The Future of Project Work in the Superyacht Industry



Lateral Project Manager, Lee Archer is in conversation with Andrew Pope of Salt Design Studio about his views on the future of project work, creativity and delivering complex designs and engineering in a changing environment.

LA – As with many of you, the events surrounding Covid-19 have had the biggest single impact on my working days since starting my career. It is true, many of us have mechanisms that support projects, engage with clients and build enduring relationships at a distance. However, we quickly found ourselves without a single base. Instead, and with very little warning we had 50+ separate offices. The need to stay productive and keep creative is a problem many of us have needed to tackle. Today we talk with Andrew who has interesting insights on project communication practices and how remote team working can boost value for both the company and the individual, given the right leadership and commitment of those concerned.

AP - Large, technically challenging design and engineering projects are the everyday for those of us working in the yacht industry. It is understood that the very best projects need a variety of professionals with different histories, unique skill sets, and their inherent knowledge and talents to succeed.

By being creative in our thinking and through the use of technology we can be effective in resolving critical technical challenges for our clients. However, our office and workspace are still largely traditional. In this model, collaboration occurs in a tangible space where ideas can be conceptualised, shared, and refined. Now with much of the world suddenly being switched onto virtual collaboration tools, is it possible to find ways to modernise and even enhance the collaborative and global nature of our project teams and cross company collaboration efforts?

The traditional project office workspace can be an enormously powerful, inclusive and engaging environment to directly share information, host impromptu critique sessions and have spontaneous dialogue that can all lead to quick decisions and output. But this utopian vision of an open plan free-flowing workplace we imagine existing at the likes of Google or Pixar where an employee’s workspace is filled with creative inspiration, succulent plants and a scooter to get to meetings arise the desire for most design-led companies but is rarely achieved.

Remote working is not a new idea but is one that has been forced upon many teams in the last few months. But the terminology itself does not fairly describe the concept, it suggests some people are central, core to operations and some people are not. Instead, focusing upon the operational needs of a distributed team or the virtual project office better represents the approach.

LA - The concepts you introduce here sound bold Andrew. But I agree, there is much we can do collectively and as an industry to develop concepts which embrace and even enhance collaborative ways of working. At Lateral, we are well versed in supporting customers remotely from our base in Southampton and we continue to develop tools to make best use of this way of working. However, from your introduction, you seem to be suggesting that you would see companies such as Lateral push this model even further.

AP - At its inception I decided Salt should be a virtual design studio so it can operate globally in partnership with Naval Architects, Designers or Shipyards own teams, allowing us to draw on the best talent there is, but only when we needed to. This allows us to be flexible, big when we need to be, small when we don’t. This has its advantages for Salt to reduce overheads but is also a benefit to its employees and contractors working life.

Something I hear often relates to what most people see as the major benefit of working outside of an office environment, a better work-life balance; being able to visit the gym or share the school run a few days a week. In practise, it is about finding the right balance and this is not necessarily about big changes, big upheavals. You need to set yourself realistic expectations that do not skew the balance too far in one direction. The reality is everyone needs to be in contact with colleagues and clients and the work is there to be completed, otherwise the whole concept falls apart and no one will benefit.

LA - It is not unique to our industry, but those of us working in the marine industry are often attempting to deliver highly complex projects with less time and resource than is ideal. Do you worry that spending time working away from the main project hub, or office will mean the team loses focus? Or that the lack of direct contact with the coordination team and other colleagues could leave many with feelings of isolation. It may even limit creativity in some way as you do not have the access to the types of ideas sparked from the experience of co-workers.

AP - The virtual project office has many other benefits for those individuals working remotely, to a point you can make your own schedule, you can have a corner office with a window, have the food you want to eat, choose when to have music or when there needs to be silence, what temperature the room should be and what to do with your time that is saved by not commuting. But this way of working also requires good structure, focus, and where appropriate a different approach to leadership. But above all it requires communication, and this starts with a good toolbox of services that allow teams to connect synchronously and asynchronously, to be creative, to innovate and to communicate ideas quickly and effectively.

It is common in a company setting to see a strong pyramid structure, directors at the top, managers and team leaders in the middle and individual team members at the bottom. Driven by the need to have a clear vision, mission statements and objectives. But working within a project as a virtual team this pyramid and its goals are less visible. The role of the Project Manager adapts to be more of a Social Architect, creating a space where people can do the hard work of problem solving, helping to glue ideas together in a collaborative environment that people want to engage with while maintaining the schedule and achieving results.

It is important to conduct efficient collaborative sessions, thinking in terms of Result, Team, Process and Tools in that order, otherwise you risk running the session for the wrong reasons or with the wrong people. Not every person needs a remote session, some can be resolved with an email or phone call. Maintaining a team’s focus and efficiency is imperative when they don’t sense the urgency of a project around them.

LA - There are some interesting points here. What you are really saying is that it is not enough to manage work. To collaborate effectively traditional working practices must be evolved. The behaviours and skills of the Project Manager need to be developed. Meaning the group can be steered with more effectiveness and efficiency towards a joint goal rather than micromanaged. How do you see this in practise?

AP - As a Project Manager start with transparent documentation. In a single project office a decision can be made quickly at a desk or while making a coffee. But when you operate with a distributed team contributors won’t always see these decisions. Leave a consistent trail of what you discussed and who it was with so others can pick up where you left off. This is particularly important when collaborations extends globally and working hours extend due to differing time zones.

So endeavour to make all communications online, share everything across the team.  Having a central encrypted database to store project documentation and data is valuable. There are many commercial options available for this.

Project management tools will allow for maximising efficiency if your teams are distributed. But no longer do you need to be driven by the 9-5 concurrent working paradigm that results from working in the same time zone. Project times can be reduced by consecutively working on the same aspects of a project, handing over to another team member in another time zone to continue working while you are not. 

LA – I am reminded of data published by Pew Research, which states that about 1/3rd of our school age children send over 100 messages each per day. Each constantly connected to their social network, sharing ideas and exploring concepts through their screens. However, there is growing evidence that conversational skills and the ability to combine efforts via team working is harder for this generation. Do you worry that distributed working could create similar issues?

AP - Online scheduling services can help coordinate team member’s availability for technical discussions, catch-ups and more formal meetings as required. It is essential to find and maximise the overlap for handover meetings or group discussions when they do not share the same working hours.

Google docs and Microsoft 365 are fantastic for recording shared notes and group thinking.

For videoconferencing, Zoom and Skype have become the modern default service. But for more rounded collaboration communication tools; Slack, Microsoft Teams, and Google Hangout provide an array of services that help preserve the spirit and camaraderie that can be cultivated in the office. Used with additional applications such as Miro or Invision’s Freehand you can share a common screen on a virtual infinite canvas to store and develop ideas, documents, photos and sketches in real-time.

These services also offer elements important to team life in a shared office environment, these are channels for 1:1 or team conversations and messages or to post random news articles, pointless debates and gifts to replicate those social interactions that usually happen when making a coffee. But don’t let these get out of hand.

Even these services have their limitations. Audio or video calls require you to dial into meetings, which loses some of the spontaneity of just turning around to talk to a colleague, especially when the first five minutes of most meetings start with trying to get someone's camera or microphone settings to work.

This is where Always-On Video services such as Sneek allows you to pick up conversations with individuals or groups instantly. All team members are muted but visible, albeit a photo is taken every few seconds or minutes, the user decides. When you want to speak just click on their image and chat away.

Flexible working in a CAD environment has become the goal of Salt Design Studio. When running large yacht design and engineering projects in CAD with a distributed project team then a cloud-based Product Data Management system helps to reduce costs compared to owning a central server. It also ensures all users have access to the latest data without fear more recent copies are stored locally on another user’s machine. Salt is currently working with Siemens to achieve this with Teamcenter and NX.  

Virtual Reality is now becoming more mainstream and collaborative allowing multiple users to come into the same VR room to perform design reviews where they can visualise, analyse, and mark up the product. Similar to a multi-player video gaming experience, you can participate in VR conferences from your desktop using low cost devices like Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, but even users without VR hardware can participate in the conferences and see the avatars of the immersed participants. All data created during the VR design reviews, including mark-ups and annotations, can be saved back to the cloud and made visible to stakeholders.

Collaborating from remote locations should have no consequence on your project team’s potential; you just need to adapt your processes to the circumstances.

LA - Thank you, a deeply thought-provoking time spent today discussing this with you. It’s clear, there is not a one-size fits all approach here, but I am prompted to realise that often when we speak of utilising remote partners there is a fear of reduced control, of being unable to directly access information. However, remote working does not need to mean unavailable. With careful consideration and with some basic commitment from the team and suitable thought leadership such as the approaches you have outlined it is possible to remove that barrier. Perhaps become even be better connected than ever we were previously.

The very best projects utilise significant creativity and technologies. This means, it is becoming increasingly common that we need to link with other experts and work together in support of those projects which are stretching the limits of our individual technical and creative abilities. Innovative working practises, some highlighted above can help us all achieve this. The challenge now it seems is for us all to seek where the use of technology can fit with process and further enhance the ability of our team to achieve even more than it does today.

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