As we close in on two months of working from home due to COVID, we’re settling into our new normal. We’re no longer arriving at the crowded York Street station from all over Brooklyn each morning, coffee in tow. And we’re certainly not running around the city for site visits. But we’re still very much at work. Like other non-essential businesses, we’re working from home, doing our part to slow the transmission of the virus. Conducting our business remotely poses challenges but also offers some opportunities for growth.
Close collaboration in our bustling DUMBO office has long been a hallmark of the work we do here at Delson or Sherman. Our spacious, open-concept office fosters a culture of communication and mutual inspiration that enhances our work. Working together not only keeps us all on track, but maintains the creative flow of our projects—an idea specific to one job transforms into a characteristic touch we apply to other designs. The focused atmosphere we strive for in the office is fertile ground for new ideas.
Maintaining the collaborative spirit of our office from afar requires adaptation. We checked in with a couple members of our team to see how they’re fairing, and we’re sharing their home office setups here with the hopes that it may prove useful to other small businesses navigating this tricky terrain with us.
Earlier this year, as the threat of COVID worsened, we engaged our tech team to seek out solutions to make our setup mobile. Everyone in the office regularly maintains and works off of files on our server, so setting up remote access to the server was essential. Now, we each have a remote login to our office computers and conduct our work on the same server. This method ensures continuity, and allows multiple people to access and develop the same file. Of course, this necessitates that everyone has adequate hardware.
“The tools we’re using now—Zoom, Bluebeam, G Chat—are great,” said Associate Joel Melton. “We’re learning a lot about our communication style, and even identifying inefficiencies in the ways we used to handle things.” Without the full amenities of the office at his disposal, Melton admits that he sometimes has to get creative to accomplish an otherwise menial task. However, small steps towards building a workstation have yielded significant results.
“I recently bought a new laptop, fully loaded with all of the fixings,” Melton explained. “I took an extra monitor from the office, so I have a big screen and a little screen. It’s actually a pretty nice setup. My house upstate is an ideal haven from the city to retreat to during all of this. I feel so lucky that we had this place to go to.”
The camaraderie of sharing a physical space is irreplaceable, and without it, Melton finds that communication is a little more difficult across the board. “The hard thing is not having immediate access to coworkers. If I have a question for somebody in the office, I usually just give them a holler. If I have a question now, I have to track them down, maybe on G Chat or with a phone call. It’s an inevitable bit of time that’s lost when we’re not together.”
CONNECTING WITH CLIENTS
Of course, what we’re able to do for each other takes the backseat to what we’re able to do for our clients. Connecting with clients in our same, signature way in this new situation requires extra attention.
“It’s easier to have a conversation about a design, especially when they aren’t fluent in architecture lingo, when you’re all looking and pointing at the same drawing together,” Melton said. “There’s an ease and a familiarity with having those conversations around a table. And a close relationship is easier to form when you can look into a client’s eyes. Through a screen, it’s not quite as easy to establish trust.”
Additionally, physical gestures of hospitality are difficult to translate.
“The hospitality that we offer in the office—when someone comes in, they’re greeted, they’re offered coffee and water, they’re welcomed—is part of our brand. We’re very careful about how we treat guests in our office. We aren’t able to provide the same special treatment when doing it remotely.” Melton acknowledges that this is a bit of an irreconcilable loss. “However, it helps that it’s not just something unique to our office. It’s also something that our clients and the entire broader world is dealing with. Everyone’s in the same boat.”
For Project Manager Alena Bronder, the adjustment to working from home meant spending more time than usual in her cramped Bushwick apartment.
“I’ve mainly been working at my kitchen table, because it’s the only suitable surface I have,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll switch to my bed or the couch for a phone call. In a way, I have to be extra strategic, working at the only surface that I have. I conduct my entire day around this table now. I do all my work, eat all my meals, and prep all my cooking. It’s my multifunctional workstation.”
Although balancing the competing demands for her table takes effort, Bronder finds it easier than she expected. “Now that we’ve coordinated all of this new software, we’ve realized our work is more portable than we thought. Bullclip, the markup software, is a great tool to review and markup drawings remotely. And the screen-sharing features on Zoom make it simple to quickly illuminate a concept.”
Of all of the changes, though, Bronder most misses the tangible aspect of designing: site visits. “Obviously, construction has mostly ground to a halt. But it is hard to keep tabs on the incremental progress on different sites. It’s a little difficult to communicate with contractors. They send photos of completed work, but we have less control as designers to explain and instruct on the fly.”
Both Bronder and Melton expressed relief over how manageable working from home has been.
“When I think of all the healthcare workers, first responders, and essential services at the front lines of this pandemic who have no choice but to work through severe personal risk, I’m that much more grateful for how our office is operating right now,” Bronder said. “We’re safe and effective.”
“We are able to do this, it’s not a stretch,” Melton said. “We’re continuing to work on all types of projects in all different stages. While the way in which we communicate with clients and contractors are changing, it’s still working. Some of these tools we’ll even continue to use. An entire office learning new tools together is actually a great way to jump-start efficiency, and prepare for when we’re all back together again.”
Although it’s a bit of a chore to find sources of optimism right now, Bronder thinks “staying inspired is crucial. I’m excited for competitions on the horizon. Other than that, I’m relying heavily on any chance to tap into my creative flow: cooking, bass guitar lessons, drawing, tattoos.” And of course, Zoom happy hours.