Coaching and Mentorship in A&D During COVID and Beyond

Perkins&Will’s Jennifer Graham and Jeanette Kim discuss coaching and mentorship during this period of remote work and how they plan to carry that into the long-term.

Nixon Peabody NYC office (Photographer: Eric Laignel)

COVID-19 has presented many challenges for workplace designers as they collaborate and communicate with their teams in an entirely virtual world. What takeaways and lessons learned can leaders in the architecture and design industry provide on how to better coach, check in and build a rapport with colleagues during this period of remote work? And how can this be maintained for the long-term as many design teams adjust to a hybrid working model?

Jennifer: I’m someone that likes to see people one-on-one. One-on-one can be in person, or Teams or Zoom, however, over the last 15 months, I found that these interactions that had to be scheduled over Zoom didn’t feel as natural as when someone just walks up to you in the corridor or over coffee. There’s such a nuance to be able to look into people’s eyes and be able to gauge the urgency of their request.

Conversely, I’ve also heard from others that their engagement with colleagues increased considerably during COVID-19 because it was a level playing field of opportunity for approaching someone. That said, my engagement has increased, but it wasn’t the same as when I got to engage with individuals through casual collision.

Jeanette: Early on, when we were all forced to navigate within our new realities, I don’t think we accounted enough time for the essential learning curve required for such a major transition. We were trying to adopt while still in shock, but we were entitled time to adapt. Therefore, before we learned more, there was a tendency to blame some of the discomfort or lack of engagement as a symptom of the new virtual setting. But with time, I found myself becoming less dependent on physical cues only, and a lot more curious and attentive to the little signs from each interaction that were still accessible virtually, to teach me more each day of what my teammates needed from me or for themselves during this time. By becoming a lot more aware of both the challenges and advantages of what strong virtual presence can afford us, it allowed us to maintain, even strengthen connection beyond the limits of physical presence. So, while it wasn’t as easy to sense excitement or panic without cameras on large calls, I found it easier to supplement with more personal interactions. Engagement became more meaningful because it was no longer casual, it was intentional.

Alexion Pharmaceuticals New Haven office (Photographer: Nigel Marson)

Jennifer: As leaders, engagement with our teams should be intentional, and what we mean is – providing space for interaction, when needed – not scheduled. If unscheduled, and remote, how can it be natural without the individual feeling like tis an interruption, in person, one has an opportunity for casual collision naturally during breaks etc. but remotely, that’s not always possible to know where those natural breaks are occurring since we don’t see it happening. Confident people will lean in, but we need to be conscious of different cues, where conversations aren’t happening, or thoughts are being triggered. We can’t be dependent on the same cues.

Jeanette: That’s how we can retain our instincts for detecting distress or a plea for help to support our teammates. We should always test and find new ways to maintain deep connections, because our team deserves our attention and what served us well in the past may not be the best solution for our changing environments. In a constrained remote work environment, there are many things we can and should do as a leader to check in but we’re also their partners so acknowledging how they choose to communicate with us can inform how we can best respect their time and feelings.

Jennifer: I think the concept of peer-to-peer mentorship helps break that down. Some individuals feel they can tap you on the shoulder when they need. For example, there are a slew of people that are completely comfortable reaching out to me on nights and weekends. They know that is when they can catch me, and they can get my full attention if I am available. When we eventually return to the office on a more consistent basis, how do we balance a combination of virtual and in-person? We don’t want to be inhibited by either setting.

Swarovski NYC headquarters (Photographer: Eric Laignel)

Jeanette: I think that it’s ensuring we’re embracing what we’ve learned from the pandemic, about each other and about ourselves. We understand now more than before that everyone copes and adjusts to new environments, new stressors, and new tools differently. The new ways we’ve found to conduct business, lead teams or work with our clients – we need to embrace and exercise that. We also need to accept the fact that maybe what we thought were challenges in a virtual setting have been profound lessons in understanding our teams better and better defining the barriers and balance needed for a healthy work experience.

Jennifer: To examine further, what does this hybrid working model mean for equity in workplace? If you have one member of your design team at home and one in the office, how do companies ensure that engagement doesn’t leave anyone out? Those who are together and in-person in the office might have valuable small talk before and after the meeting, that may seem insignificant but these ‘conversational bookends’ are in fact crucial to work dynamics. ‘Fear-of-missing-out’ is important, and we need to ensure that everyone gets a rounded experience that considers the different circumstances for each employee. I think we’re more in tuned with that now than before.

Alexion Pharmaceuticals New Haven office (Photographer: Nigel Marson)

How do we elevate the voices of less vocal groups to may not feel as comfortable speaking up on a conference call, etc.?

Jennifer: I believe If you are in the room, virtual or in-person, you are there for a reason. As a project leader, I always try to ensure that every single person on a call is engaged with the agenda presented or asked if they have anything to add. Because if there is something an individual needs to contribute, I want to ensure they have an opportunity. From my experience, I can understand how frustrating it is to have something important to share and not being able to interject. In those situations, I must facilitate and advocate for my teammates.

Jeanette: It’s funny because as designers, we hope our work can speak for itself. But in reality, speaking is an essential component of our communication and our business, and I don’t think everyone signs on to assume that role when they join the industry or fall into it as naturally or approach it as eagerly. I think its easy to assume talented speakers have a natural ability, and public speaking is an effortless task for them – but it’s hard work to make something look easy. I can speak from experience that it takes continual training. Therefore, if someone is less vocal in groups, or less comfortable speaking up, its important to understand the reasoning. Because whether it’s a presentation, coordination meeting, interview, charette, or peer review – there are so many intimidating variables that can contribute to less vocal participation. For some team members, it may be that they don’t feel comfortable leaning in, or they don’t respond well to providing impromptu reactionary statements, while others may feel less confident with the subject matter. As team leaders, we should seek to understand where their discomfort is coming from, in order to support those individuals in targeted ways and working to remove some of the barriers and stressors that are inhibiting someone’s ability to speak up across different settings.

This could be something as simple as scheduling a pre-call with someone to let them know they’re on the right track or setting-up an opportunity to run-through talking points so they can prepare what to say or formulate potential responses in advance. It’s also a matter of encouraging a collaborative environment where everyone feels comfortable speaking and positioning people well to speak with confidence.

Jennifer: Interestingly, I have found that people can be far more nervous presenting to their peers than they are with strangers. Once you’re comfortable with your subject matter, presentation is easier to non-peers as strangers don’t know what you are going to present. It is in your hands.

Swarovski NYC headquarters (Photographer: Eric Laignel)

What does mentorship mean for you in your position?

Jennifer: I see mentorship as an opportunity for individuals that have similar objectives to connect. Within our industry, we all have different subject matter areas. When I mentor, I think of it more as a peer-to-peer engagement, versus an old, hierarchical concept. Mentorship should be where both parties can engage and learn something from each other. It is very important because it improves our human connection and aspiration to deliver amazing design.

Jeanette: Mentorship for me is about collaboration. I’m working in partnership with someone to create new opportunities in pursuit of fulfillment. By sharing what I’ve learned, I hope others can use that information to achieve a greater sense of clarity in what they want or need to succeed for themselves. Because what has worked for me, will not work for others, as there’s a personalization they need to apply. But the exposure to different perspectives can help accelerate their growth and define their values so they are empowered to make more informed decisions for their own career development.

Jennifer: My approach has always been – there’s a high bar and the leader is never the one that should be raising the bar but rather encouraging their team members to do so. It’s not only about guiding your team to understand how to execute on a project or create a visionary design, but also helping them understand what they don’t yet know, and how they can change that.

Jeanette: I couldn’t agree more. We’re not looking to mould people to do things exactly the same way as us. We’re looking to help guide them by increasing their access to resources and sharing our knowledge and experience. How they choose to apply that information to their own benefit is entirely up to them, but we can always support them before, during, and after those decisions. Strong leaders understand that they are sharing to educate, not sharing to force repetition. The strongest mentorships foster a sense of trust and connection and make a meaningful impact on your life.

Nixon Peabody NYC office (Photographer: Eric Laignel)

What does successful leadership look like during COVID-19?

Jeanette: Through everything we were challenged by last year, our leadership started to show more vulnerability. There wasn’t a false perception that we were all okay or we had all the solutions. We were honest, and that provided more confidence than absolute certainty could have offered. There was an acknowledgment that things were changing, and we weren’t working to fit ourselves into pre-pandemic expectations. We saw everyone in the office lead in their own ways and it was incredible to witness a support system built off shared experiences and challenges.

There were also a lot of meaningful conversations happening, and they served as powerful outlets for raw emotions. The space created to express ourselves was both liberating and encouraging.

Jennifer: For example, we created a weekly workplace round-up. At the onset of the pandemic, Workplace leadership recognized that our team members were in isolation, and we mindfully took action to find a way to include everyone and create opportunities for engagement.  The round-up is a space to introduce new team members, provide key marketing updates, project milestones, industry happenings and a stage for individual expression. But most importantly, this weekly connection brought together a varied group of individuals working in teams, but not necessarily working on the same team together to stay informed, engaged and connected. As a mother, I felt comforted that we were bringing everyone together in a consistent manner.

Personally, over the last 15 months, I allowed myself to get out of my comfort zone because I feel that I was in a trusted environment with team members. In doing so, I hoped to encourage individuals who do not feel that an open forum is the right forum for them to seek out people within their personal or business circle whom they could reach out to and express feelings of isolation and/ or misunderstanding. Those are the two extremes that I experienced as a leader. You need to put yourself in a vulnerable position if you’re going to ask others to do the same.

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