ContextBD team talked with architects to learn how architecture offices are coping with COVID 19 outbreak in Bangladesh. The following interview features architect Mamnoon Murshed Chowdhury who his currently the Vice President [National Affairs] in the Institute of Architects Bangladesh – the professional body of architects in the country. Ar. Chowdhury is one of the founding Partners of DWm4 Architects. The 50 plus member firm is among the leading practitioners in Dhaka and has won laurels in awards and design competitions. He is also involved in teaching as a visiting faculty at the University of Asia Pacific and BRAC University.
Q. The world is passing through a difficult time. COVID 19 pandemic has brought an unprecedented challenge to keep things moving as usual. Some are also predicting the outbreak will be followed by a serious economic recession. As an employer or office owner, what is your biggest concern?
My primary concern is the economic recession that is about to hit us. As we know, globally construction is the first sector to get shut down, when the economic recession happens. Anticipating such a crisis, some of the offices including us have already adopted work from home scheme. We have also started to think about the long-term plan by identifying the potential sectors to focus on in order to stay off the crisis for a longer period. For instance, we are trying to identify the projects that are at risk of slow payment or no payment at all. Based on risk factors, current savings and possible revenue, we will try to outline a financial plan for salaries and other running costs. Only in the worst-case scenario, we might need to think of overhead cut down as employers usually do.
Q. As you mentioned, many architecture offices have already moved to home office scheme, some are on the process, considering the uncertainty of the outbreak and its duration, do you think working from home is a feasible alternative to keep the business running?
Well, I don’t think we have any other options at this moment. It has to be the alternative. Perhaps, it will help us to keep going if we can find some positive things out of it. Say for example, if we are able to make this scheme work, with a reasonable amount of efficiency and productivity, and we overcome the problem of communication within ourselves and with the client, we can actually think about the home office as an alternative even during the time of normalcy. Specially in Dhaka, where traffic congestion and exposure to pollution is a matter of huge concern, many of our workforces can actually keep continuing work from home. Not everyone in the office has to face the client or has to visit site and many of us always work on the desk – so there is no reason why these persons cannot work from home if both employee and employer show some sort of responsibility and if the technology supports us. Now, for an indefinite period of time, this is the only alternative that we have, we don’t have any choice. We cannot start physical office as it will going to expose ourselves or our colleagues to a huge risk. On top of that, offices like ours don’t have the financial ability to cover the damages if anything goes wrong.
Q. We came across the information that your office has prepared a policy for work from home scheme. Would you consider sharing some points that you think relevant to others?
It was a very hurriedly drawn policy. We prepared it based on common sense. The main issue was to create a guideline for the virtual office without compromising the efficiency of the physical office environment as much as possible. The first target was to create a mechanism to record the office timing and ensure teamwork. We are using applications like TeamViewer, Whats App and Google Spreadsheet to track the operational progress. Every employee who works from home is liable to report to his or her immediate supervisor. Secondly, policies are outlined to provide support in three primary logistics: hardware, software, and the internet. However, there are some practical challenges. Many of my fellow colleagues are not well equipped at home, so we let a few of them take the office PC at home. We find internet speed is also a big obstacle to use an application like Team Viewer. Our office is also providing extended support to its employees to avail high-speed internet at home.
Q. We are also observing, in response to this crisis, alumni association of engineers has stepped forward to produce emergency equipment like PPE and ventilators. Do you think, the architect community as a collective body has a role to play as well?
Definitely. Institute of Architects Bangladesh (IAB) has already taken some initiatives; funds are also mobilized. It is now almost confirmed that on behalf of the architect community IAB is going to financially contribute to import PPE and masks from China. We are also actively considering to extend our support towards the disadvantaged population of the country. We’ve made the decision to take part in the emergency relief activity through local NGOs. We have contributed to funding relief package comprising soaps and dry foods to the vulnerable groups.
In support of the professionals, the two working groups are being formed. One working group is responsible to provide advisory and counseling support if anyone in the architect community gets sick. We will use our informal networks to assist the person for COVID19 testing or to connect them with the doctors. Another working group will oversee the issues related to the professions by providing up to date information from time to time. We’ve also brainstormed the possibilities to negotiate with the government for a stimulus package for the architects for post COVID19 time, but it’s just an idea, nothing finalized yet.
Q. Do you have any message for your colleagues and the architect community in general?
Individually or as a collective group, we should prepare for the worst. At the same time, we should also keep hoping and praying that the worst does not happen. We have to be proactive. Apart from architects, the building industry involves other supporting sectors and professionals like engineers, contractors, subcontractors, vendors, suppliers, etc. If we plan ahead, in a coordinated manner, there is a better chance to limit the damage. Further, the global economic downturn will bring serious challenges for Bangladesh as the country’s major revenue comes RMG and remittance; and both sectors are extremely affected by the COVID 19 outbreaks. These are some factors of international significance, where we don’t have any control. But we should not sit back and watch rather we should try to find a way forward and learn to absorb or mutate this in our practice. We may also need to adapt, particularly the younger professionals, to seek new opportunities that partially match their skill sets. It’s important to think ahead so that we can bounce back quickly.
Saimum Kabir is the founding editor of ContextBD and PhD fellow at the University of Melbourne in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.