Corporate culture makes a difference. Over the past eight years, The Sextant Group made the move from brick-and-mortar space to home offices for more than two-thirds of their staff. From fixed-base to virtual space, building a collaborative culture, empowering employees, and demonstrating the productive benefit of the technologies they specify, has been a positive for both their staff and their clients.

Improving communication without boundaries
Since I joined The Sextant Group in 2010, opening our Midwest office in Omaha NE, we have grown from a staff of 50 in then five offices — Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Phoenix, Santa Barbara, and Omaha — with just a handful of SOHO (single occupant home office) staff. Today, Pittsburgh remains the lone leased office space for 30 of our employees, and we have nearly 50 home-officed employees (including our president and CEO, Mark Valenti) spread out across the country, organized into 11 location-based teams.

As a textbook baby boomer, I initially resisted the home office trend. My local business plan called for renting an office space and expanding our staff as the business grew. After five years, as first our lease came due renew, we realized that with clients spread in a widening circle from Omaha to Minneapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, and Denver, it was extremely rare to have anyone come to us. Further, only two of our five staff were close enough to use the space on a regular basis; three of the staff living 3-4 hours away.

The Sextant Group’s organizational model is what business author Tom Peters would call “a blueberry pancake model” — very flat, very thin, and all blueberries are created equal (some a little more equal than others).[1] Our operational approach is based on a matrix organization, teaming technical and production expertise — which can be anywhere — with project-proximate local/regional principal/project management leadership developing relationships and supporting our architect and end-user clients.

Creating culture across time zones
As technologists, most of our staff are comfortable with the varieties of electronic communication and collaboration tools we recommend daily for our clients. But most of us are also used to working in small teams in shared office space. Shifting our culture from place-based to technology-based took some effort.

We created a task force group to evaluate communication options. Our younger millennial cohorts were both eager to lead and the first to embrace extensive use of a desktop collaboration software (Teamwork) that offers phone and tablet apps for messaging and project task monitoring. We combined those tools with secure VPN connections and cloud-based virtualized CAD (Revit & Bluebeam) and workplace software (Microsoft 365 & Deltek Vision), implemented firmwide desktop video (initially GoToMeeting; now Microsoft Teams), and upgraded our voice communication with an Avaya VoIP phone system.

The increased use of desktop video has had the greatest impact on cultural shift. All staff, project, marketing, and purpose-based taskforce meetings utilize video given the disparate locations of the participants. Video augments not only formal meetings, but informal conversations as well. We often find teams working during the day with live video connections between designers and project managers as they collectively work through a project analysis and recommendations.

Enhancing collaboration without travel
As consultants to the architectural community, our face-to-face client interactions are primarily marketing-or project-driven. An initial reason we considered home offices was the challenge of finding good people in the places we had already leased space. Ideally, we would find talented technology designers, project managers, CAD operators, and marketing and business development staff in the proximity of an existing office.

The reality was more challenging. We found good staff, but in many cases, they were an uncomfortable or unproductive commute from our physical office locations. Our SOHO model accommodated the growth we required to meet our client’s project needs and allows us to expand geographic coverage and business-to-business connections.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Tsedal Neeley cogently noted that “trust can develop early when managers endorse virtual team members during introductions by highlighting relevant or important experiences, or when team leaders explicitly set rules requiring frequent communication to reduce uncertainty and foster trust.” [2]

Now, as new employees join the firm, email introductions go out to all staff, and face-to-face video introductions are included in bi-weekly principal and project management, marketing and business development, design, and operations meetings. Project team meetings are also regularly conducted using desktop video.

Embracing virtual connections
Mike Finley, co-founder of the AI-analytics company AnswerRocket observed, “The smartest office may be no office at all. With people working where they want to be, productivity and morale improve, while costs fall. The outdated idea of ‘eyes on’ supervision can be replaced by real measurements of progress, in real time, by tools that connect business processes to profits. Video augmented meetings are already taking shape and enabling a new level of collaboration.”[3]

With the shift to virtual officing, The Sextant Group sees real value from both an employee satisfaction and effectiveness perspective. At the same time, it reinforces our ability to connect with our clients regardless of where our services are based. The potential for the virtual workplace has dissolved the traditional boundaries of the place-based office and had a positive impact on our employees’ attitudes and the quality of the work we produce.

This article first appeared in the July 2018 edition of AIA’s Practice Management Digest.

[1] Peters, Tom, The Pursuit of Wow!: Every Person’s Guide to Topsy-Turvy Times, 1994, Vintage Books
[2] Neeley, Tsedal, How to Build Trust with Colleagues You Rarely See, Harvard Business Review, January 2018
[3] Uzialko, Adam C., The Smart Office: How Connected Tech is Redefining the Workplace, Business News Daily, October 2016