The New Normal
Updated: Mar 10, 2022
With the onset of the pandemic leading to multiple lock-downs across the globe, many organizations switched their operations from physical to virtual offices. The concept of work-from-home has garnered mixed reviews from employees across industries and locations. As for architectural offices, many went under immense pressure trying to catch up to the new WFH system. I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued when I learned about Elemental, one of the very few architecture firms that are continuing and planning to take forward working virtually, where the employees had only positive reviews to share!
Ar Amrutha Kishor, the founding head at Elemental, takes me through the genesis of the firm. As the founder, she was certain that she didn't want the people on her team to work beyond 8 hours a day. She had always envisioned a remote office even before the pandemic, ever since 2016, when one of her friends started working at a Canadian office remotely. She was also tremendously inspired by the concept of the agile working system that was popularized by an organization called Palantir. The concept of agile working is based on the ideology that ‘work is an activity and not a place’, and that’s exactly what sets Elemental apart.
During my years working as an architect in various organisations in India and abroad, I would keep observing what I found positive about each office and what could be better. It was through this that I formed a fair idea of what I wanted the office culture of my practice to be, "recollects Amrutha.
The firm started in July of 2020, fresh off of the pandemic hit, with just one intern. They used to meet once a week to discuss and work from home for the rest, but soon, with the rise in size and growth of the firm, they came to a consensus that they could shift all communications online and function equally efficiently. Now, with more than 10 employees working from the lengths and breadths of Kerala, they only meet once every 4 months for an office trip where they get to know each other and spend time away from the constraints of work. According to the team at Elemental, this has favourably worked out in forging a bond between them.
Ar Haritha Gangadharan, who has been with the practise the longest, shares that she finds it easier to manage and prioritise her work. Having worked at a few other physical offices before Elemental, she opines that this mode has proven to be more productive for her. According to her, the 9–5 schedule is too restrictive; people should be able to manage their time to their liking. She adds that the effectiveness of the work will also depend on the collaborating team.
"Given that it’s a choice to work on your own clock, it becomes imperative that you give your 100% at all times." adds Haritha.
Ar Nimmy Sunny, junior architect and a new mother, shares how this has been a major opportunity for her while she juggles motherhood and a full-fledged career. She explains that working virtually has changed her life and opened bigger doors for her. Working at a physical office with a 6-month-old baby at home would have been challenging. But with this mode, she is able to manage her time accordingly and deliver.
As for Elemental, apart from a 9 a.m. meeting over Google Meet in the morning to discuss and distribute the day’s work, you are mostly left on your own to finish your tasks. This provides one with immense flexibility as well as the time to pursue other interests and have a life outside of work. You have the freedom to get your work done and get back with the results in the meeting the next morning. All discussions take place virtually via screen-sharing, brainstorming sessions on jam-board etc. This mode has proven to be very convenient while presenting to a larger number of people effectively. This helps to keep the whole team in the loop regarding all the projects, not just the one you are dealing with. All the data regarding the projects is stored on an online server that is accessible at any time by the employees and is convenient for referring to and cross-checking. The team is also constantly on the lookout for different apps and aids, that will further help rectify the roadblocks in digital communication.
This mode of working also does away with a lot of unwanted judgments and resultant animosity among the team, opines Amrutha. In a physical office, one automatically becomes part of the discussions that might not always be fruitful to the task at hand, but here the team focuses on a results-based approach to work and therefore engages in interactions that are more of thought process and ideation. The team feels that this also nurtures the tendency for the interactions to remain productive and respectful. And the team unanimously agrees that work gets done faster when there’s no one breathing down your neck!
The team at Elemental ardently believes that creativity flows better when you are given ample space (physical and mental) to do so.
They believe that optimum productivity is achieved when you are comfortable with your workspace.
And if that's in the confines of your own room and working on your laptop, then so be it. When asked if she has faced disregard from clients when they learn that it’s a virtual office, she shares that there have been a few instances, but mostly the office's clients are comfortable or even prefer this mode of working, especially when they are working or living abroad.
One might wonder how Team Elemental handles the site work. Well, they have a fairly practical system in place where the team members have delegated sites according to their locations. Asked whether they experience any disconnect when they go on-site from having worked virtually, they explain that minor confusions are bound to happen at any office and not necessarily because it's virtual, but so far, they have been prompt and have avoided any major issues. It has also come to their advantage when they get to have video calls from sites to clarify anything, and the whole team gets to see how the site works are progressing.
Reethu Anna Kuriakose, an intern at the firm since September 2021, says that the comfort and efficiency that you experience here are also catalysed by the kind of team that constitutes Elemental, rather than working virtually. She also shares how important it is to feel that you are being heard when you are working in a team, especially when you are not face-to-face with someone. She feels that as an intern she is also given equal respect and weightage in decision-making and feels very valued as a team member.
"Our hiring process is also particularly vital in the smooth running of the practice, and there is equal weightage for a potential employee’s technical as well as soft skills", shares Amrutha.
While not working in the same physical space, team members need to have good communication skills in order to avoid mix-ups. They also need to be good team players and take accountability for their work.
Working virtually goes greatly in line with the office's sustainability goals. They run a completely paperless firm with everything transferred and referred to digitally, cutting back on a lot of paper wastage that is quite common at most architectural offices. Subsequently, this mode of working has helped the founder reduce energy consumption massively and, in turn, cut back a lot on overhead charges.
The only hurdle that the team occasionally experiences is a lag in communication from their fellow team members. This is unavoidable given the reliance on technology, and Amrutha, as the leader, ensures that the deadlines allow for enough breathing room to compensate for any such lags.
When asked if a physical office is in the cards for Elemental in the near future, the founder clarifies that neither she nor the team feel the need for one as of now. In due course of time, when the projects diversify and the team gets bigger, they might set up a space for ideation where the team can meet up at their convenience. A hybrid system is a possibility, but they are very certain that they do not want anything similar to a typical office. Amrutha feels that in another 5 years’ time, there would be a large number of offices shifting to virtual mode given the ease of it. And sooner than we can imagine, this will be the 'New Normal'.