Architects and engineers are redefining remote team collaboration under lockdown

Resourceful architecture and engineering firms are using digitalization to make remote team collaboration more efficient than ever.

A team of architects holds a virtual meeting with a remote employee.

Maxime Thomas

May 5, 2020

min read
  • In the wake of COVID-19, architecture firms and other businesses in the building industry are relying on digital transformation and remote collaboration tools to continue their work.

  • Firms are finding that digital collaboration can enhance information relay, though starting a project without a physical meeting is still challenging.

  • Despite initial concerns, many companies find that remote work is not detrimental to team cohesion and may even provide new opportunities for growth and recruitment.

La Maison du Numérique (The House of Digital), a project by French architect Francis Soler with BIM management by It's.
La Maison du Numérique (The House of Digital), a project by French architect Francis Soler with BIM management by It’s. Image courtesy of It’s.

In this time of COVID-19, many in the architecture, building, and public works industries are waiting for construction projects to resume. But living under an unprecedented lockdown doesn’t mean that all work has to come to a standstill. The companies that are furthest along in their digital transformation are reaping the rewards of their early investment in Building Information Modeling (BIM) and remote team collaboration among architects and engineers.

With work evenly distributed between offices in Rome, Paris, and Geneva, architecture firm It’s has always focused on dematerialization—both internally and when collaborating with customers and partners. But the COVID-19 crisis has revealed a paradox: “We’re actually finding it more difficult to work remotely with colleagues who are normally in the same office than with those who are already far away,” says Paris-based cofounder Francesco Marinelli.

Preparation is key for remote collaboration

A longtime Autodesk Revit and BIM 360 user, It’s regularly sets up virtual meetings with clients to move forward on current projects. “The fact we aren’t able to meet face-to-face means that we need to spend more time preparing for these meetings in advance,” says Marco Teofili, the firm’s Rome-based BIM manager. He cites the example of opening documents the company plans to use beforehand to optimize meeting time and allow for more informed discussions. “In this sense, it’s a process that reminds us of the upstream phase of creating a BIM model,” adds partner and co-founder Paolo Mezzalama. “For everything to work, we need to anticipate the unexpected.”

It’s says that many of its customers and partners had previously been skeptical about the digitalization of all processes, but the lockdown, which began in Italy on March 9, 2020, convinced the firm of the benefits. “Digital collaboration takes us further, especially in terms of relaying information,” Marinelli says. “That said, starting up a project without a physical meeting is still a challenge.” Marinelli would like to believe that brainstorming in the same room still has a bright future ahead of it and sees this crisis as an opportunity to think about the digitalization of the construction site in situ. Although many sites are currently at a standstill in order to comply with current protection measures, 3D printing and prefabrication offer plenty of unexploited potential for the future.

BIM gains new fans

Work has also changed for BIM specialists. Though consulting firm R-BIM’s Rafik Remal works alone, cultivating the exchange of good practices is part of his DNA; his role is first and foremost to help architects, project owners, and technical design offices implement BIM solutions. Remal says he has recently seen an increase in the use of Autodesk BIM 360 Docs.

“Some users, especially engineers who weren’t involved in the modeling process, may not have fully appreciated the usefulness of this platform before,” he says. “But because of the lockdown, they have been asked to activate their user rights in order to retrieve documents remotely and interact with each other.” Remal says that companies that are further along in their digital transformation have been able to clear the obstacles inherent in remote collaboration on the same model or several trade models by coordinating via BIM Collaborate Pro.

Collaborative platforms speed up conflict resolution

A screen collage shows amployees working remotely.
CEBATEC employees working remotely. Image courtesy of CEBATEC.

Using collaborative platforms takes planning and preparation. “We’ve not quite reached an intuitive approach just yet,” says Laetitia Laquais, founder of the BIM fluid design office CEBATEC. “But thanks to this solution, it’s been easier for our employees to telework.” With more than 77% of the company’s staff currently working remotely, CEBATEC uses the platform for almost all of its projects.

Some processes have even accelerated despite the unprecedented lockdown situation. “Until now, we would wait for a wrap-up meeting to resolve any conflicts,” says Laquais. “But now we’re seeing that the use of a collaborative platform lets us address issues with other trades immediately and more easily.” Laquais says that once the crisis is over, she plans to use this collaborative method to better manage projects from the very start.

Digital transformation leads to growth

Laquais says the lockdown induced by the health crisis promises to bring about a lasting change in CEBATEC’s working culture, and spirits are high within the team. “We thought that remote working would be detrimental to our cohesion,” she says. “But thanks to these new processes and tools—which we’re still not exploiting to the fullest—we realize that teleworking can allow us to grow in a different way.”

In terms of HR, for example, decentralization gives the company the freedom to consider recruiting new talent located outside the French cities where CEBATEC is already present: Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand, and Saint-Etienne. This strategy also helps solve the issue of family mobility, a problem inherent in any relocation. Ultimately, CEBATEC is confident that it will come out of the COVID-19 crisis with more collaborative, more efficient processes in place. Laquais channels the spirit of the lockdown when she says that “ironically, this crisis is opening up new possibilities.”

Maxime Thomas

About Maxime Thomas

Maxime Thomas is an editor for the French national and specialized press. He has also worked in radio and covers various aspects of industrial life, including digital transformation and its specific consequences for certain professions.

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