Touching Base: Effective remote collaboration in the construction industry

With the proliferation of cloud-based BIM technologies, remote site observation tools, and digital project management platforms, we no longer have to be together to work together.

No one is reading this from their office – at least, not from the office they’re used to. Recent events have compelled the AEC industry to adopt work-from-home remote workflows almost overnight; many offices were left scrambling to retool the way they work while short on both time and equipment. With an indefinite timeline ahead of us, and despite the clear hardships at play, it is important to stay positive and foreground the benefits of remote operation and work together to establish best practices. At VIATechnik, we have made a smooth transition to a fully remote operation by collaborating virtually; we use GSuite (Docs, Hangouts, etc.) and cloud-based BIM solutions to stay connected across nine global offices, multiple BIM systems, and myriad projects. We check in frequently, keeping in touch while keeping a paper trail. For us and for others, “remote” no longer has to mean isolated and cut off; we can be just as connected as ever, and maybe even see an increase in our productivity.

In a broad sense, successful remote operation means decentralizing your labor while maintaining efficient decision-making and leadership. We are all familiar with the concept of a satellite office – a central executive hub that macro-manages separate offices which in turn manage their own projects based on feedback from the main office. What we gain from this system is the ability to hire a diverse talent group irrespective of geographic location while increasing our ability to develop projects locally. Specialized designers do not need to be relocated; with clear and frequent communication, their expertise can be extended to local offices. Conversely, a specialized designer can be hired locally and become an asset to the entire constellation of offices. If we apply that same concept at the project level, we see we’re actually quite used to remote operation – how many times do the designers, engineers, consultants, and clients meet in person at the same time?

Preparing for Remote Operation

Today, we’re being asked to take this one step further and decentralize our teams. We are effectively dividing ourselves into dozens, even hundreds, of satellite offices. And the analogy holds up – we have to acquire real estate and equipment (making ourselves remote-ready at home), establish clear objectives (set agendas for everyone’s time, including your own), communicate clearly and frequently (stay in touch with team members at all times), and use new technology to our advantage.

A VIATechnik employee home office set up in Denver, CO Photo: VIATechnik

The first step is setting up a dedicated home workspace. If at all possible, this should be a place you only use for work. This will help reduce distractions while setting clear physical boundaries between work and life. Second, it is critical to be clear about expectations and deliverables at all scales from daily milestones to overall project goals. Set a deadline and work backwards, checking in with others to see what is feasible and adjusting as necessary. It is much easier to become aimless without the physical cues of the office to put us back on track. Next, establish efficient and frequent means of communication based on the task at hand. Most of us know the truism of meetings that could have been emails, but how many of our emails could have been IMs? Casual communication should happen on your choice of instant messaging platform – Skype,Google Hangouts, Slack, etc. – while email should be reserved for your project “paper trail.” And don’t be afraid of your camera! So much of our communication is non-verbal and video conferences help us all listen better, alleviate tense meetings, avoid misunderstandings in tone, and provide other critical bio-feedback. Lastly, set the example early on your project to start a pattern of good behavior. Bad habits are much easier to start when we don’t see each other every day.

Communicating Remotely

VIATechnik uses Asana, a project management mobile and web-based application used to track the progress of goals remotely, manage the workload of team members, and even automate certain parts of the process. Software: Asana Photo: VIATechnik

From sophisticated chat programs to project management tools to cloud-based BIM solutions, there are numerous solutions available that can be tailored to individual goals. Their success depends entirely on how we use them to communicate. A dedicated Slack channel can provide a space for all project-related instant messaging within a larger platform; other channels can be assigned to different projects, keeping all of your conversations organized. Tools like Asana and Workfront can give us even more project management capability, allowing participants to track the progress of goals remotely, manage the workload of team members, and even automate certain parts of the process. When you can no longer drop by someone’s desk and see them with too much on their plate, we need systems in place that represent workloads visually for all team members to see. It is much easier to pitch in like you would in the office with these visual cues, and to reassign staff as necessary. These systems become the central office for each of our satellites – they are a shared source of direction for everyone no matter where they are.

VIATechnik polled our team on their usage of different web-conference platforms and found Google Hangouts Zoom Video Communications and Microsoft Teams to be the most common. Photo: VIATechnik

Cloud-Based BIM and Remote Collaboration

Working from different locations and different time zones means we all need the same information at the same time. BIM 360 and other cloud-based BIM solutions keep everyone on the same page and ensure up-to-date project information is easily accessible. Cloud-based BIM provides a central repository of all documents associated with a project, making the exchange of information easier. Each trade and consultant can co-author BIM models with designers and engineers, which means we no longer need to have files saved locally to be shared at scheduled meetings. Live in-model coordination then takes the place of in-person coordination meetings – if an MEP consultant has assets colliding with structure, they can work with the engineer and architect and test-fit solutions without ever leaving the model, or their desks. An experienced modeler can even host larger meetings with all stakeholders, including clients, to iterate different options. With live-linked models and real-time rendering through programs like Unity Reflect , clients can see virtually what the final product will look like. Because all stakeholders are able to participate in the process at all times, the fact that no one is in the same room is immaterial. This workflow delivers faster decisions that are better informed because we can see the full scope of the project at once. While we cannot pop by someone’s desk anymore, we can get awfully close.

Cloud-based BIM provides a central repository of all documents associated with a project, making the exchange of information easier. Software: BIM360 Photo: VIATechnik

Remote Site Observation

But what happens if construction has already started? Many projects have halted already due to state and local ordinances, but some are still operational including critical infrastructure and affordable housing (check your local jurisdiction for more information). It may sound strange, but we simply have a virtual “meeting” with the building. By using systems like Procore, Structionsite, Holobuilder, and Openspace, we can share actionable building observations across devices. Structionsite offers virtual walk-throughs that can be annotated with observations that can be tagged to existing or new RFIs. We no longer need to walk the site, take photos, label them, create a report referring to RFIs and meeting notes in separate documents, and send it to all stakeholders. If any part of that process falls through, it can be impossible to track down problems. We can now say goodbye to ripping open installed drywall to view the stud installation – we can simply pull up the Structionsite recording from that period and re-observe it. With Holobuilder, we can create and share 360-degree views of the building over time, documenting construction progress in easily-viewable photos and creating as-built conditions for project handoff. We no longer even need to remember to take these photos – with Openspace reality capture, we can collect panoramic site imagery passively via hardhat-attached hardware. Imagine creating a “ Google Street View” of your site that can be visited just as easily as an address, accessible over the cloud from anywhere and tied automatically to building plans. Integration with BIM 360 allows for side-by-side comparisons between the digital model and as-built conditions through the same cloud interface. And it happens almost immediately – by the time you return from a site visit, Openspace has processed your walk into actionable documentation. With these technologies we can not only observe the site remotely, but we can do so collaboratively and precisely through digital models, leaving behind collections of unlabeled photos of tape measures held up to buildings.

Conclusion

No remote operation is perfect; there will be some efficiency lost in the transition. But how well we use chats, drawings, models, and site observation tools to express ourselves will determine how much we feel that inefficiency. Cloud-based technologies like BIM 360, together with digital site observation tools and laser scanning, can allow us to take a building from inception to built product digitally and remotely. All project stakeholders can have access to real-time building information wherever they are, which means we are always collaborating all the time.

All of this may differ significantly from your current setup. Remember that late adoption is better than no adoption – don’t be afraid to try something out on the fly, no matter the learning curve. By establishing clear goals and best practices early, and sticking to them, we may find that we see improvements in our workflow. When we work differently, it might be that we work better.

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