Better Together: Return to Studio Working

23 August 2021

As we emerge cautiously from the months of national and regional lockdown, we sincerely hope that the disruption to business and personal lives that the pandemic has brought about are behind us.

At Design Engine Architects, we are excited to be bringing our talented team of designers and leaders back together into our studios in London, Winchester and Exeter.

As with everyone, the last 18 months have presented huge challenges for Design Engine, throughout which we have stuck together as a team to weather the storm. We have survived periods of uncertainty, furlough, recruitment and erratic workload pressures, to arrive at a point now where the practice is greater in staff numbers (peaking at 60) and turnover than it has ever been. We have more international projects than in pre-Covid times and we feel we can look forward to the future with confidence.

Staff back in the Studio now able to dynamically interact with others

Our industry, like many others, is now reflecting on the novel and innovative ways of working that have been necessitated by the restrictions and challenges caused by the pandemic. There are many opinions about what changes have been positive for flexibility and adaptability, as well as the impacts upon wellbeing and workplace culture. Ultimately, like most other businesses, we are now seeking to find ways to achieve a healthy and happy workforce within an efficient and productive workplace. Crucially for us as a creative, design-led practice, we know that being able to foster a dynamic interaction of people and ideas within our studio environments is a strength that brings multiple benefits for our staff, our projects, and our clients.

As a practice we have plotted a route map which, provided that the easing of government restrictions remains, will see us progressing in gradual steps over the next few months, to enable all of our valued workforces to reintegrate back into our three bases. Whilst we have had a limited number of individuals and teams working in the studio this year, we will now work with the new government guidelines to re-populate our workplaces with a fresh approach to use and layout. We will be maintaining measures that we feel are prudent during this period, such as mask-wearing when away from our desks, and cleaning protocols for communal areas such as kitchens and meeting rooms. We will ensure all staff feel safe and happy in this process, and our remote systems remain in place for any staff needing to isolate or wanting to take extra caution, allowing them to work from home for defined periods.

The full Studio pre-pandemic (left), Returning to the socially distanced Studio (right)

We know that for many in the office this is a welcome and important move, as junior and senior staff alike have felt the impact that the relative isolation and different work-life challenges can bring. As 26-year-old recent starter Jamie observes:

I have now been working in the studio for about two months, after previously being working remotely. It has been a key advantage to my development to be overhearing project related conversations, through which I could then better engage with my colleagues and the project. Being in the studio has also helped broaden awareness of what else is happening in the practice, from general practice management to other projects. On a pragmatic level, being in the studio with colleagues has also streamlined workflow, in particular with regard to asking questions and getting assistance to develop my knowledge. On a social level, being in the studio has also been great in terms of getting to know the people your working with and feeling more connected.

Jamie Rest Architectural Assistant, Design Engine

Our culture as an office is something we are very proud of. Over the 21 Years since our formation, we have endeavoured to create a dynamic and fulfilling Studio workplace environment. Staff old and new are able to engage with their own projects and workflows, but crucially, to observe, interact, contribute and learn from other projects and the work of teams around them. This often happens in a structured way, such as regular design reviews, and our Friday ‘feedback’ sessions, and these we have managed to continue throughout the pandemic thanks to the fantastic work of our IT manager facilitating multiple channels of virtual communication. But we are all here also to benefit from the value of unplanned, serendipitous interactions and encounters; the chance conversations and the natural cross-fertilisation of ideas that are bred out of being together in the same space.

Friday ‘Feedback’ sessions hosted virtually during the pandemic

There really is no substitute for the human interaction that reflects the social and intellectual beings that we are. We work together and we learn from each other continually. While this is true in many fields, it is particularly so within Architecture. The old cliché that ‘every building is a prototype’ still holds true, as the performance requirements of new building design develop apace. Each design project we take on has increasing levels of innovation and learning within it, and so being able to foster and support the development of skills and knowledge with our younger members in the office is critical to upholding the quality of the future service that we can offer to our clients.

So what does the future hold now? As a practice, we feel we are emerging from the pandemic in a process of growth, adaptation and with a new appreciation of the capabilities of our people and our IT systems. Embracing video calls and conferencing, screen sharing and online file-sharing have brought time efficiencies that are quantifiable, and we are also keen to acknowledge where travelling for meetings can now be deemed unnecessary and the time and carbon reduction benefits gained.

Through all our staffs’ diligence, perseverance and expertise we have found flexibility to continue and even prosper in immensely challenging times. There remains an opportunity now to reset, reflect, and come back together to do what we do best, returning to the core values that the practice has been founded on: collaboration, innovation, design enquiry and a rigorous examination of quality and value in what we do. This is a collective process, and whilst we recognise that it can on occasion be productive to work in isolation for focused tasks, ultimately we operate as a team-based process relying on multi-layered and multi-faceted forms of physical, digital and intuitive communication.

There remains an opportunity now to reset, reflect, and come back together to do what we do best, returning to the core values that the practice has been founded on: collaboration, innovation, design enquiry and a rigorous examination of quality and value in what we do.

We have maintained our established physical presence to service our existing projects and alongside this, we harness the best technical and communication innovations from the last year or more. We now have a new capability to work efficiently and remotely, servicing projects in the UK and internationally to a very high standard. We are able to share our expertise remotely and seamlessly provide a Design Engine service to our clients and their potential projects in an ever-expanding range of locations across the globe.

So while there have been trials to overcome, we feel we have come out the other side of this pandemic experience in the best shape possible for the future.