Running a Practice in Lockdown

Warwick Mihaly , 1 June 2020

Warwick Mihaly shares the challenges of trying to run a small practice in lockdown while supervising remote learning with small children and keeping his business afloat.

Mihaly Slocombe is the small architecture business I run with my wife. Erica and I also share the parenting of our two young children, who are in grade two and kinder this year.

At the best of times this is a daily juggling act of epic proportions. Every day one of us arrives late to work after school and kinder drop-off, and every day one of us leaves early from work for school and kinder pick-up. We cram the full-time job of running our business into part-time hours by responding to urgent emails while shuttling kids to soccer practice, marking up drawings while preparing after-school snacks, and signing off on invoices deep into the night.

But if you happen to be starring in the same super fun circus act, you will be intimately familiar with the additional complexities that working from home and remote learning have brought to business-parenting in the COVID-19 era. And like us, you are probably daydreaming fondly of the good old days when all you were juggling were tennis balls, not kitchen knives.

Fortunately, we haven’t directly experienced the health effects of COVID-19. So this juggle, and the pressures it puts on our time, instead takes the prize as the biggest challenge it’s forcing us to face.

Let me quantify this for you

When our business went into lockdown on 23 March, the same week in which remote learning began for Victorian public school children, Erica and I shifted from this official work schedule:

7 - old schedule

To this:

6 - new schedule

We went from 4.5 days of work a week each with Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays together, to 3 days of work a week each with only Tuesdays together.

As you might imagine, this has played havoc with how much work we’ve been able to do during lockdown, and when we’ve been able to do it. To illustrate, this is a typical timesheet of mine from April 2019:

3 - Old timesheet

And here’s one from a couple of weeks ago:

5 - new timesheet

By chance, both timesheets happen to add up to just over 37 hours of work across the week. But last year only 3% of those hours was outside the regular work day, while this year 26% were (including an unfortunately very common whopper of a day on the Tuesday).

So much for our official work schedule.

But remember, Erica and I are spending fewer days in the “office” at the moment. Work might have elbowed its way into our remote learning days, evenings and weekends, but we’re just not able to find enough time in the week to make up our lost hours. To compound things, we have kept our team full-time so are still trying to manage our business much the same as we were before.

To put this into perspective, this is what our hours and those of our team looked like across March and April 2019:

8 - old team

And this is what they looked like across March and April 2020:

4 - new team

Between us, Erica’s and my total hours across the two months went down 17% while our team’s hours stayed more or less the same.

Unfortunately, not only has the quantity of our hours changed, their quality has too. One way of measuring this is to look at the proportion of our time spent contributing to project productivity. This might mean marking up a drawing, presenting to our clients, attending a site meeting or briefing an engineer. It doesn’t mean setting up JobKeeper in Xero, emailing our accountant about JobKeeper, calling the ATO about JobKeeper or bitching with colleagues about JobKeeper.

Here’s the division of Erica’s and my time between project work and business work across March and April 2019:

9 - old time breakdown

And here’s what the division looked like across March and April 2020:

10 - new time breakdown

We went from spending 59% of our time on project work to 32% of our time on project work. You might argue that the most important thing the leaders of a business can do is work on it and not in it. And I agree, wholeheartedly. But I don’t think all these extra hours actually count as working on our business. It’s like we’ve been working at some meta level on our business, contributing to neither projects nor business health, just treading water like crazy to stay afloat.

Let me recap:

  • Erica’s and my hours within the regular work week have gone down 23%
  • Our total hours have gone down 17%
  • And our project hours have gone down 27%

Which in real terms means we have gone from spending around 40 hours between us each week contributing to project productivity to just 18 hours between us each week. This explains in unflinching numbers our dramatically reduced productivity these past months, as well as the slightly crazed sensation we’ve been experiencing, of working hard but going nowhere.

Remember those kitchen knives I mentioned we were juggling? Well, now it appears that all this time they’ve been doused in oil and set on fire.

Tentative solutions

But… don’t panic. This juggle is at a much anticipated crossroads.

Remote work is still the status quo, but our kids are back at school and kinder. For the time being (at least until one of our kids catches a cold, or school holidays kick off again in four short weeks), our official work schedules have gone back to looking like this:

7 - old schedule

The first stage of lockdown is over, hopefully for good. And with the second stage kicking off, I’ve been doing some reflecting on the strategic decisions we’ve made since lockdown began to help us deal with all the chaos.

These decisions have not been universally successful by any stretch of the imagination. But they have been decisions at least, permitting us to retain some measure of control over our lives, and giving us a framework within which to manage our finances, address our current portfolio of projects, pursue new opportunities and coordinate the remote workflow of our team.

Strategic decision #1: lean heavily on the government

The federal, state and local governments of Australia have provided a range of generous measures to help small businesses like ours survive the first six months of the COVID-19 crisis. We’ve sought access to these with enthusiasm.

Strategic decision #2: think long term

When we started our lockdown planning in late March, we made some key assumptions about how its effects might play out and defined a few long-term goals to guide our planning. We assumed that:

  • There will be a health crisis for six months
  • There will be an economic crisis for 12 months following
  • During the health crisis we will win no new projects, but during the economic crisis we might win a few
  • Most importantly, Mihaly Slocombe will still exist after COVID-19
  • And everyone currently in our team will stay in our team

These assumptions and goals have helped us do things like prepare scenario plans for our project portfolio, create forecasts to test the financial health of our business, and adjust our monthly milestone targets for our team.

Strategic decision #3: act short term

With the backdrop of long-term thinking going on, we also took some inspiration from the beautiful mantis shrimp, which attacks its prey with such speed and ferocity that its pincers deliver a striking force of 2,500 times its own weight.[Thanks go to our wonderful clients, Chris and Karolina, for introducing me to the compelling mantis shrimp.]

Since lockdown began we’ve pursued potential projects with a similar ferocity, ramping up our marketing activities within our established market sectors, and looking beyond them for new opportunities. This has been, I must confess, exhausting and so far not all that successful. But our intent has been to create an increased project pipeline to offset the decreased likelihood of actually winning any given project.

Strategic decision #4: slow down the pace

As it stands, all the government incentives will expire come the end of September. This might change with the Jobmaker package just announced, but if it doesn’t our priority is to position our business to survive the inevitable financial cliff we’re all going to jump off in October.

This makes our current portfolio of active projects our greatest asset. If new projects turn out to be as scarce as we have assumed them to be, we need to draw out our current ones to make them last as long as possible. Thanks to the reduced productivity I quantified at the top of this article, we haven’t even needed to engineer this slower pace; it has happened organically.

Strategic decision #5: spend all our time on Slack and Zoom

And finally, we’ve acknowledged that remote work sucks. It is way less productive, it hinders effective communication and it is rubbish for connectedness. It may work fine in other industries, but I just can’t see how it can for architects when we rely so heavily on being in the same room to collaborate, provide support and learn.

To counteract the many negative facets of remote work, we have:

  • Been militant about Dropbox file management, to ensure everyone always has access to the same files
  • Used dedicated Slack channels for each project to keep communication flowing
  • Facilitated weekly Zoom meetings to review progress on milestones, daily Zoom standups to keep abreast of what’s on each day, and Friday Zoomtails to unwind at the end of the week

Upon reflection, I can see that these decisions have allowed us to maintain some semblance of forward momentum over the past two months. Lockdown has been terrible for our business, no doubt about it, but we’re still going and hopefully still in a position to tackle the next stage of the COVID-19 craziness with our sanity intact.

Warwick Mihaly is a principal of Melbourne-based architecture studio Mihaly Slocombe. He is also a director of ArchiTeam and committee member of the Australian Institute of Architects. He’s a father, rookie yogi, casual skateboarder and enthusiastic chess player.

This article was originally published on Warwick’s blog Panfilo and is republished here with permission. A collection of Panfilo articles related to Covid-19 can be accessed here.