No house of cards when humans are at the centre of remote collaboration

Tech Talks Writer
Tech Talk Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors that write to help Australia's community of businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

Tech Talks Writer
Tech Talk Team

A team of business and technology journalists and editors that write to help Australia's community of businesses access the technology and know-how that helps solve problems and create opportunities.

Global architecture firm Woods Bagot is keeping staff and client confidence riding high thanks to its prescient adoption of networking and cloud technologies pre-COVID-19.

Key technologies:

Architecture thrives on blending the known with the new. Bold lines with organic textures. Light redirected into enclosed spaces. Technology in the service of humanity.

So, for architecture firm Woods Bagot, a global leader with 150 years of history and studios across Australia, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North America, success at every evolutionary stage comes from having the right tools to support collaboration among its people.

“One of the key things for us is we're able to bring our design talent to our clients around the world, regardless of where they are,” explains Tom Leyden, Global Leader of IT at Woods Bagot. “It’s about how we get these people to respond to a location and get a sense of the local, but also have a global view.”

Up until a few years ago, that meant members of the firm’s international design team often had to relocate for months on end, so they could live and work with each other to get a feel for a project. 

"Then about three years ago we started investing in making sure we had the right network to support them to work where they needed to - so we were kind of ready by the time this pandemic came along," adds Leyden.

“We moved from having 15 studios to having 1,000 studios around the world. The whole situation has been a catalyst for people to change.”

- Tom Leyden, Global Leader of IT at Woods Bagot

Deeply digital

Modern architecture explores many cutting-edge aspects of today’s technology and at Woods Bagot, that means 3D modelling, virtual reality and AI optimisation during the design process.

During the pandemic, the firm has kept clients up to date on their projects with 3D walkthroughs delivered online, optimised for remote access.

Therefore, while everyone is stuck at home and can’t explore new models in person, Woods Bagot’s teams are successfully closing the gap with online meetings and immersive presentations that bring new projects to life –“it gives them the confidence that we can continue to make decisions and get drawings done,” adds Leyden.

Yet for all this, the creative work of architecture begins with ink and paper around a table, and sketches pinned to walls to inspire each iteration.

“The only way to make that work now is to get things into digital models as fast as you possibly can, then review them really quickly,” says Leyden. “We’ve been talking about that for years, actually, but it really took people breaking from the familiar to try something new.”

Proactive preparation

Fortunately, Woods Bagot had already done a lot of the work setting up new networking infrastructure, with location redundancy a critical factor:

“We definitely recognised the limitations of our old platform, and that it was really hindering the ability for people to work where they needed to work,” Leyden says. “It really started with making sure we get the network right and ensure the team could access the systems they need access to, be it in the studio or in the car somewhere.”

Telstra’s Global Managed SD-WAN platform delivers a secure global network that connects every team member to the people, information and systems they need as seamlessly as possible.

“We didn’t anticipate the prolonged work from home piece, but I think no one had,” says Leyden. “But thankfully it’s all come together.”

Early in the pandemic, the firm’s teams in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong had to quickly adjust to working from home, and Woods Bagot had the proof it needed that its network infrastructure could support the new arrangement without major disruption.

The underlying platform has supported us, so people are able to continue doing all their work, they're able to connect to the people they need to connect to - internally and with all collaboration partners - pretty seamlessly," Leyden says.

“They really are unchained from their studios now. They can work wherever they need to work. To be able to reduce that stress during all this has made the transition a whole lot easier for staff.”

- Tom Leyden, Global Leader of IT at Woods Bagot

Constant collaboration

Video conferencing and other communication tools are playing an important role in real-time collaboration among Woods Bagot employees and clients across the globe while everyone works remotely.

Internally, the firm uses Microsoft Teams alongside whatever tools clients prefer for online meetings, whether Webex, Zoom or any other service.

“Teams works really well for us,” says Leyden. “The rolling chat is really helpful, and online documents have been fantastic to edit and update at the same time. We’re on the right version of documents probably for the first time ever.”

“The key thing for us was making sure people could translate that analog, manual world of drawing stuff into how they work at home. It meant being more creative, like using the camera on your phone to share sketches during video calls.”

Adapting to new work-from-home practices also means ensuring every member of the team has the connectivity they need, so Woods Bagot quickly supplied extra connectivity hardware such as 4G devices to employees who couldn’t rely on their domestic internet connections.

In recent years, the architecture and construction industry began working with a new shared data system known as Building Information Modelling, or BIM. Leyden says BIM is especially proving its value during the pandemic:

“The BIM concept has been around for a while, but people really, really get it now. We can’t pour over diagrams at a table right now, so to have a shared model with the data in it that we can all contribute into is so valuable,” he says. “We’re on one model, I can update it and you’ve got the update straight away. It’s really important for us now.”

While the creative team lives in the spotlight, Leyden also acknowledges how much has changed in the management and administration at Woods Bagot.

“Even little things like printing out forms and walking it to a desk to get a signature and then scanning it back in,” he says. “Those boring processes we knew could be done better have been pushed forward into digital signatures, for example. We’ll just continue to work like that.”

Alongside all this, Leyden says managing life balance while working from home is essential, and he keenly encourages his teams to maintain personal connections through their collaboration tools:

“The feedback we’re getting from our people includes things like: ‘I'm having lunch with my family now, which I've never done during the weekday’. I think I’ve met more kids and partners and pets throughout this process than I’ve ever met in five years at Woods Bagot,” says Leyden. “We’re making a really conscious effort to bring the team together. It’s been really helpful and maintaining that work life balance is something I’d like to continue doing.”

Lessons learned

One driving tenet that underpins the decisions Woods Bagot has made with its technology, is the need to minimise friction. Leyden says it’s essential that people remain front and centre in the way the business functions.

“You don’t want the client spending 15 minutes to work out how to download software,” he advises. “See things from the client’s point of view and make interactions like walking into an office with someone waiting with a friendly smile for you.”

“I also think candid and honest communication is always really important. You want to bring everyone into the conversation from their various rooms around the world.”

Another positive lesson from the crisis according to Leyden is the value of Woods Bagot’s transition to a cloud-centred corporate network.

“Having a cloud platform is essential to unlock from specific locations so you can really use the power of the distributed models cloud offers.” he says. “All this has really validated our decisions and it has scaled out really, really well. We have people from various generations in the IT team and throughout these last few months no one has said ‘You know what, I don’t think this work is important’ -- they’ve all put their hand up to say ‘I want to help, I want to be part of this.”

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