#wfh (working from home) is a hashtag that’s become all too familiar. Office workers have decamped to their living rooms in droves – but can architects really follow suit?
In this article, we discuss the pros and cons of homeworking, the equipment and technology that can make it easier, and the online courses and resources that will help get you through this coronavirus lockdown!
Reasons for working from home
Even before the outbreak of Covid-19, homeworking was on the rise, the number of people working from home nearly doubled. The uptick in freelance contracts is one obvious reason for this, but many employers have also started to recognise there are good reasons for their staff to work from home.
The nine-to-five doesn’t suit everyone, particularly those with caring responsibilities or who live far from their place of work. Homeworking is also advantageous for people who are fit to work but have limited mobility, and many other groups beside.
As architects, we may sometimes find that a site is far from our office but close to our home, and in this case, it also makes sense to base ourselves at home. And needless to say, for architects who are self-employed as sole practitioners a home office is the logical, cost-effective choice.
Benefits of homeworking
There is now convincing evidence that a healthy work-life balance increases productivity, and allowing employees to work from home plays no small part in facilitating this.
There are numerous benefits to freeing staff from their desks.
While some workers enjoy using the ‘dead’ hour of commuting to catch up on podcasts or similar, many more would be delighted to cut their commute. As well as saving time, they eliminate the significant costs of petrol or public transport tickets. They become more self-sufficient, since they can organise their days flexibly according to their own preferences and responsibilities. And of course, they’re more comfortable, since they can take breaks in the garden or grab a snack from the fridge any time.
In short, they are happier, and therefore work more effectively.
Disadvantages of homeworking
This is not to say that homeworking is without its downsides, as anyone who has experienced a government lockdown will know.
The lack of community is challenging for any employee, but it can hit creative workers especially hard when there is nobody to share ideas with.
While video conferencing tools such as Zoom help to connect people, networks can be slow and technology is never immune to gremlins.
Scheduling a time to chat just isn’t the same as a spontaneous conversation over a cup of coffee. And there are some things that are better explained in person, especially in the context of design or client meetings.
It can be hard to separate work and domestic life when your laptop is on the same table as a bill that needs paying and a book you’ve been meaning to read. It’s easy to be distracted by other people in your house, by pets or by ringing phones. You might even start to crave the alone time of that train journey.
Finally, if you’re an architect setting up on your own and your permanent place of work will be your house, there’s considerable expense at the outset. You need a suitable workspace with suitable light, as well as a website and promotional materials and the tools, technology and infrastructure we take for granted in a studio.
Key items of equipment
So you’re an architect working from home. Assuming this is on a temporary or occasional basis, and not that you’re self-employed – what can’t you do without?
Obviously, you need a desktop or laptop computer that’s powerful enough to run the software you use. Your firm this will likely supply this, but otherwise it’s a large expense that you’ll bear yourself.
You need an external hard drive and perhaps a printer/scanner, as well as a comfortable chair and desk and reliable phone and internet connections.
Again, assuming you’re employed, your firm will likely be able to transfer the relevant software licences to your home computer. If not, you’ll have to get hold of software yourself and make sure your version is compatible with others’.
In addition, you’ll need decent email, word processing and spreadsheet packages, but Google’s free software is good enough for most people.
Thankfully, today there are plenty of online tools to make remote working easier. Premium apps come with hefty price tags, but often there are copycats that can be downloaded for free. Below is a list of the most common types of online tools.
Many organisations are now moving away from email and on to communications apps like Slack (paid) or Chanty (free; upgradable), which have dedicated spaces for separate projects instead of one unwieldy inbox.
Although Skype (free; upgradable) has been the video conferencing standard for years, the Covid-19 outbreak brought Zoom (free; upgradable) to many people’s attention.
The latter is considered particularly stable, and the paid version can handle up to 1,000 people in one video call.
Project management tools allow you to plan work, allocate resources, share information and schedule tasks. Basecamp (paid) and Trello (free; upgradable) are two popular packages for managing projects.
For many people Evernote (free; upgradable) remains the go-to notetaking app, not least because of its Web Clipper extension that lets you save whole web pages with one click.
If you’re more of a minimalist, however, you might prefer something like Google Keep (free).
While good old Google Drive (free; upgradable) is adequate for personal and even small business use, larger companies might prefer IDrive (paid) for ease of use and the huge storage space it offers.
IDrive continuously syncs your documents and retains up to 30 previous versions for peace of mind.
‘Productivity’ is a somewhat vague term that could encompass communication, project management and notetaking apps. In sum, though, a productivity tool should help you do more work in less time. For an app that behaves like a personal assistant, you might like to try ToDoist (free; upgradable).
The well-established QuickBooks (paid) certainly offers everything you need for small business accounting, but ZipBooks (free; upgradable) gives it a run for its money by offering unlimited invoicing and bookkeeping.
Last but not least, there are wellbeing tools. It’s essential to take care of your physical and mental health when homeworking, and that’s where apps like Insight Timer (free; upgradable) – for meditation and mindfulness – or Pocket Yoga (paid) can help.
Online architecture courses and training
If you’re homeworking because of a lockdown, you’ve probably already considered how to maximise all the extra hours in your day. And what better way than to take an online course? Here are a few options to improve your knowledge and skills.
To improve your software skills, whether it’s in AutoCAD or more general-use programs like Photoshop and InDesign, you might like to try lynda.com (paid, but a free month’s trial is available), udemy.com (paid) or skillshare.com (free and paid versions available).
On masterclass.com you will find affordable courses by industry-leading professionals, including Frank Gehry on design and architecture. edx.org also has a wide range of free courses from 3D Modelling from Architectural Drawings to Zero-Energy Design.
If you’re considering working for yourself, you might be interested in the course Architect + Entrepreneur available on teachable.com (paid).
History and theory
All kinds of free MOOCs are available on platforms such as edx.org, coursera.com and futurelearn.com. Oxford University offers short, online courses in various aspects of architectural history (paid), but you can also educate yourself while libraries are closed by reading blogs, e-books and open source journal articles. There are plenty of documentaries and lectures on YouTube and TED, as well as podcasts such as Young Architect and the long-running Design Matters.
Working at home for architecture students
Let’s be honest: studying from home is harder for some subjects that others. Subjects with practical elements, such as architecture, are always going to be tough, but certainly not impossible.
Make sure you’re got the right equipment and software, as set out above. If you’re going to be working from home for a long time, you will also need model-making tools and supplies. During periods of lockdown these will have to be ordered online, so make sure you leave enough time for them to be delivered.
Effective homeworking as an architecture student is not only about equipment, however. You will have to adapt to a new way of working that involves considerable self-discipline.
Set yourself a schedule and follow it. Make sure you know when online lectures and seminars are taking place, prepare for these as thoroughly as you usually would, and log on early so you can troubleshoot any technical issues.
There is also the issue of community. Working in isolation can be especially difficult when you’re used to bouncing ideas off your peers. Make sure you stay in touch via video conferencing apps, and set up WhatsApp groups to exchange ideas or just check in on each other.
Finally, don’t lose touch with what’s happening in the industry just because you are stuck at home. Choose a handful of architecture websites and blogs that are regularly updated, and try to stay on top of any important industry developments.
Top twenty tips for architects working at home
Facing the prospect of weeks or even months at home? Try to keep these things in mind…
Start the day strong
The first half an hour of your day sets the tone for the rest. Try to get some fresh air before you sit down to work. Scientists think there may be a link between vitamin D (from exposure to the sun) and brain function, so go for a run, cycle round the block, take the dog for a walk, or just stretch in your garden.
Don’t wake and work
It can be tempting to crack on with work as soon as you wake up, but this is rarely a good idea. Moving directly from a mindset of rest to one of productivity means you eliminate potential time for creativity. That’s another reason why a morning routine is so important.
Have a designated work area…
Even if your living space is small, don’t work from your bed. Create a space that is solely for working, so the boundaries between work and relaxation don’t get blurred. If you’re really struggling to find room, consider whether pieces of furniture can have separate daytime and night-time functions, or whether objects can be more cleverly stored.
…and make it personal
You’ll work best if your workspace is comfortable – and not only physically. Since you have no co-workers, you can turn up the heating or throw the windows open as you prefer. Play music or work in silence. Burn a relaxing candle or don’t. Your home, your rules!
Always keep your eye out for interesting work
It’s always a good idea to check out the Competitions and Opportunities Board on Archdaily, the Competitions page of the Architectural Review, and the Latest Competitions page of the Architects’ Journal. However, many interesting jobs come though contacts, so don’t let homeworking be an excuse for not staying in touch with yours!
Remember homeworking isn’t limited to your home
Outside of a lockdown situation, the low buzz of public places such as coffee shops and libraries can actually be conducive to work. If you travel a lot, you can also work on trains and planes – basically, anywhere with a decent internet connection.
Let the light in
Try to avoid working in a windowless room. (If you have to do this, take regular breaks in a lighter space.) Position your desk next to a window whenever possible, as a view of the outside world can be both calming and inspiring, especially if you’re surrounded by plenty of green.
Make use of tools and apps
Take advantage of online tools such as Zoom and Trello that are described above. Today there’s almost no task that you can’t get help with!
Enjoy the flexibility…
Working from home allows you to plan your day on your own terms. If you’re not a morning person, shift your day back by an hour. Want to work through lunch today? No problem. Feel the need to stretch your legs for half an hour? Do it. As long as you deliver everything you’ve promised to, how you do so is up to you.
…but don’t abandon routine and boundaries
Though flexibility is great, it’s essential still to maintain some kind of routine, as well as personal boundaries. You should try to work the same number of hours each day, so you’re not tempted to slack off. Keep your door closed so others in your household understand you’re not available, and tidy your workspace at the end of each day. You’ll feel much better starting work the next morning with a clear desk.
Pick up the phone
Email is helpful, but calling someone (especially with video) mimics real-world communication much more effectively. If you miss the busy vibe of your office, pick up the phone and chat to a colleague.
Clear your inbox
There’s nothing more dispiriting than hundreds of emails sitting in your inbox. Unless you’re expecting something urgent, experts recommend dealing with emails twice a day. Turn off notifications so you don’t think about them outside of these times. And deal with emails as soon as you’ve read them: if it’s something straightforward, reply; if you need to gather further information, add it to your to-do list; and if it’s not relevant, delete it.
Take regular breaks
Your productivity goes down when you work for long periods. Try to take a five-minute break every hour, and a 30-minute break every four hours. Stand up, stretch, grab a glass of water and a healthy snack, or step outside for some air.
It’s easy to slob about in pyjamas when you’re working from home, but that won’t put you in the right mindset for work. You’ll feel more motivated if you get dressed, and try to be grateful that you don’t have to make the same effort as when you go into the office. However, make sure you look smart if you have any video calls scheduled that day – on your top half, at least!
Have a regular cut-off time
As well as working the same number of hours each day, try to have a regular cut-off time for work. It doesn’t have to be five o’clock (or whenever you usually finish), but keeping it the same every day lets you make a clear psychological distinction between work and leisure time.
Use the garden
If you’re lucky enough to have outdoor space, make the most of it. In the summer months, why not take your laptop into the garden? Even opening windows and doors, and letting a breeze come inside, can bring about the same positive feeling.
Ask for what you need
Don’t be afraid to ask your employer, colleagues or friends for what you need, whether that’s equipment, an extension on a project, or just to talk about how you’re feeling. Especially in a lockdown situation, everyone is in the same boat and usually happy to help. Outside of those circumstances, you might benefit from joining an online network of homeworkers who support each other.
Consider using a VPN
Use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) any time you connect to public wifi. For added security, you might also like to use one at home. Your location and activity will be hidden from prying eyes, and as an added bonus you can access content that is normally restricted to particular geographical regions.
Try to eat healthy food
One of the biggest problems with homeworking is that a healthy diet can quickly go out of the window. It seems easier to cook instant noodles than assemble a salad, but the difference in time and effort is minimal. If you’re a snacker, aim for healthier choices like nuts, seeds and fruit that are thought to improve cognitive function.
Don’t forget to relax
As a homeworker, you will often be told you are ‘lucky’, but in truth you are likely to suffer many of the same stresses than office-based employees do. Nobody ever really escapes deadlines, or that one irritating colleague who rubs you up the wrong way! Step away from your computer if you feel tense, and consider yoga or meditation to help you stay calm.
Can architects ever be location-independent?
There is no doubt that homeworking offers more freedom than working in an office. But go one step further, and you have location-independence: working from ‘home’ when home could be a Thai beach hut in January and a Portuguese farmhouse in July. Lots of people dream of combining work and travel in this way – but can architects ever really be location-independent?
The short answer to this is yes. The long answer is yes, with a lot of preparation!
First, you will need to register your company (even if your company is a one-man band) and get a business address for correspondence. That doesn’t mean you have to rent a physical space; there are companies who provide mail receipt and forwarding services for a small fee. You will also need to set up a bank account that will meet your international needs, which involves talking through your plans with an advisor.
Another thing to consider is Professional Indemnity Insurance. This is a legal requirement for Architects, and will cover you in case of neglect, error or omission while working on a project.
In the past, working from home might have seemed impossible for many architects, but today’s technology has made it a workable – even enjoyable – reality for many. Even if you were forced into homeworking for public health reasons, you might feel a certain reluctance to return to your old routine!
There is no getting away from the fact that homeworking requires discipline. You need to be determined and consistent – but also to be kind to yourself.
Take care of your physical and mental health, speak to real people as often as you can, and accept that things won’t be the same as they are in an office environment. If you can remember this, there’s no reason you can’t thrive from the comfort of your living room.