Building on Existing Flex Systems

Brian Clohessy , 5 April 2020

For BVN, the transition to all staff working from home has been ‘seamless’. The ease of the move is an outcome of already having robust flex systems in place, a commitment to open honest communication, and a focus on health and wellbeing.

BVN began life 95 years ago in Toowoomba, Queensland and now numbers 280 people, with studios in Sydney, Brisbane, New York and London. The practice works across a diverse range of project types and scales, with a focus on complex public and private sector projects. Current work includes commercial, education, defence, workplace, multiresidential, masterplanning, mixed use and health projects.

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

BVN currently has a full Working From Home (WFH) arrangement in place for all staff. Prior to implementing this, communications within the practice about COVID-19 occurred weekly. These are now more frequent, reflecting the fast pace of new information being released from health authorities. With myriad conflicting information sources, our approach has been to balance a compassionate response, addressing any fears our people were experiencing regarding COVID-19, with a pragmatic and cohesive update of correct information on the situation at hand, and specifically how BVN is responding to this.

We have created a dedicated page on our intranet collating all communications following government and health authority advice, with links to webpages most relevant to each state and country in which BVN studios are located. We have published WFH and COVID19 fact sheets, including where to find COVID19 test centres, and correspondence on mental wellbeing and our Employee Assistance Program (EAP).

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

Sydney moved to full WFH on Tuesday 24 March and Brisbane on Thursday 26 March. Our London and New York studios were already WFH, in response to the various states of lockdown in those cities. The transition has been seamless.

We are using a completely virtualised desktop computer environment, which we implemented five years ago. This allows our teams to work securely from wherever they are, using the full power of our computing environment. Essentially, we can work from home as if we are in the studio. This is a much more robust and flexible system when compared to other technologies such as VPN access.

Our teams have full real-time access to our system, project files, and software, and can connect and collaborate through Microsoft Teams. Our video conferencing platform Bluejeans allows us to connect with our clients all over the world. If required, our people can access the studios similarly to our afterhours/weekend operations.

Prior to making the decision to have all our people working from home fulltime, we spent several weeks testing our existing remote technology at scale, with various teams out of the studio on different days. This enabled us to troubleshoot any issues that came up.

How are you communicating the changes to clients?

We issued a general COVID19 communication piece, directly to our clients through project teams. We have also created BVN COVID 19 email signatures, which update those who need to be informed without spamming everyone unnecessarily.

What challenges have you encountered to date?

We are still in the early days of WFH, but at this stage we have not encountered any major challenges. We have developed the following as solutions to issues that may arise – this includes strategies to keep morale strong, understand working hours, and keep track of work being produced by different teams and individuals.

  1. BVN has always been very focused on the mental wellbeing of our people. We are perhaps even more conscious of it in the WFH environment. We have developed a weekly check-in call to ensure a personable approach to track everyone’s wellbeing. It is a way to see how they are going, without work necessarily being the focus. The call follows a simple script where the caller can log the responses in a survey which allows us to track the data and gain insights to allow us to create initiatives when required.
  2. Our co-CEOs have replaced the weekly real life ‘lollies hour’ (where our people would enjoy lollies over a chat), with a virtual one. This is a forum for the CEOs to update the BVN collective on projects and general matters, while offering an opportunity for our people to post questions that can be answered live.
  3. We are asking our project leaders to be more vigilant, and to let us know if any of their team is not participating on Microsoft Teams communication channels or has erratic log-in/online times. We are also creating artificial teams from the cohort of individuals working on projects by themselves to make sure they have a social network online.

Did you have systems and processes in place already that you have been able to build on (for example for flexible work)? If so, how has this worked?

We are fortunate to have a culture that supports and encourages both formal and everyday flexible working. This arrangement has been in place for some time, and has allowed us to smoothly transition to a full WFH operation. As described earlier, this is underpinned by our remote technology strategy. Having these cornerstones in place has allowed us to focus on the add-ons, enabling us to develop and deploy highly effective remote teams.

We have been building upon our communications with our teams by:

  1. Creating a comprehensive WFH guide for remote teams.
  2. Issuing technology video tutorials to troubleshoot all aspects of WFH.
  3. Harnessing existing Microsoft Teams to promote effective communications and to continue a strong ‘virtual’ social presence between us. People are posting updates, replacing the ‘kitchen chatter/ banter’ with online exchanges, uploading photos of their working/living environment, sharing lunchtime catch-ups, offering exercise examples and sharing more personal aspects of their lives, such as their pets and children. We have found this to be a very rewarding experience collectively and in no small way has lifted the company’s spirits.
  4. We have a champion in each studio who launches these exchanges daily, which in turn encourages others to share. Unsurprisingly our digital natives have embraced this form of communication and taken working from home in their stride. In our diverse BVN community, the extroverted characters are openly sharing and there are plenty of others not visible in the open channels. This is fine as long as we are checking in with them and they are participating in their team channels.
  5. Since WFH has commenced, feedback from our people is that they are focusing on communicating daily with each other and it has encouraged them to formalise ways of working as a team. This will no doubt inform how we work in the studio in the future. This is an unexpected but positive outcome.
  6. We are currently only using approximately 50% of our bandwidth at this stage.

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

In our experience we suggest ensuring you support your teams with the following:

  1. Provide your team with the tools, equipment and resources to be effective when working remotely.
  2. Be empathetic to everyone’s circumstances as they adapt to our new normal and acknowledge that it will take some time to get up to speed consistently across all teams.
  3. Support your people from a mental wellbeing perspective – it’s hugely important and needs to be a focus just as much as keeping project continuity.
  4. Be open and honest in your communications and ensure you are updating them at least once a week on what is happening as a business, given the unprecedented context.

We also suggest sharing your challenges and successes on forums like ACA, the Institute of Architects and Parlour so we can all learn and navigate this crisis as a collective.

Brian Clohessy is an architect and Head of People and Character at BVN, leading the development of the practice’s vision, strategy and structure for all things people-related. Prior to taking up this role, he was BVN Sydney Studio Director.