Graduate Nikita Bhopti describes her professional growth while working in isolation, from carefully managing her digi-presence and availability to developing alternative methods of collaboration, and celebrating successes.

For many graduates, the arrival of COVID-19 has coincided with potential moments of growth. Being physically isolated during a period when you would usually lean heavily on your team and mentor figures has been challenging, and at times a bit daunting. It has been interesting to reflect on the mechanisms that graduates, in particular, have developed for mentorship, support and guidance.

The learning curve has turned into more of a learning spike, with several pointy moments that have proved extremely difficult to get through without the traditional modes of support and the physical presence of colleagues around us. So how have we grads done it?

I’ve been working as a Graduate of Architecture at a practice where my role has evolved several times since my commencement there four years ago, as a student. The coming of COVID-19 coincided with two key projects that I was involved in starting on site. Building on from my ordinarily observational role under project architects, these two projects in particular presented me more directly with new opportunities of having ownership and accountability. It was a unique opening for a grad to take a big step up! While I found myself diving head-first into deep water, I wasn’t ready for the tsunami COVID-19 brought with it. There have been several sink or swim moments, and I’ve been fortunate to have a team of supportive colleagues and numerous mentors act as my floaties during this time. When leaning on mentors during isolation, I have learned a few things.

Left: Desk at studio. Right: Desk at home.

Digi-presence & the value of time

Being digitally present through isolation seems to have made us all more available than ever before. A sense of immediacy has been born, and our digi-presence has rendered us somewhat ever-present. As such, I’ve had to remind myself to value the time of others.

Coming from a very open and collaborative office, the simple act of turning your chair around and asking the closest person for clarification, opinion or advice is second nature. Being in the same space physically makes it easy to see if someone is unavailable, on the phone or in a meeting. Their presence is clear, and for a growing grad, it helps you regulate what you ask, when you ask, and why you ask. The start of isolation saw me picking up the phone every few hours and seeking advice from colleagues who would allow me to deal with most things almost on the spot. While this was incredibly productive for me, I had a think about the people on the other end and how my sense of immediacy wasn’t taking their availability into account the way it ordinarily would in the office environment. Mentoring is a very generous thing, so I’ve tried to remind myself of people’s time, and ask for advice and guidance more sparingly and more deliberately.

I’ve also had to remind myself to allow others to value my time. Feelings of being overwhelmed are quite common among grads, and are likely only heightened by the disconnected nature of working remotely from home. We have suddenly found ourselves in an isolated environment where our co-workers, clients or consultants can’t see when we need more time, or when we just don’t know. I have found great value in learning how to say, “I’ll have a think and get back to you” and creating the time and space I need to do things right and to do them well.

Alternative methods of collaboration

It has been interesting to reflect on how we have all innately developed alternative methods for collaborative decision-making and problem solving during this time. For a grad, much of the confidence behind project-specific decision-making springboards off the assurance our colleagues and mentors instil in us. As such, it feels incredibly important to keep having project-specific conversations and sharing design opportunities, as you would in the studio.

In architecture school, we laugh at memes of someone more experienced standing over your shoulder and live-workshopping at your screen. Working from home has made me realise how much young grads get out of those moments of collaborative working, and the impact of that on our own decision-making. From my experiences, most of these instances occur simply when you throw a small question out there or ask for a quick opinion. It’s been interesting to reflect on how we’ve both deliberately, and non-deliberately, re-worked these collaborative interactions through isolation.

Left: On-site resolution (ft. arm of builder). Middle: Collaborative grout selection (ft. mentor). Right: Spontaneous detail workshop (ft. finger of colleague).

While many standard phone calls recently have been helpful, the ones that turn into “Wait, let me FaceTime you” have proved the most productive. Live digi-workshopping has not just been useful among colleagues, but has allowed us to interact in new, more efficient ways with builders, clients and consultants. Aided by immediacy and digital accessibility, the politeness of refined drawings and glossy images seem to have lost precedence over raw working sketches. It feels like we’ve had to become more articulate than ever before in illustrating what we want to communicate – something that won’t be wasted in our post-COVID practice of architecture.

Your gut feeling

Another learning through working from home has been about that ‘gut feeling’ people keep talking about. While mine is 90% full of sourdough, I’ve definitely learned that my gut feeling holds a lot of weight behind the decisions I make at work, and that it almost always leads me in the right direction. When looking back at the conversations with mentors and colleagues throughout COVID-19, I have discovered that a majority of the interactions I’ve had only helped affirm an initial thought, or a clear direction that I was already going in. The most fruitful conversations with mentors have been the ones that are less about specific advice or instruction, and instead, offer guidance and support towards arriving at my own conclusions with confidence.

The idea of being ‘just a grad’ is no excuse for your gut feeling to not be expressed. The interesting thing about being the one learning something new is that you question things that other people may not. Within our practice, it is these conversations that have been instrumental in re-working the way we do things, and have encouraged growth, not just for myself, but across a team.

Celebrating the victories

Among many learnings through this time, the final one would be in relation to sharing our victories. When physically surrounded by people, it’s very easy for them to see what you’re doing, how much you’re doing, and whether you’re doing it well. Most grads are climbing mountains we’ve never climbed before, and doing great things remotely, so there is importance in celebrating ourselves. So how do we share our wins remotely? By utilising people’s digital presence, I’ve circulated all the things that make me proud of what I’ve done. I’ve shown off a great detail on Whatsapp, told my team about a compliment from a client, and have tried to share all the little moments that have made me feel very big.

COVID-19 has certainly added disruption to the traditional learning curve that all graduates endure at some stage. By building support networks and leaning on mentor figures and colleagues, the challenges of taking on this period of personal growth in isolation suddenly becomes less overwhelming. Through developing multiple ways of communicating, working and supporting each other through this ever-changing time, grads can not only survive in the deep end, but find ways to swim with the current – even through a tsunami.

Nikita Bhopti is an Indian-born Aussie, working at WOWOWA Architecture as a Graduate. Nikita is Secretary and a Lead Curator of New Architects Melbourne (NAM), and is also engaged with multiple mentoring platforms, as both a mentee and mentor. Nikita holds a Bachelor and Masters degree in Architecture, with distinction, from RMIT. She has been a guest contributor to The Design Writer, and hopes to continue writing across many art and design-based platforms.