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Bespoke Careers

01 July 2020

01 July 2020

Q&A with our CEO Lindsay Urquhart

The current state of architecture & design

Lindsay started Bespoke Careers in 2004 and has navigated many peaks and troughs over the years, including the 2008 global financial crisis. While you can usually see an economic downturn coming, no one was prepared for how quickly COVID-19 would change the world. During the last few months, Lindsay has worked closely with her global management team to navigate the new challenges we face each day. 

We sat down to discuss the current state of the architecture and design industry and this is what Lindsay had to say about COVID-19’s impact on the job market and what the future might bring.

1. You recruit for architecture studios around the world. How has lockdown affected recruitment in our sector and has it been the same in all regions? 
All our offices have been hit hard by the virus. In March when the lockdown measures came into effect the majority of the roles we were working on in our London, Sydney and Melbourne offices were put on hold. Our two offices in the states (in NYC and LA) took longer to slow down but by mid-April the majority of the roles they were working on were put on hold too.  

From the beginning I felt that we would see the Australian offices bouncing back first, followed by New York with LA and London following and this is pretty much what we are seeing.  

2. Have you seen lots of practices making people redundant?
In London we haven’t seen as many redundancies as we did when the last recession hit. I think the furlough scheme has prevented this happening, but envisage more of these in August, September and October as furlough is scaled back and practices are required to contribute to salaries as well as pay the NI and pension contributions.  

In Sydney and Melbourne we’ve seen more redundancies than in London, mainly from larger international studios but again not as many as we saw in the last recession. I think this is down to the government job keeper scheme they have over there. 

In NYC there have been redundancies on a weekly basis, especially from large commercial practices. The procedures for letting people go in the states are very different, they are quick to let people go and quicker to hire so redundancies have been more widespread and dramatic over there. 

Our LA office has seen less of this. California was quick to react to the virus and put social distancing in place so practices there have been more optimistic. Lots have been able to access government PPP grants which cover staff wages and rent etc and this has really helped minimise job losses. 

3. Have any practices been recruiting in lockdown? 
London – Throughout April and May most of the positions we have remained on hold but in the past couple of weeks, we’ve seen a slight upturn in requirements and some roles are now live again. They tend to be very specific though (for specialist skills like BIM, master planners, French-speakers, landscape architects etc). In the last couple of weeks we’ve started to receive briefs for people with interiors experience and those specialising in high-end residential. 

Sydney – In the last month we’ve seen a real upturn in the number of requirements and our vacancy numbers are back to about 60% of what we had in February. Australia has done a great job of managing the virus so things are really beginning to pick up there. In particular small-to-mid-sized practices with lower overheads and long-standing clients are coming to us saying they haven’t seen a change in business, and they are hiring. 

Melbourne  In the last few weeks weeks the state of Victoria unfortunately saw a spike in cases which has resulted in Melbourne returning to lockdown. As you would expect this has had an impact on the number of firms we are seeing looking to hire in the city. However, we are optimistic that once these restrictions are eased we will begin to see the number of opportunities climb again and anticipate a positive pattern similar to what we’ve seen in Sydney in the coming months.   

NYC & LA – Over the last week or so we’ve seen a slight upturn in requirements. Again, high-end residential seems to be bouncing back. 

4. Have you seen any changes in the way practices are recruiting? For example, have you seen a shift from permanent to fixed-term requirements? 
In London we’ve had lots of practices who have contract staff working through extend contracts. We can also see from the timesheets we process than many of our contractors are working very long hours. Some are doing 70+ hour weeks. I think the flexibility that hiring contract staff gives will be very appealing to employers in this market, even those who haven’t traditionally used contractors. If I was running a practice, it’s definitely something I would consider. 

5. Why would a practice choose to hire someone on contract rather than full time?
  • There’s less commitment.
  • They can tap into specialist skills and don’t need full time.
  • Makes them more agile, they can resource up/down quickly as needs change.
  • There’s no emotional/time-consuming redundancy process. 
  • Efficient – sign timesheet, pay-once invoice.
  • Contractors are used to getting up to speed quickly and typically make an impact on workload quicker than a permanent hire. 
  • Cost certainty – no hidden costs like healthcare and pension. Everything is included in the hourly rate. 
6. What do you see as the challenges for practices looking to hire and retain good people in the months ahead? 
I think there’s a danger that those who have worked through the lockdown will come out of this burned out and desperately in need of a break. There’s a real sense when you speak to people who have been working that they have been flat-out for months doing way more than they would normally, really pulling out all the stops but this has come at a price. Unless practices look after these people and ensure they get the rest they need there’s a danger they will lose them when things settle down. 

Bringing people out of furlough will also need to be carefully managed as many of these people haven’t worked or even thought about work for months. I’m hearing practices are frustrated by the lack of enthusiasm from furloughed staff. It's important to be proactive and to engage and plan for their return.

7. Do you have any advice for practices hiring & onboarding people while working remotely?
Remote interviews require different preparation and skill set to a face-to-face meeting. Over the past few months our teams around the world have become very adept at these. We have pulled together tips and tricks on how to get this right and collated it into a remote interview guide that can be downloaded from our website. 

We’ve also put a guide together on how to onboard people remotely based on our recent experience. 

8. Do you have any advice for job seekers looking to find work in the coming months? 
Patience and persistence will be key. Make sure you have your CV, folio and references up-to-date and get someone to review them. Our consultants are always on hand to give guidance on this and you can get tips from our website. Good remote communication and time management skills are going to be key if remote working continues for some time so it’s worth giving some thought to how you come across and working on how you present yourself in a remote interview situation. Again, we have a guidance piece about this on our website. 

9. What do you see happening with recruitment in our sector in the remainder of 2020? 
Overall, I envisage that Australia will continue to recover ahead of the states and the UK. When the Australian borders open up there will be good opportunities for UK architects as practices there are always keen to hire European talent.  

Australia – The job keeper scheme ends at the end of September  we may well see some more redundancies then, but I don’t envisage this will be as widespread as in the US and the UK. 

Los Angeles + San Francisco – I foresee the market in LA and SF returning next and that this may be an attractive option for those able to work in the US. Visas have become even more difficult to get recently though. The Trump administration has cancelled all H1B, H2B, J and L visas until the end of 2020. I don’t envisage it getting any easier for Brits who need a visa to work in the US until there’s a change in the Whitehouse. 

I think London and NYC will be the last to recover and they are roughly at the same stage. 

London – I envisage there will be redundancies in August when firms need to start contributing to furlough, paying NI and pension contributions. There will likely be a shift towards short-term contract hiring as firms won’t necessarily want to commit to permanent hires. I envisage strategic appointments and searches will increase as practices look to diversify. Those in infrastructure, healthcare, education, and high-end residential will likely continue to hire permanent staff as before. 

New York – Furlough in the US is more like being on benefits. Currently double benefits but this runs out at the end of July. Firms who have the PPP grants/ loans will be helped as this was extended from 8 to 24 weeks running to the end of the year and I suspect this means we won't see the level of redundancies we might have otherwise. 

Author: Kat Hall, Marketing Assistant, Bespoke Careers

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