In a short time, COVID-19 changed everything we know about the workplace, and millions of people have started working remotely.
You might assume that once the crisis is over, things will go back to “normal.” Yet projections suggest that remote working will remain common even after the pandemic has abated. Before the crisis, Forbes reported that 5 percent of employees worked from home in the U.S. That’s expected to double in the post-coronavirus world as businesses and employees see the benefits of full or part-time remote work. Meanwhile, in Germany, the labor minister has proposed introducing a new “right to work from home” law following the success of remote working there during the lockdown.
For product development companies and architecture firms, the upheaval caused by COVID-19 has been especially challenging. Many designers, architects, and engineers depend on physical workstations that usually cannot leave the office to edit and visualize 3D models.
However, the industry is responding fast, and technology companies have developed virtual workstation solutions which enable remote working for designers. What will all this mean for product development?
An Unplanned Experiment in Remote Working
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the trend toward remote working was on the rise. Several design and engineering companies (especially large multinationals) had begun to benefit from the potential of virtual workstations for 3D applications. Several major architecture and engineering firms had already successfully set up Citrix virtual workstations that enable their CAD and BIM designers to work remotely.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of CAD (computer aided design) users and processes remained physically tied to in-office desktop computers. But then coronavirus struck and forced millions of small, medium, and large businesses to grapple with the realities of remote working. What has this enormous unplanned experiment in remote working taught us?
- Remote working is viable for designers. People are productive away from the office.
- It can improve the employee experience. Staff often find they concentrate on intricate design work better at home where there are fewer distractions.
- Some face-to-face contact is still valuable. It can help resolve bigger problems and shape company culture.
Many companies were forced to introduce working remotely quickly after lockdown plans were mandated. A shift that normally would have involved months of IT planning happened with many companies in just a couple of weeks — or even less. What do these findings tell us about the future of work — and especially for design-based jobs?
Design Work After COVID-19
As employees and managers adapt to remote working, we can expect some significant and potentially permanent changes to working patterns:
- Some businesses will allow staff to continue working remotely full time. They may eventually close their physical offices and become entirely remote businesses.
- In many other companies, we can expect a more flexible approach to remote working. Companies may set rules about how many days per week staff can work remotely or they may leave it up to staff to decide.
- Of course, in some companies, remote working opportunities will remain limited. But, when a third of employees say they’d take a pay cut if it meant they could do more remote working, it’s going to be hard to retain talent.
But how do these scenarios apply to designers, architects and engineers? Unlike regular business users who mainly use word processors, spreadsheets, and web-based tools, these professionals work with 3D applications such as Revit, Solidworks, and other BIM and CAD software that requires serious computing power and graphics boards.
During the coronavirus lockdown, designers have tried to get around this challenge by:
- Taking expensive, high-end laptops or even desktop workstations back to their home offices
- Accessing their office desktops via a VPN
- Pausing serious design work and focusing on other tasks instead.
All these options have their strengths and weaknesses. And while they are OK as a short-term fix, a more coherent long-term strategy is required.
A Long-Term Solution for Graphics-Intensive Remote Design
If your company expects to continue supporting remote working once the coronavirus lockdown has lifted, you need a long-term solution. And when it comes to graphics-intensive and complex design work, virtual workstations are now available as a subscription service. This provides many advantages:
- Much lower cost than high-spec laptops: High-spec laptops can cost thousands of dollars per unit, whereas subscriptions of virtual workstations can cost as little as a few dollars per month.
- Faster than a VPN: Using a broadband connection from home to access a virtual workstation that resides in the provider’s datacentre and that is connected to the internet backbone is significantly faster than working on a physical desktop via a VPN on the corporate network.
- Requires no specialist knowledge: Unlike VPNs or other remote access technologies, no specialist IT knowledge is required to subscribe to and work with a virtual workstation. These are literally plug-and-play solutions, running in a browser. As an extra bonus, they are available immediately.
For example, one high school in the U.S. is planning to distribute Chromebooks to its students. For their engineering program, students get a subscription for a virtual workstation service so they can run the high-end CAD application PTC Creo on their Chromebooks. Even with the monthly fee for the virtual workstation, the school district pays just a fraction of the cost of a high-power computing laptop. And after the three-month engineering class is over, the subscription for the virtual workstation can be cancelled.
This is one example of how virtual workstations for BIM and CAD applications can be a viable proposition for product development and architecture firms of any size. The German start-up designairspace is a provider of such subscription-based services. With these services, anyone can work remotely with BIM and CAD software on virtual workstations that use Citrix technology.
Preparing for a New Form of Working
Although we are still in the middle of the lockdown in many parts of the world, it is already becoming clear that remote working will almost certainly become a permanent future of work scenario for millions of people. It is therefore invaluable to begin preparing for the future right now — and to explore how virtual workstations can play a part in your teams’ remote working practices.