Digital Nomads + Architecture: 9 Tips for Running a Practice on the Road
There aren’t many Architects I know who do not love to travel, and I’ve always felt the two things are intrinsically linked. Maybe it’s our constant quest for visual inspiration and new ideas, or perhaps our fascination for how people live their lives and how wildly that varies from border to border, and the impact that has on our physical environments.
by Chris Barnes
Either way, in the age of Instagram and unavoidable envy at the seemingly constant stream of images of laptops by the beach, cocktail in hand my wife and business partner Bonnie Robin, and I were keen to try this thing called digital nomadism for ourselves.
So in 2017, we packed into bags what we could of our 3 year old residential Architecture practice, Field Office Architecture, Airbnb’d our Melbourne home, and hit the road for 3 months as we travelled throughout Bali, Malaysia, mainland Indonesia and Singapore. Working out of cafes, coworking spaces, airports and yes, the occasional beach side lounge chair, we managed to run the practice (almost) as we would back home, however, not without its challenges.
So if you’ve ever felt curious about taking your own Architecture practice, and running it from your dream location, here’s a few tips from our experience…
#1 Hire well
As a small practice of only 3 (and two of us headed away), we decided we needed to hire someone a little more senior to be the “face” of the business in our absence. Rather than hire out to a fulltime position, we found a great candidate in Daniel who had his own practice but was able to dedicate 2 days a week to helping us out. With his experience and levelheadedness, we were able to have him attend sitemeetings, review drawings that were being issued, and even pitch a job for us to a potential client.
Even though we had a junior graduate working with us, and a documentor, our more senior guy was able to dip in and out as required and do those high level things.
#2 Network with another practice
Despite having a strong set up with Daniel helping out, there were a couple of times we felt a bit light on with a couple of tasks requiring urgent attention. We were fortunate enough to share an office in Melbourne with another architecture and interior design practice who were able to lend us staff for an afternoon to complete a quick site measure, and another time to do some 3D renders.
It would have been a nightmare to hire someone new remotely, so it was great to have the flexibility to fill the gaps where we needed to. I’d recommend anyone in a similar situation to do the same.
#3 Systems. Systems. Systems.
In theory, we were always available via phone, and if we weren’t at our computers, we made sure in case of emergency, we weren’t too far away. However, in my experience, this level of availability with clients and staff can be chaotic even when you’re working in the same place as them, let alone an 8 hour flight away.
So we decided to set up a fixed time slot every day where we would meet staff via phone conference to go through the items of that day, and any issues that were being worked on. This applied whether there were items to discuss or not, because even a quick 10 minute chat to discuss where we were at meant that staff felt comfortable each day knowing we were across everything, and we felt good getting briefed.
Similarly with clients, even though Daniel was regularly going to site meetings (we had 3 projects on site at the time), we had a weekly checkin organised with all our clients at generally a set time which allowed us and them to save up all the little items that required discussion.
Other than that, we’d certainly suggest setting up some sort of cloud based project management system, not just for staff, but for clients and consultants.
Everything in the cloud. Everything online.
We’d always used Dropbox for our file storage and management, but the trip did really encourage us to examine the way we had set up all of our internal systems and we were fortunate that we did.
On top of cleaning up everything in Dropbox and organising it so that 4 people could be using it efficiently, we also started using Slack for all internal correspondence which was a lifesaver. It’s such an organized way of quickly chatting to team members, sharing files, quick sketches, audio files, etc, and it all gets neatly tied in with other programs ie GMail, Google Calendar, Asana, etc.
Asana for project management. Probably the easiest one we’ve used for keeping track of everything.
Skype, for obvious reasons.
On top of that, it was really the first time we really put the Ipad to use, and I’m not sure we could have done without it, particularly the app PDF editor. With printing only available intermittently, it was incredibly easier just to mark up drawings and images using this app and the Apple Pencil, so much so that it’s continued to be the only the way we do it.
#5 Manage your Clients
We had projects in the early design phase, documentation and on site, so there were various expectations and understandable concerns from clients when we approached them with our plans.
Obviously, we gave as much notice as we could, and certainly presented it as not a holiday but a studio relocation and working trip, and generally everyone was very supportive, one client going as far to suggest that the trip should be an annual studio feature.
However, it was important to also to convey that yes the systems and studio structure are set up so their projects would run smoothly, but we would not always be as available to them.
I think all in all, this aspect went smoothly, and there were no major issues That said in future for these types of trips, we would likely introduce our clients to some sort of online project management page or system, maybe with Dropbox or Asana, which allowed them to log on and visibly interact with drawings, notes and progress. There was a feeling with a couple of clients that “we weren’t there”, and that maybe freaked them out a little bit, particularly with projects that were on site. I think by giving them a regularly updated interface, they would feel far more confident we were across everything despite being a country or two away.
#6 Don’t change your working hours to suit home.
That all being said, wherever you go, stick to what works for you as comfortable working hours. Your clients, staff and networks will already understand that you are not there for them exactly the hours you may have been before, so this will allow you to a) work to how you work best and b) give you precious hours (for us it was in the late afternoon) where the emails and phone calls stop because they are well outside home business hours, to really get some deep work done.
It’s important to remind yourself regularly that you’re not required on call all the time.
Coworking spaces will be your best friend. Despite doing our best to build systems that allowed us to work anywhere, there were times that you really just need the structure of a studio, and coworking spaces gave us everything we needed.
Big desks that you can lay out everything, good strong wifi, printers, meeting rooms with skype and conference infrastructure, fresh coconuts and coffee delivered straight to your desks (yes really), it was a well needed relief to have some of these modern and professional comforts.
However, the most memorable part of coworking are the people you meet along the way, all from different parts of the world, all working in completely different fields. Besides making some great friends, it also helped us challenge some of our accepted norms that sometimes remain unchallenged in the architecture world.
We were very fortunate to work in some amazing coworking spaces but our favorites would have had to have been Outpost in Ubud and Dojo Bali in Canggu.
#8 Keep a contingency fund for an emergency visit back
Sometimes in what we do, you just need to get there to sort out whatever minor / major emergency requires your attention. I had already planned an intermittent trip back home for a few days for personal reasons midway through the trip, but it turned out to be a godsend in dealing with a couple of significant issues with a project on site. Such a visit back doesn’t cost too much in the scheme of things, but saved a heap in terms of relationships and resolution of a particular issue.
At the very least, telling the client that you can come back should the necessity arise gives them a strong sense of assurance.
#9 Have fun.
The reason why we did this was to experience something fulfilling and to find a way to do what we love but in a flexible manner. There wouldn’t have been any point if we were just buried behind the laptop the whole time, worried about issues back home.
Make sure you really embrace wherever you find yourself, reach out and engage with the local communities, join some local meetup groups, visit some Architecture practices in the area. See if there’s something you can share or collaborate on. We ended up working on a feasibility study for an island resort with a local consortium it didn’t work out but was a wonderful experience.
Chris Barnes is an Architect and the Director of Field Office Architecture, based (mostly) out of Melbourne, Australia.
Field Office Architecture is a small boutique design practice specialising in residential and small commercial projects along with specialty product design.
The practice is particularly focused on providing a better template for how people live their lives. In a world that is becoming ever more complicated and busier, they look to the way one’s environment can positively improve our outlook through the principals of pause, slow living and retreat.
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