It is a day that I’ll never forget. On March 16, 2020, a firmwide announcement like no other was sent out to all Gresham Smith employees. Our CEO, Al Pramuk, had made the call that, for our safety and well-being, our entire workforce would be working remotely, beginning immediately, due to the coronavirus threat.
Over the next few hours, staff across our 28 locations quickly gathered monitors, docking stations, and other equipment in preparation to work from home. Some of them would be doing so for the very first time.
The next morning found our offices largely empty. And just 16 hours after our CEO’s firmwide announcement, in what can only be described as a Herculean effort on behalf of the entire IT department, Gresham Smith staff were equipped to effectively work from their homes.
The road to making this unprecedented transition, however, took a lot longer than 16 hours. In fact, it was a few years in the making. In this post, I share the steps we took that have allowed us to remain connected and productive from our homes when we needed it most.
Laptops, VoIP & Redundancy
2012 seems like an awfully long time ago. It was the year that introduced the world to The Hunger Games and people were practicing their “Gangnam Style.” It was also the year that Gresham Smith decided to move to a 100% mobile workforce. It was about this time that laptops were starting to showcase capabilities that were on-par with the desktops of the day.
Two years later, our IT group worked to transition the final “holdouts” to laptops (not everybody wanted one!). Around the same time, we moved to Voice over IP (VoIP) as a platform for our voice communications. This process eliminated nearly all handsets from the firm, and our workforce transitioned to headsets. Most everybody wanted one of those.
We also eliminated approximately 18 PBX phone-switch system installations from our remote offices and combined all voice communications and voicemail into a single digital source. Previously, each of our office locations had their own voice circuits, voicemail and maintenance contracts for in-house equipment.
Existing on their own separate communications islands, our staff were unable to share voicemails or save them in any format aside from the phone switch itself. It sounds downright primitive by today’s standards!
Once our IT group simultaneously increased our data-circuit capacity to all of our offices, eliminating voice circuits, everything was able to ride on a single path back to our home office in Nashville.
Our next step on the timeline was to create redundancy so that our offices had a means of communication should their primary data circuits fail. We spent approximately 18 months installing or upgrading redundant data circuits in each of our office locations to promote internet connectivity.
This accomplished two vital tasks: It gave each office a way to carry internet traffic out locally and provided a way for us to have an automated failover—a process of automatically moving an application to a standby server during a failure—in the event the main data circuit stopped working.
Rethinking How We Work
Then came 2017 and a watershed moment in our firm’s history—the relocation of our Nashville home office from Union Street, which we had occupied since 1997, to downtown Nashville’s SoBro district and a brand-new mixed-use office tower designed by Gresham Smith. This major move to three floors and 75,000 square feet of office space provided the opportunity to rethink our approach to how we work.
We built out the new headquarters with the idea that our staff would be fully mobile and have the ability to collaborate from anywhere within our space. We overbuilt the wireless networking capabilities and installed massive data connectivity to our data center, which was relocated to a third-party location as part of the move.
We also reimagined the workspace, providing sit/stand desks, dual 24-inch monitors, and a dock to connect laptops, a keyboard and a mouse at every desk within the firm. For the first time, Gresham Smith employees could truly work from anywhere, yet have the experience of a familiar environment.
To finally cut the cord for our workforce, so to speak, we also reimagined how we approached production. Years earlier, we fully invested in the Autodesk production platform and decided to further solidify that commitment by utilizing Autodesk BIM 360 technology, which enabled our designers to work without having to utilize a central server model, which had been our “norm” for years.
With our BIM models live in the cloud, our employees were able to work on large 3D models while remaining untethered from the office.
Last, but by no means least, we rolled out all of the changes that had been piloted in our new Nashville HQ to the rest of our office locations. So, when the call came to go fully remote, we were well-prepared with infrastructure in place capable of providing an in-the-office experience—no matter where our staff were working.
Planning Ahead for a “Rainy” Day
We couldn’t have possibly known this over the years, but all along we had been building a robust and effective remote work structure that would deliver at a critical time. While many other firms were just starting to scale up to handle the coronavirus crisis, we were already working without interruption, staying on production schedule timelines and providing uninterrupted service to our clients.
And that reminds me of the old Winston Churchill quote that my father used to drum into me: “Let our advance worrying become advance thinking and planning.” I am so glad that we did.