Architects and designers have long believed that successful design requires face to face collaboration. When our firm shifted all employees to work remotely in early March, we had to quickly develop new perspectives on virtual collaboration. Not only is quality design via remote work possible, but the global work-from-home experiment has introduced a surprising number of benefits and habits that we hope to retain long after our return to the office.
We sat down with ZGF Partner Vladimir Pajkic to talk about the “new normal” of virtual work, how he’s reminded of his childhood in Croatia, and the unexpected advantages of his home office in Portland, Ore.
How do you start your day?
I usually get up early, snack, and do some work until my kids wake up. We try to have breakfast together before their school starts. Then I have my daily 9 AM team call for our Aggie Square project in Sacramento for Wexford Science and Technology. Our daily routine on Aggie Square is that at the end of each day, team members compile their design progress into individual 11 x 17 PDFs. Every morning we review those PDFs together and define objectives for the day. The main purpose of this “Daily Progress” video call is to collectively review and critique our work.
From that point, I will spend a few hours going through the daily studies in more detail, reviewing and making comments, and participating on various coordination calls. I’m also making more time to check in with my fellow partners, our clients, project partners, as well as my teams on an individual level. These have been trying times for all of us personally and professionally and it’s important to make the time to connect and understand how we can best support each other.
What is your favorite part of the day?
There is the workday and then there is the rest of life. I have a 10 and a 12-year-old so for my personal life, it’s nice to be around my family more. It’s been fun to sit down to lunch and take a walk together during the day.
Workwise, I enjoy our 9 AM meetings, especially when we have a day with interesting studies to examine. My team uses our virtual pinup meeting every morning to review work completed the previous day, check-in, and ask questions. It’s created a greater awareness of what different people are working on and improved transparency across the team. I enjoy the dialogue.
We are wrapping up the schematic design phase of our project and overall, it’s translated nicely to virtual work. Aggie Square includes team members from the Portland and Los Angeles offices, but the collaboration has been seamless.
What has been the most surprising part of virtual work?
Many of us regarded virtual work as a necessity for the firm to survive until we could return to old habits. I was skeptical at first. After ten weeks I have to say it hasn’t all been bad. In many ways the changes have improved our workflow, made us more efficient and ultimately helped our firm grow. There have been some valuable lessons that we will take with us when we go back to the office:
- The exchanges within project teams are more egalitarian. Conversations and meeting are open to more people rather than just those who are selected to travel for client meetings. This has been especially great for our emerging design professionals, who can be a part of the meetings and share their ideas.
- Virtual work forces people to be clearer and to the point. When you communicate over PDF’s or screens, you have to be more structured in how you present information. Your points must be organized and you need to label options, identify key questions someone might ask, and articulate abstract ideas clearly through the conversation.
- Ability to cross collaborate between offices. Remote working gives us the opportunity to work better as a firmwide team. It’s seamless. You build stronger teams across offices because you don’t think of people as being ‘in your office’—those barriers don’t exist.
- While there is monotony in staying at home, I can see things moving. It’s gratifying to watch the progress. We just sent in a large submission the other day and I was so happy with the designs. The quality of work was great—in some ways better than if we had all been sitting at our desks.
On a personal level, the current comingling of work and home reminds me of my childhood in Croatia. My family lived close to my grandparents who lived above their restaurant. My grandparents woke up and worked, came upstairs for lunch, then returned to work. People traditionally lived and worked in the same place. It’s only recently that we separated these parts of our lives. It’s been interesting to experience that again.
What is your favorite tool of the trade?
I do a lot of hand sketches. I can snap a photo and attach them to emails. Bluebeam has also been very useful, quick, and simple to use.
What do you miss about being in the office?
There is a serendipity of how we work in a creative environment that doesn’t always translate online. I also miss some of the more tactile elements that help translate design, for instance using physical models to interact with clients and contractors.
I think certain stages of the design cycle lend themselves better to remote work. We are finishing the schematic design phase of our project now. The earlier stages of design are easier online. The later phases are when it becomes more challenging; when you want to talk to the builders and subs, go onsite, see the materials, etc. It can be hard to do that from a computer.
What are you doing to decompress?
I try not to watch daily news. I am also listening to podcasts that aren’t related to what is going on in current events, mostly history related, relatively boring but relaxing stuff. We take regular walks and runs in nearby Forest Park
How do you end your day?
We have dinner as a family and maybe watch a show or play a board game.
Now that I’m not travelling, I have more flexibility. There aren’t fixed hours. I can use parts of the day to spend time with my wife and kids and use the evenings, to hop back on the laptop and wrap up work.