Marcus Earnshaw Digital Director at HLM Architects

Innovation is at the core of our business and we have used this to push the boundaries of how technology can strengthen our operations and the services we provide.

We have always been at the forefront of flexible working, and the fact that we, like many businesses, are now working remotely has proven to be a mostly seamless transition. Pre-Covid-19, we were based out of five UK locations. Yet despite being spread across multiple studios, we have always prided ourselves on being able to operate as a single team.

One of the reasons this has been so successful is our use of collaborative and multi-user software and tools. Our processes and systems were built with geographical distance in mind, with all staff connected to the corporate network and having full remote access to all facilities and software that they would normally use within their daily activities. We have a fully integrated voice and video communications suite, as well as Graphisoft’s collaboration, BIM and visualisation software, which are accessible from any location.

Innovation is at the core of our business and we have used this to push the boundaries of how technology can strengthen our operations and the services we provide. During these challenging times, we have found that we are helping clients, partners and consultants in new ways, enhancing their digital environments and discovering how best to communicate, collaborate and successfully deliver.

Our migration to full remote access was achieved well in advance of the UK Government’s lockdown measures as we wanted to be prepared to make the adjustment with minimal disruption. As such, we ran tests and within a week all assets were assessed for capability, including patching and security facilities in the homes of each member of our teams. A proactive approach to the ongoing situation led by the IT and HR teams ensured we were able to quickly set up the infrastructure needed in place to protect our assets and ensure we were able to continue business as usual.

We use the full Microsoft 365 suite as the basis for all communications, with Microsoft Teams playing a major part in keeping the team in sync and working together, but extending this also for external use to clients and other partners. In fact, we have been using this software for some time, albeit not to this extent, but that has meant that the transition from studio to home has been even more seamless and straightforward.

Remote access via thin client means our data is safe and secure within our corporate data centres, but also accessible from any location. This allows our staff to use their own equipment without any reconfiguration or software installations, and does not impact their personal systems.

Our Graphisoft BIM Cloud servers are configured so that they operate as one system virtually but are actually divided across each of our five locations ‘physically’, so again, this lends itself well to a dispersed team.

Our telephony has been transferred to a software-based system so that staff can answer calls from their PCs at home without having to use diverts or automated messaging. Further, staff have been kept up-to-date throughout on all company activity via this system and Teams for social interaction which, surprisingly, has noticeably increased in recent weeks. There are no restrictions on this in place and, perhaps most importantly, we encourage the use of our systems to stay in touch as often as possible.

Our development and innovation continue to grow through this period, and we are working further on our ideas around our new Digital Engagement Hub. This involves exploiting the full functionality of Microsoft Teams as our virtual collaboration hub, enabling us to extend access to partners, clients and beyond. Within the hub itself, we are deploying other tools to create and share dedicated project collaboration spaces. We use the hub effectively for almost everything a project team would need to maintain effective dialogue: virtual face-to-face video conferencing, presenting and commenting on drawings, mark-ups, storing files, making notes, and sharing information including BIM. External partners and other guests will be able to collaborate ‘live’, and as many as 200 people can access any single meeting. We are also using Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, OneNote and other meeting platforms, depending on what’s most suitable.

While important, technology is not the only reason we have been so successful in remote working arrangements. We have long had flexible working patterns in place, including the nine-day fortnight, with staff able to work a little longer over nine days to take the 10th day off. This was hugely popular with 60 per cent of our team taking this up. We took the view early on that open plan studies don’t necessarily fit everyone’s needs, so endeavoured to supported whatever arrangements encouraged staff to work their best.

Further, we have recognised this as a great opportunity to upskill staff and have fast-tracked some of our training. We have a learning Academy within HLM and this year, because we were already on split sites and wanted individuals to learn at their own pace at times that suited them, we invested in full-access LinkedIn Learning Licences for all staff. We have focused mainly on soft skills, communicating, emotional intelligence, listening, and mentoring.

Internally, wellbeing has always been high on the agenda and this continues to be the case. Every Monday morning, each studio director has a call with their studio team to discuss upcoming priorities, project news, and staff updates. We have virtual tea breaks at 10.30am and 3.30pm daily, and have established a task force to create virtual socials.

Technology in these challenging times has become an even more integral part of the business, driving innovation forward and allowing us to engage and communicate on new levels. Being a flexible company has also allowed us to approach change with an open mind, adapting quickly to new ways of working but also learning and discovering opportunities of enhancing the business.

Whether or not we are able to return to our studios in the near future, we believe this has been a real turning point in remote working, and has demonstrated that our operations will continue seamlessly regardless of the geographical challenges. Barriers to agile working have been removed once and for all. We are committed to using this experience to learn and improve our system of working even more, rather than just return to pre-Covid-19 ways.

This piece from Marcus first featured in the May edition of Construction Computing which can be found here.