Keep your distance, but maintain personal relationships
Friday, December 11, 2020
Just when it looked like remote working had hit its peak, employers are again facing the possibility of workplace closures as cases of the coronavirus surge throughout the country.
Many businesses, though, including interior design, depend on teamwork and close personal interaction with customers for their success. While health and safety have to be a priority, they also need to have a strategy and protocols for meeting in person.
Many design firms were quick to switch to remote working last spring when stay-at-home restrictions caused offices to close. When restrictions were lifted, many continued to allow employees to work remotely, either from choice or necessity, such as health risks or caregiving responsibilities. Over time, though, principals and managers have come to realize that while much of their business can be performed remotely, not all of it can be, or at least not wholly satisfactorily.
In speaking with the design businesses we work with in my firm, we have seen a gradual return to including some in-person contact, to the extent that good health and safety practices allow. Because design is a collaborative activity and close client management is critical to the success of a project, some firms have been requesting employees to perform some duties that involve meeting in person with others, such as making site visits, checking in or consulting with clients, or accompanying clients on shopping or showroom trips. For the most part, this arrangement so far has been working well for both firms and clients.
For their part, many employees have found working remotely to be something of a challenge. They may not have a suitable space or environment to work comfortably from home. Some feel isolated and miss interacting with their colleagues.
According to a recent Gallup survey, the proportion of employees always working from home declined from 51% in April to 33% in September. More than half of employees said they were not concerned about exposure to COVID-19 at work because employers had taken the necessary measures to ensure their safety. About a third of those still working remotely said they would like to return to their workplace, if conditions allowed. So, employers need not feel they are asking too much of their employees to require them, at least occasionally, to spend time in the office or on a project site.
Some employees have resisted meeting with others or returning to an office setting, often with good reason. But by and large most have accepted limited contact as a necessary risk of doing business. Fortunately, computer-aided design, wireless telecommunications, and cloud-based collaborative work platforms make it possible for most tasks to be performed and shared remotely, thereby significantly decreasing the need for in-person contact.
It likely will be some time before offices can return to functioning normally. A number of firms have extended remote working options until the second quarter of next year, while others are operating on a hybrid model of partial remote working and partial in-office and/or limited in-person contact with clients, subcontractors, showrooms, etc.
Each model presents challenges for employees, so it’s important to allow some flexibility, depending on their circumstances, without burdening some employees at the expense of others. They may have legitimate concerns, such as health risks or caregiving responsibilities.
Whatever approach you take, it’s important to communicate policies and decisions to all staff so that everyone understands what is expected of them and how each member of the team is contributing to the success of the firm. From what I am seeing, more design firms than not are working in their office and in person with clients.
Both designers and clients seem to be comfortable with it, so I suggest that if you are not sure what to do, try out a hybrid approach and see how it works for your firm. Maintaining those personal relationships is key to any project’s success and to laying the groundwork for future business.
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