Future Thinking vs. Woe Is Us: A Conversation Amongst Firm Leaders on Navigating the COVID-19 Economy

Future Thinking vs. Woe Is Us: A Conversation Amongst Firm Leaders on Navigating the COVID-19 Economy

On Wednesday, April 22, Strogoff Consulting hosted a virtual panel discussion with Gould Evans’ Anthony Rohr along with industry leaders from Ross Barney, Parkhill, Smith & Cooper, Gruen Associates, DLR Group, BNIM, HED, CO Architects, and SHoP Architects, regarding how firms across America are navigating the COVID-19 crisis. Moderated by architecture consultant Michael Strogoff, the discussion centered around simple and direct questions on the forefront of minds in the architecture, design, and planning industry; the answers to which painted a generally positive, forward-thinking perspective with a healthy dose of realism. While a microbe has upended our social, economic, and cultural norms, it’s also been a democratizing force — a reminder that we’re in this together.

When asked about the biggest challenges facing each firm, a mixed response pointed to several assertions, but a central message reigned dominant: working from home at such scale is new, however the creative energy of the workplace has been a silent partner in the work. Firms across the United States are adapting a virtual model of working, trying new ways to translate design culture to the digital realm. At Gould Evans, National Managing Principal Tony Rohr sends a daily email newsletter with musings, industry developments, relevant news articles, and even Netflix show recommendations. We’re also hosting weekly firmwide design discussions for in-process work and weekly studio touch-bases to discuss how our design work is progressing in — and even benefiting from — the constraints of the new normal. The biggest challenge of working remote? According to Rohr, “We want to make sure that associates with young families feel supported enough to be productive, while navigating a new situation in which they’re also a teacher and a parent to young kids at home.”

How are clients responding to this unprecedented time? The majority of participants responded that they’re in contact with clients more than prior to the pandemic, connecting on a more personal level. Many have taken this opportunity to pick up the phone and have a casual conversation. And, generally speaking, many are busier now than prior to the pandemic.

This comment around productivity led to the next question, how are employees responding and how are firms keeping everyone positive? The answer: humor, touch-bases, town halls, transparency, and communication. As an ESOP, Gould Evans is in a unique position and as Rohr noted, it’s been crucial to have honest communications on a firmwide level about what we know and don’t know, while leaving room for spontaneous follow-up conversations.

As design and construction schedules have shifted during the pandemic, toward what projects are firms reorienting in the meantime? According to Rohr, “Now is the time for research and analysis to prepare us for the future. We’re rethinking urban studies, urban planning, and anything related to what’s next in the new normal.” This sentiment was echoed across other firms, some of which are also refocusing on research and development. And, as a member of the AIA aptly noted, “Our profession has a tremendous impact on where the economy goes,” highlighting the importance that projects keep moving and innovating.

The final question addressed the future of the industry. The consensus was that COVID-19 will teach us how to drive innovation, which involves working in an unfamiliar space with practice and patience. Innovation doesn’t happen as a reaction to fear; it happens through a realistic intake and analysis of current events met with a diversity of skill, practice, and forward-thinking optimism. As Rohr noted, “What a great profession we all get to be a part of – where when met with unprecedented challenges, we are future-thinking, not woe is us.”

Special thank you to Strongoff Consulting for hosting, and for Carol Ross Barney of Ross Barney; Dan Hart of Parkhill, Smith & Cooper; Debra Gerod of Gruen Associates; Griff Davenport of DLR Group; Kevin Nordmeyer of BNIM; Peter Deveraux of HED; Scott Kelsey of CO Architects; and Todd Sigaty of SHoP Architects for the lively discussion.