The A/E/C industry has been talking about the emergence of the virtual office for what seems like decades. Is the day finally near at hand? Frank A. Stasiowski, FAIA, president of PSMJ Resources, thinks so.
“Technology, the need for flexibility and the allure of low overhead will result in an explosion of new virtual design firms,” Stasiowski writes in his new book, Impact 2030: Disruptions in the Design Industry for the Next 10 Years. “With technology making it ever more seamless to work together even when physically far apart, at a much lower cost and greater convenience, virtual firms make too much sense not to become mainstream by 2030.”
One firm that may be at the leading edge of the movement is Boston-based H+O Structural Engineering. Rens F. Hayes IV, P.E., one of the firm’s principals, says, “We leverage remote employees to help scale our production resources. This opens up our potential talent pool to the entire U.S. rather than just Boston or Denver,” where the firm’s two offices are located.
“Everything we do lives in the cloud; we literally do not have one server in Boston,” Hayes notes. Forty percent of the Boston office’s computing power is provided by remote employees, he says, adding: “Weekly virtual meetings are held through a web-based conference solution such as Zoom Meetings. Internal collaboration also happens over one-on-one screen shares. With today’s remote desktop technology, there is virtually no lag with Revit, Bluebeam and our engineering software.”
Remote employees often begin working for H+O on a part-time basis. According to Hayes, there’s less risk for the candidate because they don’t have to re-locate or make other life-altering decisions. That also benefits the firm, because it typically means the new employee can start work immediately. This approach acts as a trial phase for both parties.
H+O only hires experienced personnel, usually those who have taken (or are about to take) the PE exam. With that kind of experience, remote employees can be productive on break-out tasks to support project managers, according to Jeremiah O’Neill, another of the firm’s principals; however, it’s difficult for them to take project accountability given their part-time availability.
“Remote employees can function as if they were sitting in our office,” O’Neill says. “However, it’s important to balance remote and on-site office personnel, to make sure we have the appropriate staff local to the project for in-person meetings and site visits.”
O’Neill suggests that excellent onboarding, training and design process documentation are critical to making the concept work. Just as important is the human side of the equation.
“When you’re working remotely, it’s easy to feel isolated,” he says. The firm uses Slack to keep remote employees engaged with the rest of the team, and an annual holiday get-together helps build the office culture and strengthen internal relationships. Commitment from the entire staff is key to seamless collaboration.
“Everyone from management on down has bought into the concept,” Hayes adds. “It’s just how we do business.”