Making the Covid-19 lockdown work.

Diversity Agenda member and Accord signatory, Isthmus, have kindly shared some valuable insights on how they’ve adapted to remote working, and how they’re keeping connected and their office culture vibrant, during these trying times.

They have 80 staff, who pre Covid-19 lockdown, predominantly worked from their offices in Auckland and Wellington, with a small number already working remotely in other parts of the country.

How has the lockdown changed the way the office works?

Isthmus: We are only 3 days into the entire studio working remotely. We have been setting up systems and quickly testing what works best. To a certain extent we were already prepared for this situation. Following the Kaikoura earthquake the Wellington studio needed to quickly move out of a structurally prone building and work remotely. During that period we formed small suburban groups at people’s houses (we called them pods) and it was easy to still physically meet up face to face in cafes and each other’s places. This time we are all separated, and conversation can only happen through technology.

How much harder is it when everyone’s working remotely?

Isthmus: During the first day of everyone dispersing to their home studios we set up a series of test meetings using different video conference platforms: Google Meetup, Teams, Zoom. We did not wait until everyone was set up; we wanted to be testing and improving our approach hours into people going home, not days later. This quickly indicated what was going to work best for us and what our immediate strategy needed to be.

In our studio environments, we are used to talking face-to-face and using skype rooms to connect the studios. Although we had access to Google Meet we didn’t really use it much, suddenly we have discovered it is actually a great way to have team meetings. Rather than a group together in a room with one or two people remote, everyone is remote, everyone has the same voice.

Isthmus team member, Tessa Macphail’s spectacular Paremata office view

How do you check in on everyone to make sure they’re ok?

Isthmus: We already have a whānau group system that ensures everyone in Isthmus has someone that they can contact and talk to whenever they need. The whānau groups have leaders who typically check in with their whānau every couple of weeks; this frequency has increased to weekly.

We also use 15Five to provide simple continuous staff feedback on performance and development; staff post updates every fortnight. Through 15Five we can gauge how an individual or the entire studio are feeling and identify where help is needed.

We have been using Slack rather than email to share ideas, solve setup problems, and keep project discussions going. Slack was introduced at our annual conference that took place in Wellington towards the end of 2019. We used it as a planning tool and then a means to keep everyone connected during the conference. We also have a studio blog called Trace and have been posting daily bulletins to help keep everyone up to speed with a rapidly changing reality.     

What’s the extra week of wellbeing leave you’ve introduced?

Isthmus: Recently Isthmus introduced ‘Wellbeing Leave’ to help people maintain balance in their lives. We wanted to ensure that Sick Leave was being used for when someone was really sick and should stay away from the studio.

Wellbeing Leave acknowledges that we work in an industry that demands a lot from individuals, with demanding deadlines and some challenging situations. If someone is exhausted or feels they are just not mentally in the game they should use some Wellbeing Leave. If they need to take some time out to get on top of things at home or with their family members they can use it for that.

Everyone gets five days and they can use it whenever they need. Now is a good example of needing that leave, people are juggling working differently, having kids and partners at home, feeling anxious about the situation. 

Isthmus team member, Matt Jones and his new personal assistant, Angus

How do you maintain office culture during these times?

Isthmus: To maintain studio culture it’s important to know what creates it in the first place. With Isthmus it comes from the one studio mindset, we are always looking for ways to ensure the studios are connected, and within those studios the individuals are connected.

Both studios are very open and transparent, anyone can see the projects that are being worked on and it’s encouraged to get involved. We have a fortnightly Studio Meeting where we share news about projects, people and opportunities. We have a weekly morning or afternoon tea and there are always drinks on Friday. Both studios have shared kitchen spaces for lunch and we try and celebrate something whenever we can, often there is singing involved. So our new challenge is to translate this experience to how we are currently working.

We have been having morning open sessions on Google Meet just to let people try and start the day together. We have been sharing how we have been working on Slack. As we get back into more intense project work, we will be looking to ensure that we can maintain project visibility for everyone.     

Any office rules or fun facts? Any office competitions running during this period?

Isthmus: Before the lockdown began we were already taking workplace measures to manage the situation. We quickly developed a messaging system based on a blue hand that we could print off and place around the studio. Initially it was aimed at helping staff and clients feel okay about not shaking hands, it grew into encouraging personal hygiene messaging and now as we have all left the studio it lives on to remind everyone we are resounding together even though we might feel quite alone at times.

The #shareyoursetup channel in Slack quickly helped everyone realise that they were not the only one that was creating a workspace with a few planks and some packing boxes. I think there are some people planning on not shaving until this is over while others are dressing better than ever! Our grads run a monthly creative photography competition; this month’s theme is ‘isolation’… We are continuing to running yoga sessions, but instead of being in the studio, we are joining together online in our home-work spaces. 

This article was written by Lee Taylor and originally featured on Landscape Architecture Aotearoa.

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