Remote Work: Lessons Learned from the COVID-19 Crisis

Joshua Zinder, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP

Managing partner, JZA+D (Princeton)

2020 President-Elect, AIA-NJ

AIA NJ Blog POST –click here


The COVID-19 crisis has altered how we live forever, and also has transformed how we work. Beyond washing hands, how we work as a core practice is likely to be very different going forward. As the closures spread my partner Mark Sullivan and I discussed our client commitments, our wonderful office team and our concerns for their safety. I have always had hesitations about remote working, believing it detracted from the team building and studio atmosphere that made elevated architecture from a mere practice to a fully engaged, social collaboration. But this new reality is undeniable. On Monday March 16, we informed our staff we would be moving our workflow to a remote platform and everyone would work from home. By Tuesday mid-day we were up and running remotely, with staff utilizing a mix of our studio hardware and some of their own computers. The transition has been largely smooth and successful, and thanks to software like Slack we have maintained some of the camaraderie, sharing design work as well as images from remote work spaces – and more than a few shots of our pets. My aversion to remote work has faded, and I feel enlightened, even excited about the possibilities of this new paradigm.

This successful transition would not have been possible without our outsourced IT team, Network Advisor Q. The worry for many firm leaders is that they will get bogged down in the IT issues, and lose sight of the work they need to produce. Having someone who is dedicated to providing the IT solutions, whether in-house or external, is perhaps the single most important thing for a successful transition to remote work. Steve, the owner of Network Advisor Q puts our minds at ease, because we know someone has our back. We had several extensive discussions with his team last week, from which I have compiled some key points that might help other architects and entrepreneurs in a similar position, struggling in this transition.

Keep in mind that you should have a robust, redundant, tested backup system for your firm’s data, one that has been tested before you even begin to think about remote practice. In our office we have local redundant backup on site, as well as offsite cloud-based and archive backup that is air-gapped, i.e. disconnected from the internet. Make sure backups are secure and tested to make sure you can recover from them if you need. Network Advisor Q, our managed service provider (MSP), runs test recoveries monthly just to make sure the backups are functional should a disaster recovery ever be needed.

Keeping in mind that every business is different and has unique circumstances and requirements, here are some pointers from our recent experience with our IT team.

1. Forethought and advance planning are key. Get started as soon as possible on hashing out all the details and acquiring new equipment and software, so you can get an effective system in place and running ASAP.
2. Think security first. Establishing paths for people to connect remotely to the firm’s data and platforms may compromise the existing security principles in place.
3. Determine which applications you need to run remotely. Programs such as Revit, AutoCAD, Adobe, Lightroom require a lot of memory. Ask yourself and your team what they need and how they need it to run – the most important information for creating a remote work strategy and identifying the requirements for supporting your firm’s workflow.
4. Take an inventory of the kind of documents and files you use. What applications are they used for? How secure do they need to be? Do you require HIPA compliance or government compliance security?
5. Consider your infrastructure. How many people can connect at one time? What is your internal network speed? Is the current equipment up to date with the latest firmware and security patches? How are connections routed? This information is critical for your MSP or in-house IT expert to design a system for remote work.
6. Determine what products are best suited to connect you. The most common solutions are virtual private networks (VPNs), remote desktop protocols (RDPs) and third-party applications like LogMeIn, TeamView, Splashtop Citrix and the like. The third-party apps offer the convenience of secure connections without the use of a VPN because they have all of the security built into their software, plus features like virtual white boards, screen sharing, screen recording, and so forth. The subscription costs, usually annual, are based on the number of users – for smaller firms these can be effective if a bit pricey. Drawbacks for these include the fact that they occupy memory on both ends of the connection, which is an ineffective use of resources, and they are graphic-intensive, which means they use significant bandwidth, so lagging is possible depending on how robust a connection you have at the moment. Also, these apps don’t always play nice with CAD programs and other design tools, which are key to productivity for architects. Lags in bandwidth that result may hurt productivity. Those using third-party applications may want to invest in built-in infrastructure – your server, your employee’s PCs, and your router – to save on costs, bandwidth usage, and lost productivity.
In consultation with our MSP, we arrived at a combination of two methods: a virtual private network (VPN) tunnel with secure socket layer protocol (SSL) and a second VPN tunnel with remote desktop connection (RDC). The first establishes a path from a computer to our office when using documents and programs, and prevents others outside access while we are using it. The second, the RDC, runs a terminal session of a “host” computer for a staff member working remotely, a method that combines the protection of the tunnel with direct remote use of in-office terminals. JZA+D uses two different methods because while some of us only need to grab files and folders to work remotely with laptops, most of our designers need the power and resources of our office hardware in order to run AutoCAD or Revit, especially when generating renderings. The remote user doesn’t need a high-end machine at home, because the computer at the office can do the heavy lifting.
7. Take stock of the computers your employees will use remotely. Critically, effective security will rely on their hardware – they are the weakest link. Make sure security protocols are in place, that your team all have anti-virus software installed, and that they are always required to enter user credentials each time they connect remotely. Many people (like me) have never connected remotely before, and are now confronting unfamiliar issues. They may not realize that their home internet security is likely insufficient for your business needs. Acquaint your team with the risks, so they understand why the rules matter. Discuss with them how to identify dangerous emails, spam, phishing attempts etc., and why they should never click on a link or open an attachment from an unverified source. They are partly responsible for keeping the office network safe, and their home computer is part of the office system, so they need to be more wary and cautious than before. This will protect them and you, and support a smooth transition and continued productivity, which means happy clients and sustaining revenue.
8. Once you are up and running, hold regular sessions to troubleshoot issues and reinforce security protocols. Insist that employees never connect from a coffee shop or other remote location – only from home or previously identified, trusted secure locations. (During the COVID-19 emergency, they shouldn’t be going to coffee shops anyway!)
9. Online licensing turns out to be invaluable for architecture and design firms. Subscriptions and annual cloud licenses for Autodesk and Adobe now make remote work possible, even though firms complained about them (mine included). Firms that don’t have the resources to set up a VPN but have the software and pay for licenses can run programs locally. To get access to the files, Dropbox or similar cost effective file transfer platforms can suffice. We recommend putting one person in charge of transferring files from your server to the file transfer platform, and back again. There’s a little more work involved, but less money spent upfront on getting started.
10. Remember to be generous and compassionate with your staff. Everyone is feeling the stresses of transitioning to remote work, plus the underlying reasons for the change. Your team is what will get you and your business through the worst of this crisis, and you need them on your side. Work with them in a way that reduces stress, and that generosity will come back to you from them. This will make for a more productive remote work environment for everyone.

Even before the need arose to go to 100% remote work we had tested these waters with a couple of staff members, so some of this was familiar to us. We’ve been very fortunate: it’s difficult to understate how very talented and capable our staff are, and how willing they have been to carry on. We’re perhaps not quite as efficient as we were a week ago, but we are pretty close. While many companies are just piecing together solutions to get by, others like ours are ninety percent of the way to putting in place the needed level of security – pretty amazing for a two-day transition period. We will shortly be at 100% with protocols for our future security. A lot of the credit also goes to our MSP, Network Advisor Q, who have been invaluable for achieving stability for our workflow – and my sanity.
As for hardware, we considered getting new laptops for but laptops have a poor return on investment over time – they degrade quickly with the high processing demands of Revit and AutoCAD. For those staffers who need them we are looking into high-performance desktops, which are cheaper and and last longer than high-performance laptops. Those laptops tend to be big and bulky anyway, unless you’re willing to go to an exorbitant price point.
Looking ahead, we may consider reducing our physical office footprint significantly. This crisis has presented us with an opportunity to reassess how we work, and to become more nimble and lean. We may not need 4,000 square feet anymore, so perhaps we can save on overhead. We will still have to consider the specifics: whether to rotate staff in-office schedules or create smaller, more flexible work environments. But our considerations of workplace, bandwidth, security and more will never be the same again. Remote work was forced upon us by COVID-19, but this may simply be the next logical step in workplace design and growth. It has been an enlightening experience to say the least.



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