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Virtual collaboration, in reality

Having honed the practice of collaboration from home, four industry leads share key insights and best etiquette for design teams working remote.

Virtual collaboration, in reality

Albert Park Office & Depot designed by Archier. Photography by Peter Bennetts

2020 has taught us nothing, if not that there is nothing quite like a global pandemic to inspire – or enforce – systemic overhaul. In the wake of emergency social reform, design teams far and wide found themselves on a crash-course in Virtual Collaboration: For Dummies. And the resultant learnings, re. fostering effective collaboration between remote design teams, have been abundant. 

When it comes to managing remote design teams and mitigating the challenges of virtual collaboration, there are few more astute architecture and design industry professionals than Donna Wheatley (principal, Hayball); Miriam Fanning (founder and principal, Mim Design); Tristrim Cummings (design operations lead, Hassell); and Matt Lorrain (co-founder and creative director, SP01).

In an effort to decipher the key learnings from observational anecdotes, Wheatley, Fanning, Cummings and Lorrain zoomed in on the topic (virtually speaking) and uncovered a handful of shared, industry-wide truths. 


Further in distance, closer in spirit

In Hassell’s experience, the shift to working remotely has brought about more authentic connections, says Tristrim Cummings. This applies to the perceived removal of walls between internationally spread studios, as well as the newly opened window into clients’ worlds. That window goes both ways, as highlighted by Mim Design’s Miriam Fanning, who feels the more open and frequent communications offers clients a new level of insight into the design process, cultivating a deeper sense of respect as a result.

In terms of workplace culture, Donna Wheatly shares that two of Hayball’s three studios have reported to feel more connected to the business since the protocols surrounding COVID came into play. It’s worth noting that this is more than merely a happy coincidence. “We put strategies in place to ensure a sense of connectivity while working from home – but we had no idea how powerful they would turn out to be,” the workplace design strategist says.


No medium to rule them all

The fickle nature of individual communication preferences is hardly unique to working remotely. Some like a spontaneous pow-wow – be it over the phone or in person – while others feel more comfortable interacting via channels that capture things in writing, such as email or the plethora of chat/comment mechanisms offered by the digital tools at hand. This is as true as ever.


The shift to working remotely has brought about more authentic connections with clients, as well as within internal teams, for Hassell.


“You can’t force a medium on anyone,” says Matt Lorrain, stating a fact with which Cummings, Wheatley and Fanning each decidedly attest. Cumming’s wise advice on this matter is to find what works best for each client, external collaborator and internal team on a project-by-project basis. “Finding the right mode and means is so important,” he says. Doing so has the opportunity to add exponential value to internal and external relationships alike, as anecdotally evidenced by Wheatley, Fanning, Cummings and Lorrain alike.

The layer of complexity added in the context of virtual collaboration is the monotony of interacting digitally. “2020 is going to be the year of digital fatigue,” Cummings warns. While there is no surefire antidote to this problem, Cummings’ suggestion is to try, however you might, to break up the repetitiousness of your digital interactions. “It can be as simple as getting on your phone, instead of your PC, and going for a walk while you talk,” he says.


Purpose (and planning) makes perfect

“It can be charming to hash out an agenda on the fly at the beginning of a meeting in person, but no one appreciates that lack of preparation in virtual contexts,” workplace strategist Donna Wheatley shares, as a matter of fact. Fanning, Cummings and Lorrain all echoed that only good can come from a pre-meeting meeting. Answering the following questions is professed to be vital for enabling truly effective virtual collaboration.

  • What are the meeting objectives? 
  • What’s on the agenda? 
  • Who will bring what to the table? 

“Since we began working from home we’ve had to reduce the size of our workshops,” shares Fanning. Her architecture and design studio, Mim Design, has always been a highly communicative practice, to which collaborative workshops are integral to design. Though idealistically Fanning avows that an open door policy is best for design workshops, restricting such sessions to only those directly involved in a project has been a necessary sacrifice in the quest to ensure collaboration from home is focused and effective.


Company-wide calendar transparency helps the Hayball team to know who’s working on what and when, optimising opportunities for virtual collaboration.


The value of having a clearly defined purpose and a plan of attack is not only relevant for meetings, but for individual time management too. Time-blocking is an essential ingredient for enabling effective collaboration from home, Wheatley, Fanning, Cummings and Lorrain couldn’t agree with each other more. “I organise my days into three time-blocks: a few hours in the morning; a few hours after lunch; then maybe a couple of hours break before coming back online at night,” says SP01 co-founder and director, Matt Lorrain, describing the day structure that has helped him to find balance while working from home.

Company-wide calendar transparency helps the team at Hayball to know who’s working on what and when. This works to optimise opportunities for virtual collaboration between remote design teams, shares principal, Donna Wheatley. “If I can see that a team member has blocked out a certain period of time to work on a project that we share, then I can coordinate to work with or talk to them about that project at that time,” she says. Such visibility also prevents out-of-context interruptions as well as days of back-to-back meetings, by enabling people to timeblock down time in between tasks and/or meetings to cognitively switch contexts.


Long live the agile design studio

“Now that people have become comfortable with remote ways of working and experienced the benefits of working from home, we would never want to take that away from them,” says Wheatley. As a business Hayball is taking a ‘trial and error’ type approach to establishing how things will work moving forward – embracing whatever proves to add value and leaving behind the rest. One thing in particular Hayball is interested in incorporating into its New World Order is more flexible working hours for all.

Such an agile and open-minded approach serves as an exemplar for design businesses, one and all, moving forward. As life goes on and we learn to mitigate the systemic reforms that keep the threat of COVID at bay, ways of working remain at the mercy of the great unknown. 

But then again, of all the lessons to be distilled from the disrupt caused to design practises by the great pandemic of the 21st century, there is one most enlightening. That being the juxtaposition between previous preconceptions surrounding remote ways of working, and the newfound, lived experiences of working from home. 


Embrace whatever proves to add value and leave behind the rest.


“I think that maybe this was a lesson that we had to learn,” says Lorrain, with specific reference to the environmental and economic benefits of operating remotely. As co-founder and creative director of SP01, Lorrain travels to Europe and/or the US on business at least three times during a typical year. 

At the time of writing, SP01 was preparing for its first significant prototype showcase to be orchestrated virtually. Should it all go off without a hitch, it could change everything for the furniture design business. “The more we adapt to video conferencing, the more natural it becomes and the less need there is for travel,” Lorrain notes that the resulting reduced energy consumption and localised operational footprint of business would, in the grand scheme of things, likely be in everyone’s best interests – a point with which we wholeheartedly agree.


Key outtakes for remote design teams:

  • Find what platforms and mediums work best on a case-by-case basis, within reason 
  • Save yourself from digital fatigue by breaking up the monotony of your comms
  • Don’t wing it: plan virtual meetings and remote workshops down to a T
  • Be intentional with invites – virtual sessions should include only those who have clear value to either contribute to or take away from the agenda
  • Timeblock your day structure
  • Optimism and agility will help design teams manage the Great Unknowns of remote working 


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