Evolving Paradigms: Collaboration at a Distance

As designers of the built environment, we are accustomed to using technology to communicate ideas to clients, engage with our colleagues, solve problems, and make decisions. However, much like other industries, with the shift to exclusively working from home, we find ourselves implementing changes to adapt our workflows internally, as well as to aid our clients. Our experiences thus far have shown us how critical design and visual thinking are, in addition to presenting us with lessons regarding how we can best make use of our digital tools to create experiences that feel true-to-life.

It has become increasingly clear how times of duress and limited in-person interaction require an adjustment in how we communicate. While we are continually working to evolve with this new paradigm, we hope to take these lessons with us upon our eventual return to the office.

SMMA Design Tech Videochat Screenshot

Built to Explore

Whether designing a new school or renovating office space for a Life Science client, our teams of architects, interior designers, and design technologists work together to develop static and dynamic visualizations to communicate design intent in an easily comprehendible visual format. These visualizations can come in the form of renderings, "stills," or animations that allow a viewer to "walkthrough" a project, creating a virtual experience. Creating virtual experiences enables our staff to iterate quickly and bring ideas to life to provide clients with a controlled environment that they can explore. Doing so helps them to make decisions regarding programming, layout, material and finish selections, and for spatial planning, material selections and design iterations.

While we can no longer meet with clients in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to create interactive, genuinely immersive experiences for them is paramount. Our teams across Studios have been making greater use of rendered virtual walkthroughs, created via Enscape, to better connect with clients, to help them make decisions, and to understand how we are progressing in our project work. These rendered walkthroughs allow viewers to move through a space in real-time, turn corners, walk down a corridor, or even view what is just beyond a window. 

To be able to share these externally, there are two options. The first is simple; our teams can record themselves moving through the space, controlling the narrative to show clients exactly what needs to be discussed during a presentation or meeting. Then, they can share the recording in a video format for easy viewing. The second option is to export an Enscape model so that a viewer is in complete control over how they move through the space, and it can be controlled with a keyboard or video game controller. This second option allows us to better empathize with clients and create experiences that help enable an evolving conversation, such as a programming meeting. 

SMMA | Video Walkthrough

Michael Kyes, Senior Associate and the Architecture Team Leader at SMMA, explains:

"It's a four-dimensional experience, where you have the immersive, spatial experience, combined with the experience of time. Knowing that you can walk, turn, and experience the space is a lot better than just having a static view. This is also a great aspect of the video, not just play and listen, but these video walkthroughs are critically important now to forge deeper connections with our clients, and I think that it will stick with us."
SMMA Interior Finish Board CMT

A Human Element

Typically, our teams would have the opportunity to present these visualizations in-person to enable discussions between designers, clients, and consultants. Since going remote, these presentations have moved to video chat discussions or screen shares in combination with a phone call, causing staff to reflect on the language they use and how they can add a human element when they can't communicate in person. 

Senior Associate and Interior Designer  Emily Modoono shared how, typically, when presenting to clients in the office, she would mesh the digital experience with something tactile, such as having finishes laid out, in addition to printed boards that showcase concept images and materials. Then, she would walk them through the Enscape model on a large screen. Modoono and her team have since developed digital finish boards to help elevate the experience of viewing these presentations from behind a screen. 

Notably, the ability to share screens while presenting has proven useful when working with clients and consultants. Rather than having a phone call and attempting to explain specific points in a document, we can share our screens and make updates in real-time, working through the files in a deeply-collaborative manner. Speaking to how she makes these digital interactions more personal, Modoono states:

"I make sure that whoever I'm presenting to can see me while I present – my video is almost always on. I think it helps humanize it. I always say, "I'm sitting in my office by myself; I might not be able to see you react or read your body language, so please interrupt me at any point to give feedback or provide commentary. " The way I present is a little bit more fluid and conversational, so I do have to make sure that I leave some pauses when I'm transitioning to allow people to interject. My language, virtually, has had to become more descriptive. I’m much more aware of my tone because if there is a scenario where they can't see me, how I move or interact, it is important my message is received with the intent I want."

Connecting with Intent

The way we communicate with our colleagues in the design space has been put to the test. Typical of a design firm, we operate in an open office, where staff can easily walk over to one another to chat and collaborate spontaneously. These moments of fortuitous collaboration are often necessary to meet deadlines, provide clarity, or work through problems. Namely, we have altered our modes of communication and styles to accommodate the lack of proximity. 

"Often, those unplanned interactions can become inspirational design meetings, so that has been harder to achieve at home," shared Modoono. To help replicate those experiences, our teams have increased planned meetings, where members of the group can share screens while making updates in real-time, planning out questions for clarification, and working to make the most effective use of their time together, which has been beneficial. 

SMMA Programming Design Screenshare Enscape

All of our interactions have become much more purposeful and intentional, helping us to work efficiently during this challenging time.

David Darling, Design Technology Manager, SMMA

From Analog to Virtual

How do we take our analog experiences, such as in-person design critiques and all-hands meetings, and adjust to the digital world? When we were first faced with this question, the initial response was to work with what we already had and often used; an assortment of "tier-one" tools, such as Bluebeam, which is commonly used for marking up documents, and double down on how we use them for collaborating. We have introduced cloud-based sessions so that more than one person can mark up a drawing set at the same time and have individual comments, while simultaneously connecting to the people that are making those comments to address them. 

"I think it's challenging to think about innovating into new workflows right now," shared Darling. "Although, I think for SMMA and our ability to move into augmented reality, it's critical to continue pushing forward and to ensure that we're still making progress, and able to adapt and prepare for the future. We have to make sure that our current workflows are operating optimally."

Regular, scheduled design discovery meetings are a mainstay in our firm’s design culture; these meetings provide the opportunity for other staff to engage with a project team and provide critique and outside perspective. It was critical for us to find a way to maintain that culture while working remote. In recent weeks, several teams have tested a few "second-tier" programs intended for collaborating digitally. To simulate the experience of working in front of a whiteboard, we have experimented with Mural, an online platform, and app designed to encourage discussion better. The program mimics allows multiple users to use the interface simultaneously, with the ability to upload drawings and other documents, leave virtual sticky-notes, and plan, with a built-in integration to programs we already use in the office. It's a robust tool that allows our design teams to communicate and interact in a way that's more attuned to what we're accustomed to, helping us tap into the systems and models of collaboration that help us design creatively and effectively.

For Matt Paquin, a Design Technologist at SMMA, "the adoption of community collaboration tools and more frequent, planned communications has pushed us to be more purposeful and succinct in our visual communications, as well as with the imagery and the visualizations that we're creating for internal and external use. I think these things have become much more important, impactful, and precise."

SMMA Mural Digital Discussion
Digital Dashboard Operations

Operating Optimally

We've found that in addition to having the ability to collaborate digitally, technology can help span the gap on the operations side, where there is a significant reliance on data and less on the grassroots understanding of what's happening in the office. Whereas we had previously utilized management tools simply, we've witnessed people buckling down to create greater structure. Similarly, more people are looking to employ dashboards to understand data and communicate that information in a visual format, allowing staff to engage on their own time versus having to be present at a meeting. 

Forward Thinking

While the current climate might make it challenging to think beyond the present moment, we have been reflecting as a collective, regarding how these lessons will affect our behaviors upon return to the office. By and large, the focus has been on the ways we communicate as everyone adjusts to a new reality. SMMA's Michael Pardek shared, "It's a ubiquitous experience for all of us; we're not in a bubble, it affects everybody universally." 

The transition to meetings over video chat while working from home has given us greater insight into how our colleagues live, and the challenges that they deal with, instilling in us a greater sense of empathy and willingness to adapt. "Everybody leads different lives. I think our shared experience these last few months puts a magnifying glass on that. You see it when you join a team meeting. Somebody has their kid in their arms, or a spouse just off the screen on their own call, or their dog is pawing at their leg for attention," continued Pardek.


"Before you might not have known it, and now even at a distance you begin to see how your coworkers live. It creates the desire for understanding and empathy that I hope continues to grow even when we return. And maybe you will not get that answer right away, but we are learning that its ok."

Many of our staff have expressed that they hope that this mentality sticks with us as we move forward, helping us communicate more effectively with one another while remaining flexible in our work and for what the future holds.  

"It's critical that we don't forget that our firm is multidisciplinary. It's not just a word, it's part of the practice. It requires maintaining our connections with one another to best collaborate. You can do it in the office, but we're proving that it's just as easy to reach out via chat to get the answers you need to keep everybody going forward."