Innovation, Resilience & Relationship Building

Kate Fitzgerald , 20 April 2020

COVID-19 disruption has been all-encompassing, but there are signs of innovation, community resilience and relationship building emerging all around us, observes Kate Fitzgerald of Fremantle-based Whispering Smith.  

Whispering Smith was labelled a ‘staunchly’ feminist architecture practice by one of our favourite writers a few years ago, and we’re enjoying growing into that label. We are a small team of four, and our studio space is in an old warehouse in South Fremantle. The WS team was hands-on when we took over the lease and we now have a space that we share with other design studios. The King William Studios are also home to a landscape architecture firm, Seedesign Studio and an interior architecture studio, Ohlo Studio. We have a gallery space called the Sometimes Gallery, because we ‘sometimes’ host art exhibitions on the side of our practice for local artists, and it’s the home of the ‘BoSP’ or Business of Small Practice that we co-founded with the ACA. We’re working on some great residential projects and are collaborating with some innovative businesses across some pretty diverse industries for a small practice. We enjoy working with clients and businesses we respect and admire, and we’re finding that it's taking us on some great architectural journeys at the moment.

What measures has your practice put in place in response to COVID-19? What are you looking at doing next? 

We have seen more than half of our projects go offline for a while, so the team is on reduced hours for the foreseeable future. The WS team had two weeks off when things escalated in mid-March, which gave me an opportunity to run cashflows and research stimulus, speak to our clients and, most importantly for the team, to spend a few weeks outside in the sunshine rather than being cooped up, anxiously trying to work while it was all going down. Autumn in Perth is beautiful, and at that stage we didn’t know if stricter measures were coming so ensuring the team were having a breather and spending some time outdoors during the first few weeks of isolation was something we did to ensure we transitioned into working from home feeling refreshed and ready.

Do you have staff working remotely? How are you managing this – in terms of both technical / IT matters and workplace systems and cultures? 

We are now completely remote. We’re a young team, and have always been a cloud-based practice to allow us to work easily on interstate and regional projects that we love (we are working on a project in Esperance, for example) so working from home wasn’t difficult for us to do. Thanks to Warwick Mihaly’s advice at the last BoSP, we now use the online platform, Streamtime, to keep us on track all with our project work and time, which we review each week. We have also recently put up a Trello board of ‘tasks’ that are cropping up on an ad-hoc basis and need to be monitored to ensure we catch them all, and we are using Slack for all our comms. We came up with a simple procedure document that outlined the daily tasks we all need to focus on to keep our communication levels up, and to ensure that we’re maintaining workflow and professionality while we are away from the office. The ACA survey prompted us to instigate an #areyouokguys channel on Slack just to make sure we’re there for each other if anyone needs it and we’re working up a good supply of memes and emoticons to see us through. 

Do you have any tips for creating successful working relationships remotely? With colleagues, clients and others?

I think this is all about going the extra mile for someone, whenever you can. We’ve witnessed some incredible acts of generosity towards our firm lately from our landlords, our small business community, the government and even the banks are getting in on helping out at the moment! We’ve had our ups and downs as most emerging practices do, but we’ve never had support like this, and now it seems so normal I’m wondering why I’ve never asked for it before. We recently spent three hours on the phone over the weekend going over a grant application with our local branding and design team Nude Studio. They made time for us because they really care about our business and they want to see us succeed. That’s the kind of thing that makes a real difference during unprecedented times. If we get any info, tools or help we are passing it on to our small practice and small business community, to our friends and our clients. All this good will that’s going around at the moment is building something new. There are signs of innovation and community resilience are emerging all around us and all the work that is going into relationships during this time is already having a positive impact on our business and the businesses around us.

What challenges have you encountered to date? 

People deal with this kind of crisis in unique ways, and I think it’s been a challenge to pick up that someone isn’t coping well in day-to-day life or is perhaps reacting in a different way because of the external stress factor. A good friend of mine shared a great article about this particular topic by Huddle called ‘The human side of business continuity’ and it’s been really helpful to learn and develop a better understanding of how people think and operate in unusual times.

What advice would you give to other practices based on your experiences so far?

Keep an eye out for the silver lining – it’s everywhere at the moment. If your workflow has been reduced, it’s a good time to be thinking about your practice, and about all the things you’ve wanted to implement or develop because there has never been a better time. The ACA has partnered with Archibiz, who are running a series of business development sessions, and if you are in small practice it’s a great thing to be doing while you are working from home.

Encourage your team to put in some personal reflection and development time for themselves too – it could be reading books, preparing for registration or reflecting on the kind of practitioners they want to be when things return to normal. If you’ve slowed down, it’s a time for dreaming about the possibilities of what the future of your practice could be, and actually making some solid steps towards that while we’re waiting for this thing to resolve itself. Architects operate under an endless parade of deadlines, and if you’ve got some breathing room right now, you may as well enjoy it while you can.

Kate Fitzgerald is a Director of Whispering Smith, a co-creator of the Business of Small Practice (BoSP) series of events and a member of the ACA – WA Committee.

Photo: The Whispering Smith team and Jen from Ohlo Studio in the WS gallery space.