It has been almost a year since BKK has been working either partially or fully remotely since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and there’s no sugarcoating it: this year has been a tough one. As a Melbourne based practice, we have experienced over 100 days of some of the harshest and longest restrictions in the world together, featuring a statewide curfew, one-hour outdoor exercise limits and a five-kilometer-radius shelter in place order. As we approach the end of the year working virtually together, our expectations for what was possible regarding technology and the nature of work has been transformed.
BKK had been working for a number of years using online platforms such as Zoom in our design partnerships with international collaborators. Nevertheless, our remote work journey began like many others around the world as we frantically tried to manage the transition of the entire office from their desks and into their homes, hoping that not only our own IT systems would hold up, but whether or not the power and internet grid of our very city and suburbs would manage to support such enormous shifts in usage patterns. As office restrictions tightened, we collectively breathed a sigh of relief as we witnessed the complete transition of our team from the physical to the virtual workplace, in what was in the end a relatively smooth process, all things considered.
We were fortunate enough to have a number of advantages: our medium size, relatively young team and ongoing projects (projects index) in collaboration with other practices had provided us with a serendipitous opportunity to learn and test a wide range of digital tools, protocols and workflows which we used in combination with our own previous experiences to inform our digital transformation.
Virtually coming together for our team photo as part of our new website launch
A New Technology Stack
As Architects, design thinking is the air we breathe and our value is in applying our creative, analytical and critical thinking skills in resolving a broad range of problems. As such, we treated the transition to the virtual office as an opportunity to entirely rethink our relationship with technology and approached the task as a design exercise, to be crafted with the same thought and consideration as we do our projects. It is the culture and ideas of our studio which forms our unique approach to design.
After the initial transition to working from home, we undertook a comprehensive audit and process mapping of our workflows and software tools, as well as conducting staff surveys and interviews to gain a broader picture and understanding of the state of the practice. The research confirmed our suspicions; that whilst we had some good systems for knowledge transfer and digital tools in place, we had been relying far too much on informal conversations, which had been previously communicated mostly in person at the office. Learnings were being lost in email chains and personal messages, whilst prepared standards and manual documents were cumbersome to update and often went unreferenced on our servers. Although we were operational and projects were progressing well, we still had many areas to learn and improve in order to adapt to the new reality of our workplace.
A new working group labelled Digital Practice was immediately established, whose purpose was to support the team and take a more holistic approach in managing the technology needs of the firm. This resulted in a complete overhaul of our existing technology stack and reassessment of the tools we use on a daily basis and how those systems could be further streamlined. This involved the implementation and gradual migration towards shared cloud-based platforms, in our case MS Teams, which has formed the foundation of our Digital Practice and virtual equivalent of our Melbourne office.
An example BKK software mind map diagram used in the audit process
The Future of Practice?
Beyond introducing new tools and training, a roadmap and framework was developed for staff members themselves to contribute to the shared digital resources and knowledge base of the firm, building flexibility into the practice. Studio traditions such as our weekly project design reviews and precedent studies were reinvigorated, whilst new digital channels of communication were formalized such as BKK Knowledge Share, (a mentorship group for more experienced staff members to pass on their knowledge to younger graduates and students within the studio). Using these digital platforms, we were able to adopt a more asynchronous style of communication which included more frequent recording of important meetings, training sessions and presentations. This afforded greater opportunities for fully remote members like Kay, located in an entirely different time zone and continent (Zambia, Africa), to work to her preferred schedule and pace.
At time of writing, we Melburnians are gradually emerging from our homes with wide eyes and fingers crossed and life is beginning to feel more normal again. We look beyond COVID-19, further out and question the future of work. What will it be like? How will workplaces, culture and the built environment adapt? For many firms, this year has likely been one to remember for all the wrong reasons and a profound learning experience for us all, yet it comes with a silver lining. As we inch further along the path towards the next evolution of practice, we believe that the future of work will not only be more digital, but more flexible as well.
Jordan’s BKK Knowledge Share on detailing & documentation – Lessons learnt from Mooroolbark & Lilydale train stations