Creative structural design at a distance – 4 opportunities for building remote collaboration

Author: Ashley Kacha

Date published

15 April 2020

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Creative structural design at a distance – 4 opportunities for building remote collaboration

Date published

Ashley Kacha

Date published

15 April 2020


Ashley Kacha

Ashley Kacha discusses making the most of digital tools to improve remote workflows.

Whether by choice or by circumstance, many engineers are finding themselves conducting their everyday design activities remotely. But how can we begin to claw back some of the essential creative and collaborative aspects of structural design at a distance?

Here are 4 ways we can make the most out of digital tools to improve remote workflows:

Make the most of collaboration tools

The surge in online conferencing platforms has opened many of us up to the possibilities of working remotely but at the same time, the limitation of physical movement has highlighted the importance of face-to-face design workshops and the development of structural schemes in collaboration with colleagues and other consultants. Often, emails and markups cannot fully replace sitting down and undertaking a design review with others in the room.

Many online conferencing platforms have implemented collaboration tools to help in the form of online ‘whiteboards’ and if your preferred or mandated conferencing tool does not have this feature there are many free and licenced versions available on the web.

Microsoft Whiteboard, sketchboard and Google Jamboard are examples of these online collaboration spaces where your entire team can draw, mark up and work on a single live canvas. Cloud storage platforms such as Dropbox and Google Drive have available collaboration spaces for those working digitally.

If you also happen to be using these services to store data, using the workspaces may improve your work even further. There also exist a multitude of online planning tools and project management tools available, some are based on the ‘Kanban’ model of cards and lists such as Trello or Microsoft Planner. Again, many of these tools are free to use and can reap huge benefits in managing tasks and projects remotely.

Recover valuable time - Automate the boring stuff

While this may sound a little flippant, there’s merit in automating tasks and peace of mind associated with knowing that the filing and archival system you may use in your office is still being maintained or that you can focus on solving design problems over curating time sheets or manually renaming files.

Automation is easier than ever to access. You don’t need to be a programmer to use these services. Power automate (previously known as Microsoft Flow) is integrated into Office 365 and allows basic automation of tasks such as project time logging, email filing, attachment saving and even task assignment for your chosen project management tools.

Better yet, Power Automate and similar services such as Zapier or IFTTT (If This Then That) offer prebuilt ‘recipes’ for completing your desired task – a set of instructions built to do common administration work that can even be modified to suit your own use-case or workflow.

For more in-depth automation, your operating system will have its own version of an automation tool ready for you to use. Scheduling regular backups to your firm’s network can provide peace of mind should anything go wrong with your computer. Both Windows (Task Scheduler) and MacOS (Automator) have these available, ready for you to use.

Forget about Email (sometimes)

The questions to ask are: Is email the best tool for this task? How can I make the most of email? Using an email inbox as a document manager is seldom efficient and can actually serve to hamper productivity, especially when issuing multiple revisions of documents or drawings.

This is not to say that there isn’t a place for email. But the digital communications paradigm is shifting rapidly towards instant messaging tools for quick conversations and team projects.

Predictably, making the most out of email involves automating tasks and once again, recipes are available on automation services to do just that. Automating movement of attachments into Sharepoint or onto a server – or automatically categorising or replying to emails based on rules can go a long way to reducing inbox clutter and save valuable time or mental space to focus on the most challenging issues.

Make the most of free and open source software

The sharing of knowledge, tools and techniques is something that comes naturally to engineers. Our working environment necessitates an open attitude to sharing information with colleagues, clients and the project team.

Sharing knowledge on an open source basis is also one of the commitments of the climate and biodiversity emergency declaration.

The same ethos can be found in the world of software. There are vast repositories (such as FossHub) of free and open source software available for use from PDF editors, to multimedia and graphics editing software, to free office suites and backup tools and accounting software. Many of these are even free to use for commercial purposes.

At a time where many of us are cutting back on unnecessary expense and prepare for a period of uncertainty, there exists a comfort that many of the everyday tools we use have free and competent alternatives available.

If you’d like to learn more about leveraging the power of modern digital tools and computational design – join us at our 2020 Digital Design and Computation e-Conference.

Further reading

Microsoft Power Automate
MacOS Automator User Guide
A good guide to using Windows Task Scheduler

Additional information



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