Technology caveats

Even as existing technologies become more routine, there is still a lot to learn about when to use which ones. It’s not uncommon for an employee to spend 15 minutes composing an e-mail message when the question can be answered in a 15-second phone call. And the moderating cues we pick up from each others’ voices are notoriously absent from e-mail. People can misunderstand hastily written messages and take offense where none is meant. Rich Nitzsche, AIA, principal and chief information officer of Perkins+Will says, “In this firm, we encourage people to pick up the phone instead of using e-mail. Some things shouldn’t be communicated via e-mail, and problems can escalate. You end up wasting time defusing a tense situation that shouldn’t have been tense in the first place.”

Despite the semblance of togetherness that these technologies afford, Moser advises that it’s especially important, with remote teams, to be explicit about follow-up actions — who will do what and how will it get done — that are agreed to during virtual meetings. “In face-to-face meetings,” he notes, “you can infer things through your communication, through eye contact or a head nod. But if you’re on a computer chat, for instance, you may say something thinking the other person understands. But then when the other person doesn’t do it, you read your notes and realize it wasn’t very clear. You have to get a positive affirmation; a head nod isn’t enough.” Teams also need to be more explicit than normal, Moser adds, in defining closure: what the desired outcome is and how completion will be determined.

Collaboration opportunities

In addition to cultural connectedness, technology can support the much-needed adherence to common digital standards. SharePoint is an example of a Web-browser-based “collaborative work space,” which supports organization of, and navigation through, shared documents. Moser says such a communal data area is important to distributed workers as a repository for uploads or new information. Regardless of where they are geographically, “a team member knows they can go there to look for an updated file and be able to see that it’s the latest version.” Newforma Project Center is project information management software that also supports design review processes for CAD and building information management (BIM) files. Disparate team members who may or may not be working with the same design software can review, mark up, and share updated design versions, and the software provides automatic version comparisons.

Some firms are developing “wikis,” or shared knowledge bases that enable users with a minimum of computer coding skills to add their own content. The online, user-written encyclopedia Wikipedia is the best known public example of this technology, but private groups can develop their own, as well. These Web-like pages provide a location for firm-specific information and collaboration tools. Perkins+Will has begun developing a wiki to share Revit details between its many offices. Staff members upload design details, and others in the firm can review and comment on them. Nitzsche has observed that acceptance of the technology among design professionals has taken time. He says, “It’s interesting: you can put a technology out there and it’ll sit fallow for a few years. Then suddenly it takes off, and the users can’t live without it.” He describes his introduction of new technologies as a “field-of-dreams approach.” Build it and they will come, but it may take time before new processes gain acceptance.

Real and virtual meetings

Wimberly Allison Tong & Goo (WATG), which specializes in hospitality architecture worldwide, has offices on three continents. Maintaining intra-firm cohesiveness is so important that WATG expend a higher-than-normal budget actually bringing employees together. Firm chairman and chief information officer Lawrence Rocha, Associate AIA, describes the “summits” held each year for a variety of subdisciplines such as graphic designers, IT specialists, or human resources experts. Rocha explains, “People from each office around the world come together in one place to discuss standards, efficiencies, goals, and budgets and to share techniques and solutions. We’ve found it really does bring the company a lot closer together in terms of feeling like one global firm.” Despite the use of sophisticated communication media, Rocha adds, “We’ve discovered that it’s going after work for a beer that really forms the bond between people so in the future they’ll pick up the phone and call somebody.”

To reinforce these bonds between summits, WATG makes frequent use of videoconferencing, which they use for weekly meetings, firmwide presentations, and seminars for the smaller offices that don’t have their own continuing education resources. Even though it is heavily used, Rocha predicts that videoconferencing won’t become completely accepted until it becomes as easy to use as picking up a phone.

WATG has been successfully using a firm “intranet” for several years. Employees can go to this private, Web-like domain to find organizational news, download forms and reports, and learn about uniform company procedures. Rocha has seen it used as a collaboration “meeting place,” where standardization emerges from a grass-roots level. He explains: “If standards in a certain area aren’t established, someone will step up, get a group of people together from other offices, and together create the needed standard. We’ve found people accept the standards a lot more if they helped to make them.”

One disadvantage to meeting “digitally” that Rocha has observed, is that the newer technologies are being embraced more readily by the younger generation than by their elders. So in these virtual meeting places, there are plenty of users seeking answers to design questions, but there are fewer experienced professionals who can provide answers and guidance. Presumably this will change over time, as the oldest generation retires and the replacement senior staff members with design experience are also comfortable with the technology.

As globalization continues, the practice of working with geographically distant teams will remain unavoidable. And as the cost of transportation rises, bringing together teams in one geographic location will become less common. Technology demands greater design process coordination than in the past, but it also offers new methods for bringing virtual teams virtually together.