A 3-D (Three Dawsons!) Perspective on a Hybrid Work Environment

When COVID necessitated a quick transition to work-from-home status in March of 2020, most of LS3P’s 345 or so team members suddenly found themselves working in an office of one. The current hybrid environment, with some team members working socially distanced in our offices, others working from home, and some preferring a mix of both options, has been extremely successful. The firm has maintained continuous operations at every step through a commitment to collaboration at all levels, as well as a robust technology infrastructure and the tools to make communication seamless.

Not surprisingly, some team members have enjoyed working from home, while others were eager to get back to the office. The introverts have different opinions than the extroverts, and people with different job functions may report extremely different experiences during this unusual chapter in our firm’s history. We were curious as to how team members from different generations felt about this transition, so we asked three members of one family- all of whom work in different offices within the firm- to share their perspectives. Neil Dawson, LS3P’s Savannah Office Leader, brings the longest professional history of the three with over thirty years in architectural practice. His daughter Emily is an architect in the Charleston office, and his daughter Ellie is a recent graduate and a Marketing Coordinator in the Greenville office.  Here are the key takeaways:

It helps to be deliberate about connecting with others.
Emily finds that making time for interactions with colleagues is key to keeping the lines of communication open. “We can’t depend on the random interactions we used to have when we were all occupying the same space,” she explains.  “I’ve tried to maintain this type of communication by chatting with people on Teams, calling them, or setting up weekly ‘Water Cooler’ chats with other team members.  I try to think of the types of interactions we had in the office and simulate those.  For example, when a question arises, I can pull someone into a Teams call and say ‘Hello! This is the equivalent of me popping my head up from my desk with a quick question if you have time.’  It seems goofy but it helps me stay in touch with coworkers who may not be on my project teams.”

Some people missed meetings more than others.
Neil prefers an in-person chat over a virtual chat, any day of the week.  “I tend to want to meet people face-to-face, so I can get a sense of how they are doing, read their body language, and look in their eyes.  That’s harder to do virtually, even with Zoom,” he says. “I particularly like dropping by people’s desks and chatting about what they are working on and challenges they face. That casual but very authentic type of team interaction is much more difficult in a hybrid or work-from-home environment.”

On the other hand, the digital natives are really good at reading the virtual room.
Ellie, in contrast to her Dad, finds virtual communication fairly seamless. “It is just as easy to start a Teams chat as it is to walk over to someone’s desk and ask questions,” she says. “I am way more attuned now to people’s communication styles and what makes them most comfortable. Just think of the people who always have their camera on or the ones who message you instead of call. I have a newfound respect for the various ways in which people prefer to communicate.”

Everyone loves the flexibility.
Our unexpected newfound flexibility has been a silver lining- largely made possible by a stellar technology infrastructure. Neil says “One great outcome from this situation is knowing that our awesome technology team has us working very efficiently from anywhere.  I’ve worked from a camper on Jekyll Island to a waiting room in Jacksonville, Florida with equal efficiency and access as I have from my house or office.”

Healthy boundaries are critical.
A common theme was that everyone enjoyed the convenience of working from home, but had to work hard to find the right balance. Neil is the rare employee who actually missed the commute, saying, “My commute is always a great time to decompress and create some separation from work. When I work in the house, there is no separation; work is always sitting right there in front of me.” (He does note that it’s also quite nice to be able to wake up and be at work in two minutes.) Emily has found the blurred lines between work and home the most challenging, saying, “I didn’t realize how much I needed the clear separation of work and the rest of my life, especially when notifications come in at all hours on my phone. It is nice to have the connectivity during work hours, but when I am off, I have found I need rejuvenation time to be my most productive self during the week.” Emily has been deliberate about maintaining balance. “We only have 100% of ourselves to give, and that 100% is split between family, friends, work, and taking care of ourselves,” she explains. “If we give 80% of our time and energy to work, we don’t have sufficient reserves to give to others and to ourselves.”

We miss the small but important things.
Neil, in particular, expressed a longing for the intangible aspects of office culture, and offered an apt metaphor: “Working alone feels like tug of war without a team.” He notes that “When we are together, there is a sense of us all working more effectively as a team; we keep each other sharp, and have combined skills that are better than any of us alone.”

Nobody wants to give up “found time.”
The abrupt change in routine, while at first disorienting, created opportunities for discovery. Emily spent the hour she’d normally have been commuting by walking or gardening outdoors, and found that the new habits had unexpected benefits for focus. Neil kept his usual morning routine of running, reading the paper, and solving a word puzzle- but set his alarm clock an hour and a half later.  Ellie used the bonus morning time to make a good breakfast, walk the dog, and sketch before starting work, which led to a more relaxed and focused mindset when she started the work day.

We’ve learned that change- even unanticipated change- has a bright side.
Everyone had ideas about what a “new normal” might look like. Ellie says, “Our world has forever changed, and it doesn’t make sense to force an old mold on a new structure. Everyone has things they miss from before the pandemic and things they will miss from quarantine; it is important for each of us to evaluate what has improved and how to incorporate those things moving forward. Whether it’s a hybrid schedule or just going outside more, we are more than capable of learning and adapting to improve our lives inside and outside of work.” Emily, likewise, is eager to implement new insights moving forward. “I have no desire to ‘get back to normal,’ she says. “I am extremely excited about the idea of how we can evolve moving forward.  Change is hard, but it is necessary, or we become obsolete. This experience is forever changing the workplace and workplace culture, and that’s a good thing.  Our workplace is more diverse than ever before, and people desire to be defined by more than just their careers.” Neil still prefers the office, but sees the value in a hybrid approach as well. “While I feel we are stronger when we work together, this experience has pointed out that we can also work effectively alone,” he explains. “Perhaps a measured combination of these two will keep us sharper and more balanced in the long term.”

About Neil

Principal Neil Dawson serves as LS3P’s Savannah Office Leader. With over thirty years of experience in planning, design, and historic preservation projects across coastal Georgia and the Southeast, Neil is highly skilled at navigating the requirements of complex building design with significant technology and sustainability requirements.

Neil has built and renovated over 600 structures in Savannah’s Historic District. From small renovations to large-scale adaptive reuse designs, Neil has not only revitalized Savannah physically through designing, preserving, and improving buildings that form this urban experience, but he has also had a significant impact on the economic vitality of all Savannahians. Neil has preserved and reimagined historic structures, saving them from neglect or demolition.

Neil has been honored with numerous awards at the city, state, and national levels; his work on the SCAD Museum earned an AIA National Design Award in 2014, and his work has been published in the New York Times.

About Emily

Associate Emily Dawson, Assoc. AIA, earned a Master of Architecture from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Design from the University of Florida. Emily first joined LS3P as a student intern in 2010, transitioning to a full-time employee after graduation in 2016. She was recognized as an Associate in 2018.

Emily has worked extensively in the higher education, historic renovation, and multi-family housing markets as well as in healthcare and corporate design.  She has worked on numerous projects at SCAD from renovations of vacant historic buildings into academic spaces to master planning and a facilities study of the entire campus.  She enjoys the complexity of historic renovations and is very familiar with the close coordination between disciplines that this project type requires. She has held leadership roles on several multi-family housing projects in the low country including the renovation of a historic train shed into luxury apartments.

About Ellie

Ellie Dawson recently graduated Flagler College with a Bachelor of Arts in Graphic Design. Ellie’s professional experience includes work as a graphic designer in a creative and branding studio in Miami, where she designed logos, booklets, stationary, and graphics for a variety of clients. She joined LS3P in 2020, and currently serves as a Marketing Coordinator based in the firm’s Greenville office. She is also involved in firmwide graphic design, video production, podcasting, and experiential graphic design efforts.