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Navigating virtual collaboration

by Nicole Glynn

Since March 2020, we’ve all experienced the many ways in which the pandemic has impacted our way of life and taught us how to adapt quickly to change. Through these challenging times, we’ve been continuously inspired by our team’s resilience. From integrating new collaborative work styles to creatively rethinking project scopes, our Bulfinches have not only successfully completed projects but have also identified opportunities to enhance our work in ways we previously never could have imagined.
A new “normal” 

How do you design a brand-new comprehensive strategy plan virtually? How do we understand a project’s space without physically experiencing the area?  When work life switched to fully remote, Bulfinches’ innovative nature paved the way for projects and collaboration to advance. Team members sought out strategies to refine their working from home environment that went beyond shifting their office set up from the kitchen to the couch. A whole new set of questions that didn’t previously exist now cast a shadow on every task. 

Enter the first and long-lasting solution: Miro. The online whiteboard platform allows individuals to collaborate effectively together through digital sticky notes to organize workflows and share content that is updated in real time. This tool streamlined internal team members collaboration and connectivity, while advancing how clients could be integrated into the conversation. With a tech savvy update, our office whiteboard broadened its capabilities, impacting the future of project team integration and project planning.  

Pushing beyond boundaries  

In 2020, Santa Fe Community College selected the Shepley Bulfinch | McClain + Yu team to create a new campus master plan. The overall goal was to physically manifest the College’s strategic plan in turn focusing on supporting students, partnering with the community, and building capacity. Having only visited the campus once before, and now being limited by pandemic restrictions, the project team turned to complete virtual engagement to advance the project.

Through the virtual white boards and video calls, team members identified how to re-approach their typical design process. Navigating the campus’ culture and student engagement in a virtual environment was new territory. Team members troubleshooted ways to adapt, which included utilizing Google Earth to get the “feel” of the campus and identifying trusted advisors to get a better understanding of the campus culture. While there were some missing components from the in-person experience, the team was able to open and develop realms of communication in a brand-new way.   

Hybrid work led to the discovery of unique advantages. Sketches, for example, didn’t need to be hand drawn and physically pinned up on a wall. Often, sketches need to be scanned and always available digitally – with a Miro digital whiteboard, the process became more seamless and integrated across offices, breaking down physical boundaries. Additionally, partners who previously couldn’t participate in the workshop process were now sharing their thoughts and content. 

“The beauty of working digitally is that we were able to open up our communication realms. Not only could we communicate with team members on Miro boards but we could also loop clients in earlier and show the progress. When we are back in person, it will be great to still use these virtual boards, so our collaboration isn’t solely restricted to paper,” notes Pete Rasmussen, AIA, NCARB of Shepley Bulfinch. 

These new working formats didn’t just produce new collaboration solutions for the Santa Fe Community College – it also reiterated the value of designing buildings with flexibility to accommodate changing needs. The team noted the importance of reinforcing the exteriors to bring in outside circulation and open the classrooms and offices to the outdoor courtyards. Furthermore, creating spaces that accommodate video recording will allow students to still be present for lectures if they aren’t able to physically attend due to health, environmental or commute factors. 

Balancing connectivity  

While remote work was new for most, some Bulfinches found the firm was already prepared for this transition from a structure and technology standpoint. Michael Poscovsky was familiar with remote life from living in Houston, Texas and working on various projects in collaboration with multiple Shepley offices including Boston, MA and Phoenix, AZ.  

“In many ways, it felt Shepley was already set up to do cross office work successfully with our structure and software. We have offices in multiple locations and always staff projects based on the people versus location. Because of that, the technology already supported collaborating remotely,” Poscovsky reflected.  

Software such as Miro, IdeaFlip and Bluebeam helped Poscovsky and team members collaborate in real time with each other and external partners. While workloads were streamlined, it was still imperative for team members to feel connected personally as well. Prior to the pandemic, Poscovsky often traveled to the Boston office where he was able to bond with team members in person. Despite successfully working remotely, that in-person time added a camaraderie. With travel paused and everyone physically isolated, it was vital to continue team bonding in a virtual setting. Through video chats, team members continued their face-to-face check-ins with virtual coffees and team dinners.  

With so much focus on staying connected, the firm also recognized the need to help teams disconnect. An internal project management group who typically oversees programming for monthly meetings was instrumental in this discussion. The group, including Poscovsky, led conversations that assessed the office structure with focused discussions on remote-work topics, such as how many meetings people have in a week, when is the appropriate time to call someone and how to be mindful of work hours.  

While it was instrumental to determine how we move projects along, the immediate work began with the backbone of our designs – individual team members and client relationships. At Shepley Bulfinch, we prioritize the value of people and partnerships. By listening to team members and building client connectivity, Shepley Bulfinch was able to sustain a collaborative culture, strengthened by our firm’s resilience and teamwork.

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