan Lawrence Architects. The company integrated virtual desktops into its infrastructure during the pandemic and now the practice is planning to migrate its entire infrastructure to the cloud through the introduction of more virtual desks. Whilst it had been considering this move for some time – even before the pandemic – the past 12 months proved to be a catalyst for change. But this evolution is not intended to replace the office, rather it’s to enhance it: generating new flexibility around the concept of office space and its usage and creating much greater business efficiencies.

But it’s not the answer to everything

It’s important to note that getting rid of the office is not the answer for the majority of firms. The AEC industry is collaborative and creative by nature, and there are unarguable benefits of face-to-face interaction that simply can’t be replicated virtually. We’re all capable of working productively at home, but there are certainly points in the design process – particularly the early conceptual stages – where architects will want to bounce ideas off the person they’re physically near to – which we currently find ourselves doing via the likes of Microsoft Teams. Whilst useful, technology is yet to offer an alternative to unplanned interactions that spark an idea, or the simplicity of congregating in breakout areas to ideate together. Office spaces are still very necessary, but how they are used may change quite significantly.


Taking on a hybrid approach

The strongest likelihood for many AEC working practices following the pandemic is a blended approach – incorporating the benefits workers have enjoyed from working remotely, and marrying them with the need to be within the four walls of an office to spark further collaboration and creativity. It would be an error to think that action can’t be taken now to prepare. Directors and executives should begin considering and implementing appropriate solutions to help support a hybrid approach in the future, if they haven’t started already (and most I speak with are some way along with this process already).

How those solutions take form will vary depending on specific business needs, but creating a strategic plan should be high on the agenda. Whilst balancing the immediate, tactical management of the months ahead as we exit lockdown, directors should begin implementing a strategic evolution that can be reviewed and refined in line with constantly changing macro factors. The critical element underlying any strategic move needs to be agility. There is no need to commit to a particular way of working, only a need to open up possibilities and the ability to adjust and react in good time.

Final thoughts

We’ll soon be able to say, hopefully, goodbye to the majority of the restrictions of the pandemic. However, the impact of Covid-19 will be felt long into the future for AEC organisations. Both employees and employers are now clear on how they can continue to perform away from a centralised office – but this hasn’t rendered offices obsolete; on the contrary it has demonstrated just where the value lies in having a physical collaborative environment.

The key now is to develop an infrastructure that can deliver the flexibility to find a new and evolving relationship between home and office working, as well as navigate more readily any unexpected challenges ahead. So the office, I think, will remain, but changed – more effective, more pleasurable hopefully – and in tandem with an increase in home working and satellite offices. We can look forward to a better balance, supported by progressive tech, informed by our needs and experience.


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