Jenna Knudsen of CO Architects: How To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space

Our quick shift to remote working required intensive research on the available communications tools. It also opened our eyes to the possibilities — and the fact that new tools and solutions are constantly being introduced. Miro helped us navigate real-time virtual collaboration on design documents that needed input from multiple perspectives, and Slack became an efficient way to facilitate project-based communications.

Weare living in a new world in which offices are becoming obsolete. How can teams effectively communicate if they are never together? Zoom and Slack are excellent tools, but they don’t replicate all the advantages of being together. What strategies, tools and techniques work to be a highly effective communicator, even if you are not in the same space?

In this interview series, we are interviewing business leaders who share the strategies, tools and techniques they use to effectively and efficiently communicate with their team who may be spread out across the world. As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jenna Knudsen.

Jennifer “Jenna” Knudsen, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, was made Managing Principal at CO Architects in 2021, the first female and youngest principal to lead the 150-person architecture and interiors firm in its 35-year history. She started at CO Architects in 1998 as a project designer, and now specializes in the design and management of large-scale healthcare and academic projects for such clients as Kaiser Permanente and the University of California system. She has led the firm’s hiring and growth during the past five years.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Igrew up in a large family, with four siblings all close in age. I never had my own space. As a kid, I loved looking at the home plans in magazines sold at my grandfather’s grocery store. I spent hours redesigning the houses to include enough bedrooms for each of us to have our own room. Seeing my immense interest in drawing, my dad bought me my first architectural scale at 10 years old and encouraged architecture as a profession. At an early age I chose architecture, and I’ve never thought about any other profession. After graduating from the University of Southern California, my first professional project was a major replacement hospital. I was drawn to both the complexity of replacing a hospital while keeping it fully operational, as well as the incredible need for good healthcare architecture.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Ten years ago, the same day I was promoted to Associate Principal was also the day I announced I was pregnant with my son. The positive reaction from the firm leaders gave me the confidence that I could be both a mother and an architectural firm leader, and I’ve worked hard every day to provide that positive environment for others. A leader’s reaction in a moment of vulnerability leaves a lasting impression, both positive and negative.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote?” Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I believe Audrey Hepburn summed it up when she said, “I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” Life is full of challenges and setbacks, but keeping one’s sense of humor, and surrounding yourself with people who do the same, reduces the burdens and increases the positives.

None of us is able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful toward who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors in my personal and professional life, all of whom have contributed to my success. I’m grateful for the role models in my own family, and in particular my maternal grandfather. When I think of my grandfather, I see him in one of two ways: in a suit and tie welcoming customers to his grocery store or wearing an apron cooking for friends and family. Food and entertaining were both his business and his passion. He was an innovator, always looking to evolve his business. Most of my family — mom, aunt, uncles, cousins — worked at his store. I started working there at a young age as well, helping out on holidays so the other employees could be with their families. He modeled a seamless life of family, friends, business, and community service. This model has always been my definition of work/life balance–not a separation but a seamless integration.

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. Many teams have started working remotely. Working remotely can be very different from working with a team that is in front of you. This provides great opportunity, but it can also create unique challenges. To begin, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main benefits of having a team physically together?

Our office is a team-based environment where people with various specialties join forces to create buildings and interiors that are both purposeful and inspiring for our clients. Typically, we collaboratively problem-solve by pinning drawings on the wall, engaging in design dialogues, and red-lining drawings to finalize our work. During these sessions, the office buzzes with activity, and colleagues talk to one another across the room. Conversations happen spontaneously, and anyone in earshot can gain knowledge and perspective from what they overhear. Socially, our internal development groups such as Women of CO traditionally have monthly lunch meetings, and our weekly afternoon “balcony hours” are forums for presentations from co-workers and inspirational guest speakers in an informal environment (with drinks and snacks).

On the flip side, can you articulate for our readers a few of the main challenges that arise when a team is not in the same space?

Early in the pandemic, our first challenge was adjusting to the remote workplace. We realized that each staff member’s home situation is different — everyone requires individual types of support, technology, and workplace surroundings. Our immediate response was to ensure that our staff had the required home bandwidth, literally and figuratively, for CO to continue providing great service to our clients.

We were fortunate that our workload increased throughout 2020. To handle this surge, we had to adapt quickly to recruiting, interviewing, and integrating new staff virtually. We’ve hired and onboarded more than 40 new employees since March 2020, representing a staff growth of more than 20 percent. For onboarding, we found it helps to have a coordinator who prepares for a new hire’s first day. This person organizes the office buddies — experienced team members who help orient new hires — and coordinates with HR.

When a team is physically separated, it can be more difficult to stay connected. You can’t walk by someone’s desk and see what they are working on and provide unsolicited feedback. You can’t see body language that are cues about mental and emotional well-being. Team interactions have to be purposeful and modified for remote teams and must include everyone.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience, what can one do to address or redress each of those challenges? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know To Communicate With Your Team Effectively Even If You Are Rarely In The Same Physical Space?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Be Flexible

This can require patience. The pandemic reinforced the fact that, although we have implemented processes during the past 35 years to streamline operations among 150 employees, each co-worker has different needs. Particularly for parents, fluctuating school schedules and childcare responsibilities can pull attention away from work at various points throughout the day. A positive byproduct is that remote work offers periods of uninterrupted focus seldom available in our collaborative office atmosphere. We’re in a deadline-intensive industry, and effective communications require more planning and preparation. Good leaders make note of the best conduit of communication for the circumstances: the particular staff member, time of day, and so on.

2. Maintain an Open Line

Many of our best design solutions arise from informal collaborations, outside of planned meetings. Our virtual equivalent is a video conference room that’s always online. When conversations are too detailed for instant messaging, our staff can easily stop by the virtual meeting room. This replicates the concept of pulling up a chair next to a coworker’s desk and working on a problem collaboratively.

3. Be Clear

We understand that different people have different communication styles. We’re used to navigating around the fact that things aren’t always understood when initially presented, and remote communications often add an extra layer of ambiguity. Body language that we intuitively interpret when people might be shaking their heads “yes,” but hint that they might need further clarification, is harder to decipher virtually. Remotely, we purposely reiterate more. This can lead to greater clarity for everyone involved in the conversation and generate additional solutions to design challenges. Following up is often necessary to get everyone on a team synchronized and moving in the same direction. Emphasizing the rationale behind decisions with honesty and transparency is extremely important.

4. Set Boundaries

When operating from a home office, work can often feel like it’s always there. Since our company is hyper-conscientious about work/life balance, we encourage our staff to take breaks throughout the day and use their PTO as needed. Our deadlines routinely require working outside of normal business hours, and some people need to be reminded that it’s beneficial to rest and recharge in order to perform at their optimal capacity.

5. Communication Is Evolutionary

Our quick shift to remote working required intensive research on the available communications tools. It also opened our eyes to the possibilities — and the fact that new tools and solutions are constantly being introduced. Miro helped us navigate real-time virtual collaboration on design documents that needed input from multiple perspectives, and Slack became an efficient way to facilitate project-based communications.

Has your company experienced communication challenges with your workforce working from home during the pandemic? For example, does your company allow employees to use their own cell phones or do they use the company’s phone lines for work? Can you share any other issues that came up?

We learned quickly that bandwidth varies widely based on people’s locations and internet plans. We worked with employees who had less-stable service at home to upgrade as well as made sure that they had the required hardware to do their jobs as they would have if they were in the office. We let each employee chose what was most needed to improve their individual workstation. We also let employees suggest software solutions — if it solved a problem then we added it to our toolbox.

Let’s zoom in a bit. Many tools have been developed to help teams coordinate and communicate with each other. In your personal experiences which tools have been most effective in helping to replicate the benefits of being together in the same space?

As a firm that has been recognized by our profession with multiple technology-in-practice awards, we constantly seek tools that help us do our jobs better. We explored several digital collaboration tools that could create and foster a team environment while working remotely. Slack became our messaging platform of choice, because it is simple and clean. We have a fairly large team spread across multiple time zones, so Slack is useful for parsing out conversations and sending screen shots in real time. In addition to Slack, we often default to GoToMeeting. Our teams created dedicated meeting lines in which everyone was an organizer. This simple method made for a surprisingly dynamic virtual environment. By having an “open line,” so to speak, the meetings were always active and alive. Team members routinely join the line, sparking new conversations — like our interactions in the office–sometimes serendipitously bumping into colleagues. This strategy also eliminates the need to constantly send meeting invites. Instead, we say, “Jump on the team call.” This virtual setup simulates the way we used to talk in the office.

Throughout all this, we miss the element of physical collaboration when pinning up drawings. We tried several digital methods, and the online tool Miro emerged as the best substitute for in-person design collaboration. Miro allows us to create a virtual pin-up space and share drawings and ideate in real time. It turned out to be an incredibly useful tool with multiple applications for both collaboration and presentation. Instead of transferring information to PowerPoint, everything can live in one place on a Miro board. In addition to Miro, our team uses Bluebeam Studio sessions to track drawing changes and comment on the document sets. In the office, we used Bluebeam for the same purpose, but it became even more critical when working remotely.

If you could design the perfect communication feature or system to help your business, what would it be?

I’d like to make it much easier to draw using any device (laptop, desktop, phone, tablet). There is software and hardware that makes this possible, but it needs to be more seamless and available to everyone. Replicating pen and paper in a virtual environment would make the design process much more fluid.

My particular expertise and interest is in Unified Communications. Has the pandemic changed the need or appeal for unified communications technology requirements? Can you explain?

Early in the pandemic, there was an issue with an invite for a meeting I was leading. I received communication in about five different formats — phone call, text message, Slack message, email — which was really overwhelming. The same is true of the different interfaces and capabilities for virtual meetings. Streamlining communication through a common interface where it all lives would be incredibly useful for a remote work force. This would also help make the different platforms more accessible to all generations, especially non-digital natives.

The technology is rapidly evolving and new tools like VR, AR, and Mixed Reality are being developed to help bring remote teams together in a shared virtual space. Is there any technology coming down the pipeline that excites you?

We are constantly monitoring new technologies and have been able to integrate VR and AR into the design process, including creating a virtual operating room as a useful tool for medical education and clinical practice. New software solutions are constantly evolving that help optimize building design — we can now model almost every aspect of a building virtually, using a software suite that is supported by several third-party plug-ins. Our firm will continue to engage emerging apps to help us operate more efficiently and will also develop custom apps when the industry does not have a product that meets our needs.

Is there a part of this future vision that concerns you? Can you explain?

Although we are working remotely now, we expect to be back in our Los Angeles office this Fall. We are moving to a new space after 29 years, and are designing our office to incorporate a greater diversity of workspaces to support different modes of work. A return to the office, after more than 18 months of remote work, requires a great deal of thought. The circumstances of the past year have taught us benefits of remote work, while reminding us why an office is important for culture, community, and collaboration. We’ve also learned that the remote-work experience is deeply personal and varied. The environment will be completely different in the coming months as we emerge from our home offices at different rates and with different expectations. Our task is to develop a work model that is flexible and adaptable with built-in accountability. As a designer of workspaces for our clients as well as ourselves, we realize that flexibility will continue to be a dominant theme throughout 2021 and into 2022.

So far we have discussed communication within a team. How has the pandemic changed the way you interact and engage your customers? How much of your interactions have moved to digital such as chatbots, messaging apps, phone, or video calls?

The communication with clients has largely mirrored our internal communication, which has been remote for the better part of a year. Texting with clients has increased, knowing that they are in many more virtual meetings and a quick text can get an answer real-time. We are using the whole range of video-conferencing capabilities with various clients based on their preferences. Client engagement is more important than ever, so virtual-reality experiences and open Miro pin-up spaces help to share ideas. Recently we have started to engage in more face-to-face meetings, which has been a nice change after more than a year apart.

In my experience, one of the trickiest parts of working with a remote team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote. Can you give a few suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote team member?

My first suggestion is to provide feedback in private. We spend so much time in virtual group settings that there might be a tendency to provide feedback on the spot, which does not work for all circumstances. The conversation should be scheduled, so it’s not rushed, and at a time of the day where the employee can be focused and open. Scheduling something at 5:00pm for a parent with hungry kids, for example, won’t yield the best conversation. Because non-verbal clues are not as readily understood, the words need to be direct and honest. Don’t be afraid of walking away from the conversation and coming back to it. If it’s clear a conversation has become difficult, suggest a pause in the discussion and then follow up the next day. This allows everyone to gain some perspective.

Can you give any specific ideas about how to create a sense of camaraderie and team cohesion when you are not physically together?

We try to replicate our in-person camaraderie virtually as best as possible. We welcome new hires by assigning them one or two office buddies, who become friendly faces and serve as resources. Our get-acquainted lunch among office buddies is now a long-distance lunch. Also, all new hires are first introduced with a write-up on our intranet site, and then they introduce themselves in front of the entire office at our bi-weekly Town Halls. This has created a more consistent onboarding experience, and the office meets new employees quicker virtually than they did when we were physically together.

We bring the entire office together for bi-weekly Town Halls. These have allowed for consistent messaging through the pandemic as well as opportunities for staff to both teach and learn about various topics from project work to studio news. Employees can comment and question in the chat function, so this is more interactive than similar office meetings we held in-person before the pandemic. Individual teams have found different ways to communicate and create cohesion, including virtual happy hours and Slack channels for work and fun.

Ok wonderful. We are nearly done. Here is our last “meaty” question. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

There are many areas where we could improve, but I will choose a professional passion: equity, diversity, and inclusion. I’d ask people to value our differences as strengths and ask questions to find common ground. I’d also want people to laugh together a lot more, which just generally improves one’s outlook.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Our website showcases our work and shares our thoughts on architecture, interior design, and our culture at Visitors can check out our website’s Journal section to delve deeper into CO’s projects and research and visit our Instagram account @coarchitects.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.


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