-Craig Park, FSMPS, Assoc. AIA, Principal, NV5 Engineering & Technologies
Corporate culture makes all the difference. A strong culture — supportive, innovative, customer-focused — almost always reflects a strong brand. As most organizations struggle with the impact of COVID-19, those focused on agile, adaptive measures to keep employees connected, informed, collaborating, and confident will be stronger as an outcome. While it is likely that we will all return to some level of pre-virus operations in the next several months, the need to prepare for the highly probable recessionary economic conditions for the next several years emphasizes the need for creating a positive, forward-looking culture.
Today, business and institutions are appropriately concentrating on the health and safety of employees and their families. The operational methods implemented now will define the ability of those who succeed, and those who recede. Those creating both a safe and secure workplace integrated with a connected virtual culture will be the bellwether for how we should prepare for the future.
With growth from 4% pre-virus to over 25% now, much has already been written about best-practices for the WFH (work from home) professional. Good lighting, simple backgrounds, good tech (camera, microphone, speakers), and a strong internet connection make that acceptable. I will not belabor that topic.
Two decades ago — before the dot.com crash, before 9/11, before the “Great Recession” — Peg Neuhauser, Ray Bender, and Kirk Stromberg published an insightful book, Culture.com. In their prescient view of the future — now more relevant than ever — they observed, “The old rules are changing, but it is not yet clear what the new rules are. Everything is in flux, and the speed and complexity of the changes are difficult for many of us to absorb.”
And they cautioned, “A great deal of attention is directed at the external business issues of designing, marketing, selling, and delivering… services in the networked environment. But the internal infrastructure and culture changes that are needed to deliver on those new business strategies have received very little attention so far.”
They explained how a company’s internal culture must adapt to align with the organization’s external business strategy. They showed how failure to adapt to the new networked ecosystem can undermine, or even destroy, a company’s ability to carry out its objectives.
LOOKING BACK AND LOOKING AHEAD
When I joined The Sextant Group — now part of NV5 — in 2010, we were 50 in five offices with just a handful of SOHO (single occupant home office) staff. Today, our Pittsburgh HQ remains the lone leased office space for 30. From fixed-based to virtual space, building a collaborative culture, empowering our employees, and demonstrating the productive benefit of the technologies we design and specify has had a positive impact on both our staff and our clients.
As a textbook baby boomer, I initially resisted the home office trend. After five years of renting an office, we realized it was extremely rare to have clients come to us for meetings. As consultants to the architectural community, our face-to-face client interactions are primarily marketing- or project-driven. We go to them; they do not come to us. So, in 2016, we decided to shift to a mostly virtual culture.
Another reason we considered building a SOHO structure was the challenge of finding good people in the places we had already leased space. Ideally, we would find talented technology designers, project managers, CAD specialists, and marketing and business development staff in the proximity of an existing office.
The reality was more challenging. We found good staff, but in many cases, they had an uncomfortable or unproductive commute to our physical office locations. Our SOHO model accommodated the growth we required to meet our organizational goals while serving our client’s project needs and allowing us to expand geographic coverage and business-to-business connections. As a result, we have been able to hire great people, who benefit from the quality of lifestyle that SOHO provides while being productive and contributing to our clients using a variety of virtual tools.
In a Harvard Business Review article, Tsedal Neeley cogently noted, “Trust can develop early when managers endorse virtual team members during introductions by highlighting relevant or important experiences, or when team leaders explicitly set rules requiring frequent communication to reduce uncertainty and foster trust.”
BUILDING TRUST BUILDS CULTURE
Sextant Group’s organizational model has evolved into what business author Tom Peters would call “a blueberry pancake model” — very flat, very thin, and all blueberries are created equal (some a little more equal than others). Our operational approach is based on a matrix organization, teaming the project-appropriate technical and production expertise — which can be anywhere — with project-proximate local/regional principal/project management leadership, responsible for developing relationships and supporting our architect and end-user clients.
As new employees join the firm, email introductions go out to all staff, and face-to-face video introductions are included in bi-weekly principal and project management, marketing and business development, design, and operations meetings. Project team meetings are also regularly conducted using desktop video. Virtual watercooler sessions, scheduled monthly, bring employees — who may not normally interact much — together for a 30-minute facilitated “fun” discussion or gaming sessions. We have begun inviting clients and affiliates to virtual happy hours to extend our culture to our cohorts.
Shifting our culture from place-based to technology-based took some effort, but surprisingly less than anticipated. Our marketing and business development teams are skilled at multi-state virtual outreach, identifying opportunities from pre-existing client relationships and sharing those with the architects and designers we had worked well with on past projects, as well as with new relationships we were interested in building. As technology consultants, most of our technical staff are comfortable with the varieties of electronic communication and collaboration tools we recommend daily to our clients.
CREATING AN EFFECTIVE SOHO
Initially, we created a task force group to evaluate communication options. Our younger millennial staff were both eager to lead and the first to embrace extensive use of a desktop collaboration/project management software (Teamwork) that offers phone and tablet apps for messaging and task scheduling, monitoring, and reporting. We combined those tools with secure VPN connections and cloud-based virtualized BIM/CAD (Revit & Bluebeam) and workplace software (Microsoft 365 Office & Deltek Vision ERP/CRM), implemented firm-wide desktop video (initially GoToMeeting; now Microsoft Teams), and upgraded our voice communication with a VoIP phone system.
The increased use of desktop video has had the greatest impact on the cultural shift. All staff, project, marketing, and purpose-based taskforce meetings utilize video given the disparate locations of the participants. Video augments not only formal meetings but informal conversations as well. We often find teams working during the day with live video connections between designers and project managers as they collectively work through project analysis and recommendations. We evaluated various video camera options and made recommendations for backdrop, lighting, and acoustics — especially the use of low-cost, high-quality, noise-canceling headsets.
ENABLING FUTURE VIRTUAL CONNECTIONS
With the shift to virtual officing, we have seen real value from both employee satisfaction and operational effectiveness perspective. At the same time, virtualization reinforces our ability to connect with our clients regardless of where our services are based. The potential for the virtual workplace has dissolved the traditional boundaries of the place-based office and had a positive impact on our employees’ attitudes and the quality of the work we produce.
Mike Finley, co-founder of the AI-analytics company, AnswerRocket observed, “The smartest office may be no office at all. With people working where they want to be, productivity and morale improve, while costs fall. The outdated idea of ‘eyes on’ supervision can be replaced by real measurements of progress, in real-time, by tools that connect business processes to profits. Video augmented meetings are already taking shape and enabling a new level of collaboration.”
As we move into the post-virus era, the traditional office will likely be less important than providing employees safe and effective environments to work from. Investing in technology that simplifies collaboration, enhances communication, and enables cultural connection will be the hallmark of those organizations that embrace the new normal.
WHAT’S NEXT IN THE NEW NORMAL?
That said, the pandemic has created an opportunity to explore new ways of working, learning, and healing, both for B2C and B2B organizations. Technology that enables safer and healthier places of business will be implemented. Already, organizations are exploring installing technology-enhanced thermal imaging and infrared sensors to pre-determine which employees (or customers) entering the workplace — or school, or transit hub, or hospital, or stadium — that may be at risk.
Instant screening and testing will likely become the norm. Advanced occupancy sensors, tied to increasingly adept artificial intelligence engines (e.g., IBM’s Watson) will provide instant feedback. Inexpensive, and accurate, wearable technologies will develop to provide real-time monitoring of vital data, with signals transmitted to our public health organizations and individual healthcare providers to shrink the time from onset to outbreak to pandemic in the future. Improved AI-enabled air-filtering/HVAC systems will compartmentalize and display air quality for occupants. The goal is to engender trust, which in turn, builds a stronger culture.
We may even finally see growth in 3-D visualization tools, with avatar-enabled virtual reality gaining traction as an alternative way to meet, interact, and do productive design work at a virtual social distance. BIM-related products from companies like Trezi and Yulio are leading the way in creating effective VR design environments and presentations. Moving beyond the standard video meeting platforms (e.g., WebEx, GoToMeeting, Zoom, etc.), collaborative platforms like Mural and Monday provide new ways for teams and clients to interact in design charrettes and strategic planning sessions. All these tools help extend cultural connections while providing productive collaborations.
We are living in an unprecedented time. As members of the architectural, engineering and technology design community, we have a real opportunity to demonstrate “learn by doing,” showing how organizations can create a blended and integrated business model where working together can be effective, productive, and profitable culture, whether we are in a traditional office or connected from a home office, supporting the projects and goals of our clients.
It is a challenge we accepted several years ago and have found it beneficial to both our employees and our clients. Now as part of NV5, we are working to “lead by example” on how these SOHO best practices can strengthen our company’s ability to deliver excellent service and create a strong culture.
Adapted to address today’s challenges from “Building an Office Without Walls,” first published in July 2018 by American Institute of Architect’s Practice Management Digest.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Craig Park FSMPS, Assoc. AIA is a principal with national engineering & technology consultants Sextant Group/NV5 Engineering & Technology. He has been active in the building industry for over 40 years and leads the firm’s Southeast regional technology consulting team from Charleston SC.
 Neeley, Tsedal, How to Build Trust with Colleagues You Rarely See, Harvard Business Review, January 2018
 Peters, Tom, The Pursuit of Wow!: Every Person’s Guide to Topsy-Turvy Times, 1994, Vintage Books
 Uzialko, Adam C., The Smart Office: How Connected Tech is Redefining the Workplace, Business News Daily, October 2016