By: Kendall Jones on April 3rd, 2020
How The Coronavirus Pandemic is Impacting Architects
Georgia and Florida just became the latest states to issue “shelter in place” or “stay at home” orders during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in an attempt to flatten the curve and help protect the most at-risk residents from contracting the virus.
We’ve recently taken a look at how construction bidding and jobsite activity is being impacted by these orders. To date, only a handful of states including New York, Michigan, and Pennsylvania along with some cities and municipalities have issued construction work to shut down almost all active jobsites. For the rest of the country, construction to some extent has been deemed essential work that can continue.
But we also wanted to know how the pandemic has been impacting architecture firms. We assembled a panel of Atlanta-based architects for a quick Q&A to see how their firms have been preparing and dealing with pandemic, what impact it is having on current construction and design projects, as well as what the long-term effects will be for the AEC industry once this is all over.
Meet the Panelists
Name: John Bencich, AIA
Firm: Square Feet Studio
Role: Founding Principal
Firm Size: 14
Name: Ian Hunter
Role: Associate Principal
Firm Size: 180
Name: Kevin Songer
Role: Co-Managing Director, Gensler Atlanta
Firm Size: 6,400+
Office Size: 120
Let’s Get Started
How has your firm been preparing and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Bencich: In late 2018, we began converting all of our computing to laptops. This was more of a quality of life decision that a resiliency one. We wanted to be able to sit on a sofa and work, or outside, or bring our “office” to a meeting. We also converted to a cloud-based server at that time. In the fall of 2019, we instituted Work at Home Wednesdays as a “no meeting” day to help our staff balance work pressures. Working from home is elective, and I would estimate 2/3 of us regularly took advantage of that.
On Friday the 13th, we met in the morning and pulled the lever to go remote for the rest of March. A big part of our discussion was reinforcing that we had the technological capabilities to move forward, but that we also needed to open up our understanding of what we and our clients would need. I told them if you are worried about loved ones take care of that first. Ask you clients how they are doing. If they aren’t thinking about their projects, that’s fine. Your job is to listen to them and help them however you can. I have been on the phone constantly and am sending email updates to our team with “lessons from the field” just filling them in on what I am hearing.
I would say that the preliminary changes we made in 2019 have made this transition relatively easy from a technological standpoint. It’s been tougher helping our team understand that our clients need very different types of support right now. There is no single answer.
Hunter: Our team switched to laptops to make the entire office more mobile and flexible last year (good timing!). Our IT staff is working hard to push more of our services to the Cloud in order to reduce traffic on the local servers. We are starting to institute, studio by studio and as needed, daily check-ins via video call. Work with our clients is becoming more video-based to continue relationship building experiences.
Songer: Being a global firm, we are constantly collaborating across offices, so working virtually is not new to us. Our firmwide team has been a great resource throughout this time. We’re in constant communication with leadership and have utilized the many tools they have implemented including a COVID-19 guidebook, a centralized, 24-hour monitored email inbox and internal website for any questions, as well as frequent communications from our Co-CEOs, regional and office leadership teams.
If your firm has multiple offices, how has your office been preparing and dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic?
Hunter: We have small satellite offices, but for the most-part they operate with our Atlanta home-base in much the same way they have in the past.
Songer: We have 50 offices around the world. Operating globally and remotely isn’t new to us. Any local office is likely working with two or more other Gensler offices. In that way, we are already set up to “remotely” connect anywhere. That has proven very helpful. And, we have learned a lot from our offices in Greater China during this time, which allowed us to shift operations quickly.
On Monday, March 23, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lane Bottoms issued a stay-at-home order that runs from March 24 until April 7. What steps has your office taken to facilitate your staff working from home?
Bencich: I think my answer to question number one really covers this. I would only add that we’ve also added a “virtual happy hour” on Friday, and we have had teams of two and three meeting up to work on projects together at one another’s home offices. There have been several pleasant “getting to know you better” moments through this for the team.
Hunter: Out IT department has clear instructions and protocols for internet speed, connectivity requirements, etc. for all our employees. All employees are furnished with laptops and VPN server access in order to connect and complete work to maintain business as usual from remote locations. We provided this flexibility last year with the intent to promote and permit additional flexibility in our employees’ daily lives, but this was an opportune moment to test it across the firm.
Songer: Actually, as of March 17, the firm was very proactive, and 6,000 Gensler people are working from home today. In Atlanta, the transition has been seamless. We did a beta test of remote work in our office with our largest studio of 40 people the week before we all transitioned to working from home, so we were able to identify potential hiccups and resolve them. This helped us identify the right video conferencing tools to match the needs of our clients and ensure remote access to our largest projects was as fast as it is in other circumstances.
In Mayor Bottom’s order, public works construction was deemed essential and exempt from the stay-at-home order. Are you seeing clients and general contractors shutting down work on private sector projects currently under construction? What about projects that were scheduled to start construction in the next couple of weeks?
Bencich: We have not seen a slow down on projects in construction. Projects that had not been financed yet were largely put on hold, and recently, we had a project about to go into bidding put on hold.
Hunter: We are not seeing construction slowdowns for current projects under construction at this moment, except in select markets where required, such as Boston and NYC.
Songer: While we continue to support our clients and the larger construction teams with design and approvals, we understand and are fully prepared should some projects need to be put on hold due to city limits on construction and client decisions. We are in close contact with our clients regarding these decisions and have discussed construction on a case-by-case basis. In the instances where construction sites need to be visited, we have been diligent in understanding the general contractors’ processes and protocols, specifically as it relates to COVID-19. We are a people first organization and want to make sure our people and partners are safe.
What questions or concerns are you hearing from clients regarding projects currently in design and those already under construction?
Bencich: Many of our clients are stretched thin because they are talking with tenants, designers, and financial markets all at the same time. I have heard many developers talk about how no one has a job description right now. They are all doing everything. They are looking for paths of least resistance. For instance, Charlotte has a fully online permitting process so one of our clients is pushing a little harder in that market right now. At the same time, labor is beginning to run short as everyone spends more and more of their energy on taking care of family. That’s causing a slow-down. Plus, all the available information is that this is getting worse before it gets better, so we all have our antennas up for anything that suggests stopping work.
Hunter: We are seeing slowdowns from clients who have not yet secured funding for their projects. However, we have other clients that are trying to use this as an opportunity to complete the design phases so they can be first in line when things start back up again.
Songer: It has been an adjustment for everyone, but through the number of collaboration tools available, design presentations and project work with our clients have been running smoothly. We’re talking to all our designers about how they’re designing from home, sharing best practices and how they can best communicate with their clients. And, while we have seen some projects needing to go on hold to follow local guidance, we are seeing some speeding up so we can hit the ground running when the time is right to do so.
What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on your office’s and/or firm’s new project inquiries and billings? Long-term impacts?
Bencich: We had two projects that were verbally committed go on hold immediately. We’ve had two others request partial, slimmed down proposals for some start up work, and we’ve had no new inquiries since mid-March. I fully expect AR to be impacted and am spending a lot of time trying to get clarity from our clients on their intentions. I also expect two months of little to no proposal activity. I should say that we do receive most of our referrals from the hospitality industry. I expect billings for March, April and May to be down significantly. This is a valley that is going to hurt, but I do believe that it will come back in July. Our intent is to hold on and keep in contact with our clients, past, present and future so that they remember that we stayed engaged even when there wasn’t work.
Hunter: We have definitely seen project RFP and RFQ requests slow, but not halt. We have also seen invoice payments slow down.
Songer: We continue to see design needs in the market and are staying in close contact with our clients to support their needs during this time. We are seeing some needs shift, and everyone is thinking about the near now and the far future impact. Paired with new information each day, we believe more than ever that design is what will make us stronger when we come out of this time.
What do you think the long-term impacts of the pandemic will be on the AEC industry, both locally and nationally?
Bencich: I know that I fully intend to build deeper cash reserves for the future. I also think that working from home will become a more standard option and that our physical office spaces will perform a more hospitality-like function. I think diversification of services and market sectors will be more important as well.
Hunter: I think this is going to have a strong impact on how we design buildings in the future, to better prepare the built environment for these disasters. We will also see remote work become even more of an industry norm, as firms learn to address problems with remote work very quickly over the coming weeks and months.
Songer: This situation is changing daily, which makes it unlike anything we have ever seen before. What we do know from the past, think 2008 or post 9/11, is that the design and construction industry have a history of strength and resilience. We are taking this time to focus on being resilient and ensuring our clients, communities, and our people are taken care of.
Any final thoughts?
Bencich: We are looking for the silver linings and I would say that this crisis is helping us expedite our growth in several areas. The most obvious way is via the development of our emotional intelligence. Additionally, we’re adding focus to our marketing collateral and business development systems and working with our emerging firm leaders on our strategic goals and the development of their roles. We will be stronger on the other side.
Songer: This is a moment in history that will be defined by how we treat each other. Our firm is always focused on connection and communication. It defines our unique one-firm-firm culture. As we continue our daily tasks, we are also taking time to connect with each other through virtual lunches, happy hours and daily coffee chats. Parents across our office, region and the firm have formed “gParents” groups where they can share tips on virtual learning or share a laugh about their new “coworkers.” We are learning more about each other as we work from home, and I think that will bring us closer as both colleagues and friends.
Thanks to our panelists for taking time out of their schedules to answer our questions. Also, a special thank you goes out to Missy Bower, Director of Membership & Development of AIA Atlanta for her help in facilitating this Q&A.
About Kendall Jones
Kendall Jones is the Editor in Chief at ConstructConnect. He has been writing about the construction industry for years, covering a wide range of topics from safety and technology to industry news and operating insights.