Joan Blumenfeld, IIDA, FAIA, LEED AP, knows the importance of communication. As the interior design leader for Perkins+Will’s New York office, one of the firm’s 22 worldwide locations, she daily navigates the challenges of working with a global team to produce successful and innovative projects, such as the Hanwha 63 Convention Center in Seoul and the DAR Smart Village headquarters for Dar Al-Handasah in Cairo. Blumenfeld shares some of her go-to global management strategies with us.
1. Can you talk a little about how design has evolved into a global business?
Over the past five to 10 years, technology like the Internet, video, and teleconferencing has become integrated into business processes. We no longer have to send people to far-away places for months at a time. Pair that with the equally important fact that the United States is still the premier content provider and you create a worldwide demand for services.
2. What challenges exist for design leaders who manage global teams?
Working with clients and partners over long distances holds its own set of issues that still need to be resolved:
a. Is the country stable enough to do work in?
b. Is the client reputable?
c. Does the contract resolve issues of tax and currency, differences in definitions of phase and scope, and payment for travel/expenses?
d. Do the local architects, consultants, and contractors have the same expectations for quality, and are they competent to undertake the work?
3. How do you overcome these challenges?
* Do your homework. Deciding whether or not to take on the work requires a little bit of research. There is much more at stake in taking on a large assignment because, should things go awry, it is more difficult to have recourse with a client that is not based in the United States.
* Read between the lines. If you make the decision to go ahead, the contract needs to clearly set out the roles and expectations for accomplishing the work. Understand the local conditions (finances/taxes, expectations, definitions of scope and phase) and properly define travel requirements. The working relationship between all of the consultants, including a local architect, needs to be understood and translated worked into the agreement, as well.
* Set the bar high. Quality is the basis to a project’s success, but there are some parts of the world where these standards do not exist in the way that we (or even our clients) are accustomed to. When hiring local professionals, there has to be careful vetting through phone interviews, face-to-face meetings, and reliable word of mouth. Sometimes additional financial incentives will be necessary.
4. How can you engage your global clients when barriers like time zones exist?
Keeping clients and consultants engaged requires a balance of communication types. Establish regular touch-points for virtual meetings. E-mail should be used carefully, as it does not establish the necessary trust and team building. There is nothing that can replace face to face meetings.
5. What about language barriers?
Most clients and consultants do have at least a rudimentary grasp of English but underlying cultural differences can lead to misunderstandings. Translators make the situation even more difficult, as they frequently are not designers and do not understand the process. The best solution is to have a native speaker on your staff who understands the design process.
6. How has technology played a role in global design management?
There is a range of technological tools to help us work abroad—e-mail, Live Meeting, video, teleconferencing, Skype, Web sites that allow us to transfer large documents instantaneously, etc. All are continually improving but nothing will ever replace an in-person meeting.
7. What has been your most challenging global project to date, and why?
The Hanwha Conference Center in Seoul (shown right). Most of our clients did not speak English. We had to rely on an outside translator for our on-site meetings and it resembled the movie Lost in Translation, where the translation time might be three times as long or short as the original statement and frequently seemed to have nothing to do with the topic at hand.
8. Which global project has been most rewarding and why?
Hanwha also was the most rewarding. The client, without our knowledge, was meticulous about seeing that the design intent was respected in the drawings and construction. We did not know what to expect for the outcome and were astonished at the grand opening to see our design constructed exactly as we had intended!