With everyone busier than ever, most of us are seeking a balance between our work and our personal lives. Technology now enables extensive communications and thereby opportunities that didn’t exist years ago. Nearly every practicing architect engages in some form of “virtual practice” today because responsibilities require it. So, is an entirely virtual practice now right for you?
Why Virtual Practice?
The virtual architectural practice model may be ideal for Millennials who prefer flexible work arrangements. Parents can raise children and work from home, while others can choose recreational activities in the middle of the day. More seasoned practitioners may begin living retirement travel dreams while still practicing.
The virtual architectural practice model is far more flexible than traditional practice—and may be all but recession-proof since it can grow and shrink more easily with market fluctuations. The benefits of virtual practice may include near zero fixed overhead expenses—in contrast to substantial costs associated with traditional brick-and-mortar firms such as rent, computer hardware, infrastructure and more. In some cases, employee payroll and benefits become a thing of the past when the firm limits workers to consultants or independent contractors; however, there are important regulations in this area that must be followed. A “cloud-based” practice, where files are stored and managed online, means no servers and likely no expensive software or equipment to purchase or maintain.
Peter Macrae is now a seven-year veteran of virtual practice—with 38 years of prior experience in architectural design, project management, and business development. He sees his virtual practice as an “incubator of solopreneurs” who manage themselves and particularly enjoys the opportunity to mentor aspiring architects, such as college students using unique software skills and developing the skill-sets of younger architects. His virtual practice allows him to travel and practice from anywhere in the world.
Jason Winters, AIA, principal and founder of Kezlo Group, a small firm in the mid-Atlantic region working throughout the US, started his own practice to create a flexible work environment for himself and others, especially for the flexibility to be active in his new son’s life. Kezlo now has ten people, eight of whom are full-time employees who work remotely but meet regularly for lunch, with project team meetings in coffee shops or homes. Employees perform on a results-oriented schedule so that everyone can choose how they want to structure their work day.
As a new start-up, the Kezlo Group couldn’t afford office space initially—and later found that they didn’t need it. Without an office, firm employees meet with clients on the clients’ own turf, providing better service and engagement—underscoring how nonessential office space would be. Ultimately, it was advantageous for both clients and employees, allowing for better work-life balance and flexibility for employees and greater responsiveness to clients.
The freedom to structure one’s day and balance personal and family needs, avoiding trade-offs that pit work and life requirements against each other, make the biggest difference in the Kezlo Group. However, maintaining a healthy firm culture when employees are not in the same physical space is challenging and requires consistent communication. Employee motivation is also critical, and employees must be self-starters; therefore, personality fit is crucial for success to ensure the employee is able to work independently in a virtual office environment. The firm encourages all its employees to market the firm and work on business development.
For Lira Luis, AIA, principal and founder of Atelier Lira Luis Limited (ALLL), her firm’s work is more than fifty percent carried out “in the cloud” through the internet or a global technological network, tempered by both online and offline networking. Luis’ staff are not located in one office, nor in one city, and include both employees and contractors. She finds that in a virtual practice, one is more “fully aware and in the moment of (where) you are actually located” and that it “evens out the playing field” to seek opportunities to work with people located elsewhere.
She identifies the significant difference between virtual and traditional practice to be the diversity of stakeholders found in virtual practice – an important factor when confronting pressing challenges affecting the built environment. In addition, virtual practice offers flexibility not found in traditional practice, including not binding one to an 8 am to 5 pm schedule nor to a geographical location.
While achieving a better work-life balance can be one of the many benefits of a virtual practice, as with most any enterprise, there are also risks that must be addressed. For example, employment may be handled differently in a virtual practice, but it still must conform to the law to ensure workers are properly classified. Clear and consistent policies and procedures for employee and contractor use of technology need to be established and communicated. Importantly, you must be registered in every state where you perform architectural services and obtain state business licenses wherever you may be doing business. It’s also imperative to maintain adequate insurance for you, your firm, and your employees.
The AIA Trust Guide to Virtual Practice provides an overview that highlights some of the many benefits and risks of a virtual practice, with a checklist at the end to help summarize what you’ll need to address. Ultimately, hiring the right professionals, such as an attorney, a business consultant, and a financial advisor, is the best approach to understand what is required and lay the groundwork required for future success.