Updated: Dec 4, 2020
About one month ago I was interviewed by Sean Joyner of Archinect wanting to know more about how I've been running a virtual architecture practice for over a decade.
He was also curious about how I would expect the Covid 19 "lockdown" to effect my business.
Here are the interview questions with my answers:
Could you briefly describe your practice and what you do in architecture? My firm, J Kretschmer Architect, is focused primarily on Residential Architecture. Although from time to time we will do a commercial project. Our specialty is helping single family homeowners change their current homes to something that is nearly new and meets the client’s personality. Our motto is “Realize Your Vision” as the design is not about the architect but about the homeowners dreams.
Why have you decided to adopt a remote working model for your operations? It started out as just being practical and hiring my first remote worker as someone I knew from a previous firm that was already doing remote work. He preferred to work that way, and I wanted to work with him. That was in 2005. By 2008, the economy made me choose to move my business operations to my home so I could stop paying rent. Because my local zoning ordinance did not allow employees to work at my home, it made sense to just have my workers work from home, too.
How does remote work influence day to day collaboration amongst staff? Honestly, there are some days we don’t talk to each other at all. But we have set up protocol for methods of communication for when we want to have a conversation. Some of my workers are in other time zones. So, we also have set up times when we can talk to each other. We utilize all the technology available to us: texting, email, Zoom, phone, Podio. Again, we have set and written protocols on reaching each other.
What are the biggest challenges or cons of remote work? It can get lonely if you lean more towards being an extrovert like me. But, I’ve been doing it now for 12 years, and I’ve made it work. I hear from many managers that they find it difficult that they can’t see what their workers are doing at any point in time. I’ve just learned to hire the best and trust that they will meet their task goals.
What kind of leader does it take for this to work? A leader must be very organized with office standards or an office manual written and online. The leader must be consistent with their expectations. The leader needs to be an adept communicator and in architecture able to have verbal skills to communicate visual concepts.
How do you keep people accountable? The most important mental transition to keep in mind when having a remote team is that it is not as important the hours put into work, but the tasks that get accomplished. So we have task lists and a job board. You can’t pretend to be busy in this type of environment, because no one sees you “being busy.” So, everyone needs to learn to be self-motivated and keep themselves accountable by staying on task.
How does pay work? Are employees salaried? If so, is there time-based on time or deliverables? Every firm will have to determine this model themselves. This is entirely part of the business plan of a particular business. In my case, I only hire licensed architects who have their own work, too. They are independent contractors and they send me a proposal for how much and how they will charge me on a particular project. They commit only to the projects where we have an approved contract with one another.
What are the essential technological tools and software needed to navigate remote work effectively? First (for design firms): Your graphics tools like CAD/BIM, photo editing, and anything used for visual presentations of the work. 2: Office and financial software or online platforms. What you need to pay bills, written communications, taxes, your office manual or standards, etcetera. 3: File Sharing and Data Storage. Online or servers that allow workers access to company files remotely. I also like to have a physical backup along with cloud storage. 4: Task Management Software or online. There are so many services for this now. Pick one that works for the company model. Don’t use a multitude of platforms or communications will get lost. I like the ones that allow for tasks to get checked off and seen by all.
Does it get difficult to separate life and work? Initially, it can be. It takes discipline to tell yourself, your clients, and workers that there are office hours. I have rules with my family and they understand. I also have a dedicated space for working that’s separate from any other room in the house.
Do you have office hours? Absolutely. M-F 9AM-6PM.
Does it ever get lonely? How do you deal with this? Sure. But as a business owner, networking is very important. That is why I belong to the AIA so that I can connect with my architect peers. I am also a volunteer Art Docent and teach art to K-8 students in my school district. I make it a point to get together with friends or allied professionals a few times a month for coffee or lunch.
What does the design process look like? It looks the same as with any other architecture firm. We just utilize technology for all the steps that normally happen in person. For example, when I need to have a design meeting with one of my architects, we do this over Zoom which allows us to share our screens. BIM can be modeled during the meeting easily and our conversation can be just as fluid as if we were in the same room.
What else should I know about remote work and architectural practice? The laws about remote workers, independent contractors vs employees, gig economy, practice insurance, contracts are constantly evolving. Firm owners need to keep up to date on what laws will affect their practice in choosing to move toward a virtual office with remote workers. The new mindset is Your firm is not a place, but a group of people brought together to accomplish great projects.
Has the coronavirus pandemic affected your work operations in any way? No, not yet. On this first workday since school was cancelled in my area, I have already received two calls for new projects. But I do expect that some projects will likely get cancelled in the future.
With many firms transitioning to remote work during this crisis, what would be three tips you'd provide to firm leaders? 1.Send clear messages to your workers as of the state of the company and reassure them that they are not losing their jobs. 2. Don’t try too many new systems/technology all at once. 3. Keep your company culture in mind with every change you make and don’t change to something that is in conflict with your company culture.
Many firms are hiring right now as well. With some offices closing, facilitating the interview process could get tricky, how do you go about hiring new staff? Everything I do is online, on the cloud and in social media. I use video conferencing to interview and test potential hires.
You mentioned the 2008 recession pushing you towards working from home so that you did not have to pay rent. What other benefits do you feel remote work provides in the event of another recession? Freedom. Since I can work anywhere and anytime, I was able to have time for my family and still get projects completed. I also think that being able to be geographically free, can lead to looking at new markets, too. Many of my workers are in rural areas or areas where there are fewer projects. Working for me they are exposed to projects in California and can use working for me to fill in holes in their schedule.
Were there any other ways in which you were able to thrive during the 2008 recession? I stayed calm and didn’t sweat the small stuff. Getting rid of rent gave me a larger buffer with earnings. I kept myself busy by improving my systems and also creating (and selling) art. I paint watercolors and mixed media. I spent time learning about marketing and participated in community events. All of this gave me a better restart position once the recession ended.
I understand you train architects on virtual office and remote work strategies. What have you learned while training other architects? Are there any common assumptions or commonalities amongst your students? I think that I started a little naive in thinking that transitioning to a virtual firm or remote working would be easy to teach. It doesn’t seem that hard to me. But then, I grew up in Silicon Valley and have always thought about how I can use technology to my advantage. I’ve never been afraid of it. I don’t worry that I’m going to break something. Many of the participants in my sessions are not very comfortable in trying something new, especially where technology is involved. On the other hand, some participants are very comfortable with technology. Finding that balance where I’m not patronizing the digital natives while also not speaking over the heads of the technophobes has been my greatest challenge. There’s also a group of people that assume that architecture can never be a profession that can be practiced successfully, remotely. Architecture can be tactile. But that doesn’t mean that work must be performed in person. My second challenge is helping the skeptics see where architecture as a profession can thrive with remote working.
You can read Sean's full article here: https://archinect.com/features/article/150189860/running-a-virtual-architecture-practice-with-jennifer-kretschmer
Please take a look at other great Architnect interviews including one by my friend Leah Alissa Bayer of EVIA. https://archinect.com/features/article/150190602/managing-a-virtual-design-studio-with-leah-alissa-bayer