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Technology doesn’t quite cover everything

Is the office really dead? A lot can be done virtually but some things still work better when you’re all in the same physical place

Covid-19 has forced us, and colleagues across the world, to change the way we work. We’ve had to adapt to entirely remote working and plan for a potential recession.  Social media is full of stories of teams coming together via VC and cheerful declarations that the physical office is dead. 

Based on three months of this, our view is different. At the start of the lockdown we were extremely bullish. Our business started as individuals working remotely, often across different time zones – we wouldn’t need a remote working adaptation period. No missteps here. We adopted cloud based communication apps such as Slack and Google Jamboard years ago. As we’ve grown as a practice and graduated to real office buildings we’ve kept those tools. They are essential to us. We would definitely recommend them for live interactive sketching and snappy conversations. 

But we have learnt that the previous truism of physical design interaction being at the heart of the everyday debate and resolution of the dozens of engineering challenges we face is a reality. Without being able to sit next to a colleague to sketch or point at results on the screen we are not as design fluent. 

There are no immediate answers to this. We already have great tools in place to work the best we can in the circumstances but most people here think full remote working isn’t really a new utopia of work/life balance.  We miss the pub/each other and have to accept that the hours we are physically in the office will be less regimented in the future. Our way of dealing with this is behavioural change. We accept productivity will be hit and impress upon staff the need for patience and space in responding to engineering challenges. But small companies tend to have passionate, over committed and often impatient founding directors. We need to unlearn the habits of 20 years.

Another way we plan for the future is to develop new digital tools. Spending money on non-immediate project needs is risky when we should be hoarding cash to see through a recession, but we’ve invested in a new workflow to link different modelling and analysis packages together for quicker/neater results, we’ve built our own tools to more quickly model the engineering properties of complex shapes, we’ve developed CFD scripts and we’ve moved over wholesale to Google doc suite.

One remote working new norm that has worked well is external meetings. Why travel to London and burn time and carbon when 75% of meetings with architects/artists/developers work perfectly well over Zoom? Taking it a step further, there are plans afoot for VR design and site meetings. Our long time collaborator Mamou-Mani Architects is hiring game developers to create VR tools to allow that to happen. 

In summary, we want to go back to the office but we can’t. When we can not everything will have changed but some things will. If we are leaner in what we do, how we do it and more tolerant of time pressures we’ll get through it and come out the other side in good shape.  

Stephen Melville is director at Format Engineers

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