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Working remotely with colleagues and clients

19 March 2020

Government recommendations on Monday 16 March strongly advised that all UK workers should be working at home if they are able to, in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19. This has prompted practices nationwide to send their staff home, setting up systems to enable remote working.

Should a ‘lockdown’ situation be imposed within the UK as it has in Italy, in which all workers bar those carrying out essential services are confined to their homes, a practice’s employees will no longer be able to continue working in their office.

Gratifyingly, numerous practices have reported that the transition to working from home has been a painless process, and many had already been testing capacity over the previous weeks.

However, some practices may be struggling with the logistics or costs of implementing home working. They may have sent their employees home yet still be finding their feet, trying out different software and systems.

Simon Hurrell, IT Solutions Architect at construction IT specialist Excitech, suggests that practices who feel completely out of their technological depth should embrace simple, immediate solutions in order to continue their workflow.

Small practices, for instance, that find the implementation of a VPN (virtual private network) intimidating should not dismiss the plethora of cheap or free cloud-based services such as Google Drive or Microsoft OneDrive. These may be simple, but they will allow you to continue work quickly and effectively.

Using a cloud-based storage service is the quickest immediate solution for a small business, Hurrell urges, with the caveat that they are not great at allowing different people to access and work on a particular file at the same time. He advises that two-step verification for access, familiar to users of online banking, should be turned on (it is usually off by default) to dramatically improve security.

More powerful business versions of cloud storage are available at a reasonably modest cost. For instance the business-configured Google Drive, now called G Suite, which offers team chat, video conferencing and manageable permissions to view, edit and download files with unlimited storage.

Many practices have been pleasantly surprised at the ease by which remote working can be implemented. Several have suggested that it could be transformative of practices’ working culture in the longer term.

For videoconferencing, many practices are using the video conferencing-oriented Zoom (the free version supports 100-participant conferences up to 40 minutes long) while several larger practices favour Cisco’s WebEx. For integrated messaging and video many practices have rapidly set up Microsoft Teams (popular among users of cloud-based Office 365) or Slack.

The remote-working alternative to the cloud cited by several IT-literate small practices is Network Attached Storage (NAS), with remote staff access via VPN internet connections.

NAS drives are smart, network-enabled storage systems that enable access to media and work files via the internet without any special knowledge about networking. Some are already set up to sync seamlessly with popular software such as Office 365.

Tomas Millar of Millar + Howard Workshop is a convert and agrees that NAS is like having your own private cloud. His office implemented remote working last week over one afternoon. They run two NAS drives which mirror each other: one in the office and the other kept remotely as a back-up system, with back-up taking place every night.

RIBA Small Practice Group chair Barbara Kaucky also likes NAS drives for their simplicity. Her practice, Erect Architecture, set up home working last week and is using Zoom for video conferencing. She reports that the practice recently received an enquiry where the ability to hold remote meetings is a requirement for getting the job.

Hurrell recommends practices should check that all home computers and laptops are compatible and are running updated systems. Software licences may need to be re-assigned, but this is usually straightforward. Some practices have issued staff with company laptops – in many cases rented rather than bought – while others have sent employees home in cabs with their workstations.

Practices using very large BIM data sets or Revit models, where access speed and performance are more critical, may struggle to stay stable with typical remote access speeds, but there are specialist software and hardware solutions available - albeit at a cost.

Hurrell says balancing security and performance against cost will always be the key considerations in enabling home working. But the lesson this week is that ensuring business continuity during the coronavirus outbreak is viable, inexpensive and well within the capabilities of even the most technologically challenged of architects.

Not only has working with colleagues crossed over smoothly into the on-screen world for most practices, but many practices have reported that their clients are for the most part happy to communicate remotely.

However, one aspect of a practice’s workload that cannot be conducted from home is site visits. Some practices report taking a broad view on what government advice concerning working from home ‘where possible’ means: their staff are continuing to visit sites to a limited extent and expect to carry on doing so while those sites remain open. Other practices have ceased all work travel and are adopting ingenious techniques, such as asking contractors to share video footage of onsite work.

RIBAJ have also written an article on examples of how practices are following government advice in swiftly shifting to home working.

The RIBA has initiated advice on COVID-19, which members are advised to check as the situation develops.

Thanks to Simon Hurrell, IT Solutions Architect, Excitech; Tomas Millar, Director, Millar + Howard Workshop; Barbara Kaucky, Director, Erect Architecture; Kyle Buchanan, Director, Archio.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum Topic: Business, clients and services.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

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