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Rising to the occasion

It’s amazing how the world is adapting to the new culture of working, interacting, learning, and doing business amid COVID-19. Let’s find out how the leading experts from the design industry in the region are coping, holding up, and continuing strongly

Pallavi Dean Founder and Creative Director, Roar

The good thing about a consultancy organisation such as ours is that it lends itself well to remote working. Typically as consultants, we tend to spend so much time travelling to and attending meetings, some of which are unnecessary. In many ways, the new reality of remote working is far more efficient and productive. The safety of our staff is our number one priority. We implemented remote working across the business and asked everyone to work from home from the early stages of the pandemic, and are now conducting all internal and external meetings virtually. Here at Roar, we are huge fans of Zoom and Microsoft Teams – these video call systems have completely changed the way we work and I don’t know how we were doing without them before! So far, on the whole, we’ve been fortunate as the vast majority of our projects are going ahead. It hasn’t been entirely smooth sailing: we’ve had a restaurant project cancelled and an office design put on hold. But happily, we’re seeing a good number of new enquiries and RFPs. Partly from the government as part of the UAE economic stimulus plan, but also from the private sector – we’ve just submitted a bid to design a big regional HQ in Dubai for a multinational company. So hopefully the business impact will be manageable. I believe there will be two main take-aways from this – the first one is that antimicrobial finishes will be increasingly specified in office projects despite their higher cost and the second one is that we will probably move away from the sharing/hot desking concepts and return to a more traditional, cordoned off approach reminiscent of the cubicle style workstation.

Ben Corrigan, Founder and CEO, Bluehaus Group

The health and safety of our people and teams is always of primary importance. We established operating safety protocols in early February and moved our people and teams to work from home before a firm directive was received from the government, albeit we were aware a directive was imminent. We have both office-based and site-based team members, so for the office-based team we are all working from home and communicating consistently, and for our post-contract team members who are visiting the site more regularly we are in regular contact to ensure they both comply with government directives to keep them safe, and also implement increased levels of safety over and above government directives to keep them safe. In terms of supporting our clients and partners, working remotely has presented some challenges but also learning and opportunities. We have found clients and partners are very receptive to using video conferencing and screen-sharing much more than before to present design progress, or for bidding or project meetings, and actually, the success of this and productivity has surprised us all. Microsoft Teams’ effectiveness has really surprised us and we are excited about ensuring we continue to use this, and other great tools, more consistently once we return to the workplace. We do ‘not’ believe the office is dead as is being discussed currently, far from it in fact as humans are social beings and human connection and interaction will always be essential to a business or a company’s culture.

What I believe, we will return to a more balanced approach (e.g for every 3-4 meetings you have with a client, collaborator, etc 2-3 will be virtual and this will be widely accepted), where virtual and remote working will be more widely accepted. We have been relatively fortunate that many of our projects, at least at the time of writing this, are progressing. That said we have had two hospitality projects placed on hold but hopefully, they will come back online as now is a great time to refurbish. Cash-flow is always critical in times of crisis so it is a challenge with collections but we are leaning to our experience of previous crisis and the disciplines required to manage collections and cash flow and will continue to drive this day-to-day, we also have a responsibility to our sub-consultants and partners to ensure they are also getting paid as many are privately owned SME’s much like Bluehaus Group.

I am a big believer that the greatest learning presents itself in times of challenge if you look for it. We have a ‘lessons learnt’ document which is being well populated and will be reviewed down the road and have already announced to the business that when we return to the Workplace we will be implementing a ‘4+1 Workweek’ meaning Thursday will be a ‘flexiday’ to choose to work from the Workplace, from home or a café. We are very excited to see how this goes but confident this will improve our team-culture, our productivity and the happiness of our people and teams.

 

Kristina Zanic, Owner, Kristina Zanic Consultants

At Kristina Zanic Consultants, we adapted to remote working very quickly and we continue to deliver our projects in a timely manner. In the design industry in general, a few changes have happened as well, for instance, there are several virtual conferences taking place, and even design festivals are going virtual, which proves that creativity cannot be knocked down. Safety and well-being of our employees is of utmost priority, which is why we were ready for remote working well ahead of the government announces to the lockdown. We have implemented all latest available apps for video conferences and calls, such as Teams and Zoom, which we use the most, as well as Go To Meeting which has been popular for quite some time now. We have also provided our staff with the necessary remote access to our server, and I am pleased to say that the strategy was successful: all of our usual processes are running smoothly and without any technical issues, which is yet another confirmation of the quality procedures we have in place. Technology is helping us all currently and we continue our day-to-day work effortlessly. Our projects are still running, and our design team is busy with deliverables; we all make sure that the project milestones are met and that we produce our design packages on time.

No one holds a crystal ball with answers on how the future will be shaped due to the Covid-19 situation, however, I am positive that we can all learn from the circumstances and start implementing what we’ve learned so far, not only the social distancing behaviour but also changes in the office-working style for instance. There are several learnings from all this! For one, Kristina Zanic Owner, Kristina Zanic Consultants the creative process has not changed at all, we still use the sketch paper, we still discuss several ideas together on our Teams calls and collaborate longer together. Another aspect is also sustainability – less printing and less papyrology in some cases, as documents can be provided electronically in soft copy. Another good thing is also training for our team: we are introducing new training programs for our design personnel so that we will be ready for the re-start stronger and even more qualified. In addition between the two offices, we are all able to get together via teams and the connections are amazing so we may consider doing this more often.

Christian Merieau Managing Director, MMAC Design Associates

The current situation has, however, allowed us to realise that our usual lively and noisy work environment was not always conducive to the deep thinking a designer needs to create something truly unique. The quality of some of our work might have been enhanced by the confinement. Working from home for personal reason, was already something that we had allowed our team to do on a regular basis. It was therefore not too difficult to go a step further. Many of our team members have taken their office computers home and they have well-secured access to all our project data. To communicate with did set up WhatsApp group chats for each project teams. We also have a regular online project and staff meeting via GoToMeeting. Co-ordination meeting with our clients and other consultants does sometimes take place via GoogleMeet, MicrosoftTeam of Skype. We try to avoid using ZOOM because of the data security issues. Surprisingly, the work has not slowed down. The projects that are in the design phase are moving ahead as planned. This could be linked to the fact that they are located in various region of the world.

The projects that we currently working on are in Uganda, Senegal, Seychelles, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates, and many in Saudi Arabia. We have not yet had to suffer from a negative financial impact. It is, however, to be noted that we have been asked for some additional financial efforts on some of our project that is under construction. The local hotel projects under construction are not only going ahead as planned and will be moved ahead with an increased sense of emergency. At this stage of the crisis, our real concern is how the hotel investment will be in 2021, as it could strongly affect our business development target Remote working is likely to become a big part of how interior design firms will be running its resources. The tools that we had to put into place will be beneficial for the future. What we can learn from all this is…I hope we will remember how fragile we are. I hope that we will have learned that we can live with less. I hope that we will remember to care more for each other. I hope that we will come out of this humbler, more aware, more decent, more respectful . . . . . . . . maybe just more human.

Melani Sabhaney Co-Founder and Design Director, Interspace

Design projects in many sectors are complete standstill, due to various issues. Inaccessibility of work sites for one. Although construction is an allowed segment by the authorities, many clients have decided to re-think the need to proceed. The hospitality and travel sectors being acutely hit has crippled us in many ways. Our projects are on hold, temporarily as of now, but looking at how long this is going to take will decide whether the client will go in for new premises and continue expansion plans under the then prevailing economic conditions. It has been difficult with private clients in the residential sector as well, since working from home has certain limitations when it comes to deciding on finishes and materials, without being able to review and approve physical samples, decisions get delayed. As a design firm, our work has primarily been based on personal client interactions. We did try to hold occasional one–on-one meetings at office maintaining safety protocols, but for the past two weeks, that has also been completely stopped. The safety of our staff is paramount. Our entire team works from home. We have formulated work logs and frequent interactive meetings to keep them motivated and productive through this time. We use the online cloud platform EGNYTE to store our files and resources. Microsoft Teams is our work meeting platform and has been very effective. Zoom is also being used with some clients who find that easier to access. We are apprehensive to how this will impact the future of the company, we hope the larger projects will not be stalled for longer and thereby reducing the present percentage deficit in finances. We hope the smaller private projects will resume post-crisis and help us tide over. Although this has impacted staff salaries and incentives. Remote working has been a way already with larger firms being involved in outsourcing work, but for a smaller boutique firm such as ours, this is a new experience.

One that we are learning from. Personally, I find it more tedious, since we are used to the conventional sit over a table and brainstorm practice, while doing it over a zoom call does somehow feel detached. That being said we have realised that we can do effective work from home, it just requires a different mindset, adaptation being the keyword. Maybe this will lead to a new culture, we learn from our experiences. The new work concept where with only front runners, who need to interact with clients, being out in the field and the major back-end workforce working remotely. Makes us question the need for large offices. Might be a win-win situation for all concerned. Cutting costs on travel and office spaces and supplies. Time saved on travel and not to mention fewer people outside is less pollution as we have come to see. As one of the many COVID related messages we keep reading, this one did strike a chord. “We fell asleep in one world and woke up in another” but how well we learn from this and progress forward will be interesting to watch.

 

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