Work away – Re-imagining how and where we work

Author: Greg McQueen[1]

COVID – 19  has battered economies and changed how we live our lives but it’s also given us the opportunity to rethink where and how we work. The global work from home experiment has shown practices that its possible for staff to work remotely without sacrificing productivity and some employees are finding it easier to work and create in a more isolated environment.

In a post Corona world, we’ll see architectural firms redesigning their work protocols and some may choose never to return to a traditional office based environment.

Picture 01: Travels through Vietnam urban areas. Photo Credit: Eugene Olivier
Picture 02: Travels through Vietnam, rural areas. Photo credit: Eugene Olivier

In 2019, Eugene, an architect at a large Cape Town based practice, experimented with working remotely while travelling through Vietnam and Malaysia for 4.5 months. We’ve chosen to share some of what he learned as we all think of new ways of working in the future.

Picture 03-05: Examples of Eugene working in different environments.

Picture 03. Photo credit: Eugene Olivier
Picture 04. Photo credit: Eugene Olivier
Picture 05. Photo credit: Eugene Olivier

Lessons from remote working:

Communication:

Its easy to misunderstand each other when you’re forced to rely on digital communication. Emails sent in haste often come across as unnecessarily brusque and tone of voice is lost in a text message. To overcome this, Eugene learned to be mindful of his communication, to arrange weekly Skype check ins with his manager and to use emojis which help to convey the tone of a message.

Cutting yourself some slack:

Given the chance to work abroad by his practice, Eugene put a lot of pressure on himself to perform. He pushed himself to be as productive as possible every day. Soon though, he came to realise that in an office environment, everyone has days when they struggle to get any work done. He realised that it was ok to have those types of days on the road as well. Working at a frenzied pace would’ve eventually burned him out, but when he accepted that he could allow himself to be unproductive sometimes, he began to adopt more sustainable work practices.

Picture 06-08: More places and locations Eugene worked from

Picture 06. Photo credit: Eugene Olivier
Picture 07. Photo credit: Eugene Olivier
Picture 08. Photo cedit: Eugene Olivier

Tools for remote work:

Eugene picked up a number of tools for effective remote learning.

Trust:

Remote working is only possible when practices trust their employees. In a remote environment, that requires setting up systems and routines to facilitate clear communication and to monitor progress. Eugene’s office used a combination of Skype for Business and Microsoft Teams to stay in touch.

Prioritise:

Eugene knew that he was only able to explore incredible places because of the relationship he had with his practice. That forced him to prioritise his architectural work each day. He made sure his itinerary was relaxed, staying in places for a week or ten days. This let him explore slowly, without having to rush from attraction to attraction. He also planned each day carefully; if he wanted to visit a museum in the afternoon he’d work from a nearby coffee shop in the morning to reduce travel time.

Working Hours:

Find working hours which work for you and the practice. Eugene established a routine of working for five hours in the early morning, exploring during the midday and then working again in the evenings when the Cape Town office was online. Eugene found a system which worked for him; he was able to both explore and stay abreast of his work requirements. Maybe its worth testing different strategies during the lockdown to investigate how to best structure your day?

Be Strategic:

Before booking a hostel, Eugene researched whether there were places nearby where he could work. There are many digital nomad blogs devoted to this kind of information and Google maps is great resource as well. He also made sure to arrive in a new city on a Saturday. That gave him the rest of the weekend to locate the best WIFI and work hotspots near his hostel so that he could hit the ground running on a Monday morning.

Work stage:

The type of work you’ll be doing is important to consider when working and travelling. Work which doesn’t require lots of collaboration is best for working abroad. Construction documentation doesn’t require much feedback whilst conceptual design is often more collaborative.

Picture 09. Working and travelling. Photo credit: Eugene Olivier
Picture 10. Eugene exploring while still working as architect for a Cape Town based practice. Photo credit: Eugene Olivier
Photo Credit: Eugene Olivier

After Corona:

As we’re to rethink how and where its possible to work, maybe its time to imagine a future remote work will become a year round possibility.

Footnotes

[1]Greg McQueen is a candidate architect and part-time lecturer at the University of the Free State. He is interested in the spaces between buildings, inner city rejuvenation and how architecture shapes societal relationships.

email: gregmcqueen.dbn@gmail.com

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