Q&A: CBT Architects CIO sees a ‘hybrid’ remote-work plan as harder than WFH

While the rush to work from home (WFH) upended many corporate plans as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened, returning to work might be even harder, according to Nirva Fereshetian. "There’s no going back to where we were," she says.

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Editor's note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adopting remote work company-wide was a tall order during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, says Nirva Fereshetian, CIO at Boston-based architecture and interior design firm CBT Architects. But supporting a “hybrid” workforce will be an even bigger challenge as staffers look to return to the office.

Like most CIOs, Fereshetian had to ensure that employees remained connected as working from home became a necessity earlier this year as the pandemic worsened. That meant access to cloud apps, including Zoom and Microsoft Teams – previously used ad-hoc across the firm's U.S. and international operations – became crucial to productivity. Use of collaboration apps also soared, proving their importance for team communication and productivity.

As CBT Architects prepares for the eventual return of staff to its offices, the challenge will be to support workers whether they are at their desk, at home, or anywhere else. It means rethinking the design of physical meeting rooms, adapting workplace processes and investing in digital tools to bridge the gap with remote staff. One focus will be on creating collaboration spaces, with meeting rooms fitted with “smart office” technology that eliminates the need to touch devices.

CBT Architects CIO Nirva Fereshetian CBT Architects

CBT Architects CIO Nirva Fereshetian.

Fereshetian talked about how the company has fared so far, and what comes next.

What were your priorities for workplace collaboration and digital productivity prior to the pandemic? What are some of the tools you've used to connect employees? "In the past couple of years, the focus has been on going digital, transforming into digital content collaboration, [and] moving to the cloud, for better access and better collaboration. We put this into action in the last three months more than we've ever done.

"For example, we have had Skype and Teams and all those collaborative technologies for a while, but [they weren't] being used effectively. We had lots of office meetings,  lots of conference rooms ... in our offices and in our clients' offices. But the process has completely transformed now.

"We work in a highly collaborative industry; we build buildings with multiple partners, multiple designers, multiple consultants, sometimes multiple clients. It needs all these tools and digital methodologies. We were using them, but not in this extreme extent: now every project and every meeting is really in the digital context.

"As many people have said, I think that two years [of digital transformation] kind of got accelerated in two months."

To what degree was remote work supported before? "We have an office, a small office, in Abu Dhabi that we work with collaboratively. We also use our systems to collaborate with many other consultants, clients and different partners from all over the world. Many of our projects have some international partnerships in them. The majority of our employees were in our Boston headquarters. Ten percent were remote, mostly people who had either part-time schedules or had reasons to work from home. We used [collaboration tools] for those situations, not really as a remote workforce.

"Largely, we will have transformed from one office in Boston and a small office in Abu Dhabi to have as many offices as we have employees now. This is a completely different landscape to what we had before. A lot of things that we paid for to optimize our office, now we're transforming to pay to optimize our employees' [internet] bandwidth and other things that are coming through. It's because all of those locations are offices now for us."

What steps were taken as staff were forced to work remotely? You already had some collaboration applications deployed in the cloud – did you need to take other steps to support staff? "A lot of it was in place [already]; we had to invest in [employee] learning curves. Many people didn't use some of these technologies because they didn't need to. We really invested time and effort in pushing and accelerating the learning of these technologies. Skype or Teams or Zoom meetings were set up by others [previously]. Now every single person needs to use those and be aware of how to make it work on their mobile device or their cell phone.

"Some of the simpler things of how to share your content and how to participate in those things didn't come easily for certain groups of staff who [were] used to either physically meeting in offices or other people doing the setup for them."

Adopting new ways of working is a challenge in the best of times, but you had to do so quickly. What was your strategy to deal with this change? "This is was an opportunity for adoption, and change management is really the key component of technology, not necessarily whether we put Zoom or Teams or Skype or whatever other technologies in place. The bigger challenge is adoption and making sure that the change is timely.

"We would have discussions about how remote working would work for us. [The architecture industry] is a very hands-on collaborative industry. It's not so much sales people or software developers, it's really designers and collaborators working very closely on a project. And how would that work when people were remote? Those discussions happened on a daily basis in our offices.

"This opportunity – where there was an awful, forced change because of a significant event – was the driving force to really push adoption. It was a desperate need that accelerated usage, because changing any office is a challenge. Usually a major change happens when you're up against a really stressful condition or a major event. We would have never been able to say, ‘Hey, in order to experiment this, let's all go home, nobody come to the office.’ It was an eye-opening experience to get momentum and [show] reasons as to why these things were in place in the first place.

"There’s no going back to where we were. Wherever we're going to go next, it looks [like] a very different place, physically as well as digitally. We're thinking beyond these key months, thinking of the larger picture of how that looks and feels as we start a hybrid [workforce] situation and ultimately, probably remain like that for the future."

What were the strategy successes around increasing remote work? And is there anything you would have done differently, or experiences you learned from? "In some instances, there are productivity gains because we're cutting commuting time, we're increasing family time, all of that. But on the other hand, there were also productivity losses due to the other circumstances we are all in. The challenge was to keep working remotely, not in ordinary conditions but working remotely in pandemic conditions where families are all struggling.

"The major success is the heightened communications that [have] happened since we've closed the office. We've had so many office-wide meetings, so many group meetings, and so many events online that people have attended due to the fact that there's less activity in our life outside of work and getting out of the house is limited.

"Certainly, messaging from management has been great: I think management has been in contact with everybody.

"We are a business that had so many physical events happening in our offices, and so many opportunities for people to meet and learn what's going on in the office. But we didn't have attendance levels as heightened as we have now, as they may be in other meetings and so on. Many employees have better interaction with our management, feel closer, feel like there's better transparency.

"The failure..., whatever the digital aspects we have tried to mimic, there is no replacement for the human experience. There are struggles in terms of knowing how to on-board people in this circumstance.  

"Also mentoring, especially for junior staff. A lot of it would happen, kind of accidentally or as we have open office floors, floor plans, we have project teams sitting together, in order for people to hear the conversation, be aware and be part of it. That’s missing now. Unless it's a meeting you're invited to, you don't have a [view] of all that was happening.

"Those are things we really need to think through as we go back, or specifically in the hybrid going back."

As you move on from remote working, what are the challenges around managing a hybrid workforce? "However many challenges we have overcome in the current [fully remote] situation, the more challenging part is the hybrid situation we're approaching and trying to implement.

"Everybody being online was kind of easy. We knew everybody was around, we knew everybody was reachable, and we knew everybody was totally connected.

"The next step of how we should manage the hybrid [workforce], where some of us will be in the office and others will be remote – it's a completely new way of thinking and  requires a new way of implementing digital processes to try to respond to that. The idea of going to the office for your desk space is kind of getting eliminated, for example.

"We're looking very hard to see: why are we going to the office – not only for ourselves, but also trying to help our clients ... figure out what is the need for the physical space and why are we going to office? The majority of it is not just for desk space anymore, but for collaboration spaces, conference rooms.

"We're trying to boost those and redesign them, not only with touchless technology to respond to the current [situation], but after COVID to have rooms that are fully equipped to emulate the digital and the physical hybrid meetings that we're going to have going forward.

"The first thing we're trying to do is mainly try to set up touchless technologies where the room gets activated when someone goes in with their device, in terms of lights and screen projection and controlling the many aspects of the room to start the meeting. Above and beyond that, many of the tools like Teams – and something called Teams Together – respond to some of our current needs. We are incorporating additional cameras and additional projections to make sure that the people who are remotely connected feel physically connected in the room as well.

"We have to figure out how to incorporate people who are not physically in the room seamlessly, if there's any sidebar conversation. You have to be really careful when you're in a mixed meeting mode that whatever is happening in the room is relayed to the people who are digitally attached.  We don't have that need at this time because everyone is virtual. But when we go to the hybrid situation, we are preparing some of our rooms to effectively be collaborating spaces with physical and virtual attendees."

As staffers return to the office, how do you ensure that conversations take place digitally, too? Will this require a change to workplace processes to bridge the gap between digital and physical environments? "We're looking actively and using additional collaboration tools. We have started using multiple products. One is Miro, one is Mural. Those are online collaboration tools where you have a large canvas and large spaces where content is put in for brainstorming sessions, voting, getting a real sense of what everyone's input is.

"For example, generally in a meeting whether it's Teams or Zoom or whatever, one person's desktop is shared, and you have to switch back and forth to show different things on different people's desktops. With these collaborative solutions ..., you don't really need to share each persons’ screen; they can just put content in there with no switching back and forth on your device.

"We are trying to figure out what are the best ways of building upon the current digital communication setups that we already have and enhancing those.

"Markups, for example, are a very important aspect of our process. Usually someone printed [a design draft] and a couple of senior people will be marking up on those to make changes. Now, we're only in a virtual environment and one of the challenges we've tried to solve is how to make that process completely digitized. The blank boards and the canvas are there, so people who are reviewing are able to mark up.

"It is something we constantly try to enhance, because a lot of things were happening when people sit next to your desk and show you on the screen and comment and review. Translating that into a completely digital process is one of the examples of how a process needs to change."

Will the shift to a hybrid remote workforce have any other impact? "I think there’s a complete paradigm shift in who we were and who we are going to be. The important part is not only how to survive these few months, but also what the business outcome is on the other end, when COVID-19 is no longer an issue. I think the business model will be very different, as we have all had a complete transformation in terms of digital capabilities. The outlook on what digital transformation was delivering in the last few years has completely changed."

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