In March, as architecture firms across the country were beginning to anticipate future work-from-home mandates to support social distancing efforts to suppress the spread of COVID-19, HKS Inc. conducted a “stress test” of its IT system by having all employees work remotely one Friday.

Jeffrey Stouffer, executive vice president and global director at HKS (Dallas), says there were a few glitches, which its IT and practice technology groups addressed over the weekend, and by the following week, offices began closing on a rolling basis until all of the firm’s 1,500 employees in 23 offices were working from home.

It’s a reality that, by now, has affected firms across the country, resulting in new work routines, skill sets, project timelines—and even social time with co-workers. “It’s been a big adjustment for everyone,” says Stephen Parker, an architect and planner at SmithGroup (Washington, D.C.), adding that the new “normal” work schedule has been one of the biggest changes.

During his first week working remotely, Parker says his workdays averaged 10-plus hours, partially in response to clients who are working on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis and available only in the evenings for phone or video conferences. “We’ve been trying to be conscientious of the challenges they’re under and to be accommodating,” he says.

Like many other organizations, Stouffer says staff members at HKS are jumping in to help out where they see a need, with nine of the firm’s offices using 3-D printers to deliver face shields to clients and local healthcare facilities. “It’s very entrepreneurial right now,” he says.

Additionally, there’s been shifts in what tools architects and designers are utilizing on projects these days. For example, Parker says he’s had to shift some user group meetings for a project to a virtual format to gather input, while existing design programs that allow architects to sketch in real time and share concepts with co-workers or clients during virtual sessions are becoming the norm. “The skill sets that were used in limited circumstances before are experiencing a greater use now,” he says.

While much is still uncertain about this pandemic—and its effects on the healthcare design industry at large—Solvei Neiger, partner at ZGF Architects (Portland, Ore.), expects meetings and project presentation will continue being conducted virtually more often in the future, which could also save on time as well as travel costs. Before the COVID-19 crisis she believed there was no substitute for in-person, face-to-face collaboration.

“But the past month has been a revelation,” she says. “The ability to convene online with only a few days’ or hours’ notice allows us to be nimbler—to carve out time for important conversations and presentations at more natural inflection points—rather than scheduling in-person meetings weeks in advance without the benefit of knowing what might arise in the meantime.” Looking ahead, she says the experience may translate into projects being conducted virtually more often.

Colleague Victoria Nichols, partner at ZGF Architects (Seattle), says in March, two of the firm’s offices interviewed with a children’s hospital client, with only a few days’ notice to turn an in-person presentation into a virtual one. “We transformed one of our Seattle conference rooms into something that looked more like a TV commercial set: a black background, lighting, and bar stools borrowed from our lobby,” Nichols says.

The firm used GoToMeeting to pre-load some of the firm’s design schemes into a PowerPoint presentation, and then marked it up on the screen with the prospective clients to evaluate how each approach met the criteria outlined in the RFP. “It gave them a real sense of our process and a preview of how we might work together,” she says, adding that the effort was worth it. “We won the project.”

Stouffer anticipates other “dramatic affects” to the workplace, especially if coronavirus outbreaks become a reoccurring factor. One reality, he says, may be firms setting up a rolling schedule with employees alternating which weeks they work from home and which they come into the office to limit the number of employee in the office at any one time.

For now, firms are already addressing shifting workplace realities by stressing the importance of staying connected through daily video conferences, phone calls, and the increasingly popular Zoom happy hour. “In some cases, I think it’s bringing us closer,” Stouffer says.

In light of losing those casual interactions that happen within a collaborative office, Parker says the studio is making efforts to touch base regularly. “Our virtual happy hours have started to include ‘skills sessions’ where our colleagues share how to better utilize all of the digital tools at our disposal,” Parker adds. “In turn, we all benefit from the experiences of more senior staff sharing lessons learned on our current projects. Mentoring, even virtually, is a two-way street.”

Anne DiNardo is executive editor of Healthcare Design. She can be reached at