The Architects' Journal
05 February 2021
05 February 2021
Roundtable - Working Well During The Pandemic
A panel of industry experts discusses how architects have addressed the challenges of home-working and considers how lessons learnt could lead to permanent changes. Sponsored by Bespoke Careers
- Emily Booth, AJ editor, (chair)
- Robert Ball, chief executive, Architects Benevolent Society
- Dav Bansal, partner, Glenn Howells Architects
- Lucy Cahill, principal – architecture, Bespoke Careers
- Ruth French, associate, Ryder Architecture
- Francis Gallagher, managing director, HKS
- Yvonne Mathurin, head of HR, Aukett Swanke
- Peter Minnis, director, TODD Architects
- Hilary Moir, head of learning and professional development, Heatherwick Studio
- Hazel Whittaker, senior associate – strategic appointments, Bespoke Careers
- Jo Wright, director of architecture, Arup
With the Covid-19 pandemic keeping architects away from the office for much of 2020, practices had to adapt quickly to a new way of working. In line with much of the country’s workforce, meetings switched from room to Zoom; team to Teams.
Working from home has presented its challenges, particularly around mental health. So how is the profession addressing these issues and supporting resilience while remote working? And, at the same time, are there any benefits to this new norm?
Bespoke Careers assembled a group of leading architects and sector professionals for a virtual roundtable discussion via Zoom about work in the time of coronavirus, and how any lessons learned from this period of remote and flexible working might permanently change the way practices operate.
Communication emerged as key to successful remote working, with architects reporting that they actually feel better connected to colleagues than they did before the pandemic. Jo Wright, director of architecture at Arup, which switched to Microsoft Teams last March at the start of the of the first UK lockdown, says: ‘Technology has democratised the connectivity, so we have been doing strategic design reviews as a global team.’
HKS regional managing director Francis Gallagher says his practice’s 1,300-strong workforce, spread across 24 offices worldwide, is now ‘far closer’ and meets virtually once every fortnight. ‘We get to see into the CEO’s living room,’ he says, ‘so I think this has been a great leveller.’
There’s a lot more sharing going on because the communication is more frequent. London-based Heatherwick Studio ‘amplified’ its internal communications, according to Hilary Moir, its head of learning and professional development, and switched fortnightly Friday staff catch-ups to weekly to ‘give people some security and to be able to feel that we were all still connected’. Conversations are changing as a result. ‘There’s a lot more sharing going on because the communication is more frequent and people are picking up on what’s going on around the studio,’ she says.
Communication is also seen as important to maintaining good mental health. Heatherwick Studio employs a psychologist to spend time talking with its teams and held a ‘healthy minds month’ in November. It uses feedback from these sessions to influence employee benefits, for example perhaps giving access to podcasts to help with mental health.
Glenn Howells Architects partner Dav Bansal, responsible for the practice’s Birmingham studio, says communication must go hand in hand with transparency. ‘When you are at home in your box, anxiety and nervousness kick in,’ he says, ‘because when you’re on your own you develop those anxious moments. I think being connected and communicated [with] regularly does help with that, and especially with those who have been furloughed.’
He adds: ‘One size does not fit all’ with policies and how people are coping. Thanks to the pandemic, he says, people know more about each other’s living arrangements and caring responsibilities. ‘It’s been a bit of an eye opener because we really have got to know our staff a lot more,’ he explains.
But while technology has enabled architectural businesses to continue to function, Gallagher points out a weakness to this way of working: ‘Zoom fatigue’."We have introduced Quiet Fridays: we ask all staff to put off Zoom meetings and allow that day to be their focus day."
HKS noticed in the weeks after the UK first entered lockdown that it needed to ‘set up guardrails’ for virtual meetings because staff were experiencing burnout, which was having a negative knock-on effect on their mental health.
In response, the practice established ‘Quiet Fridays’. Gallagher explains that ‘unless it’s a client-led initiative, we ask all staff to put off Zoom meetings and allow that day, the Friday, to be their focus day.’
This approach has allowed for ‘softer conversations,’ he suggests, and a ‘day of reflection’ rather than ‘presenteeism’.
Aukett Swanke’s HR team, headed by Yvonne Mathurin, called employees individually at the beginning of lockdown to check how they were and find out about their home situation. The call was also about ‘reassuring them it is fine to juggle [their] hours’, particularly when schools were closed.
The practice posted details on its intranet of health and well-being support available to staff both externally and through their private health insurance. ‘We’ve put it out there and we make sure that people are aware of the support and the resources in order to help them deal with any issues that they’re facing,’ Mathurin says.
The Architects Benevolent Society, a charity that supports people in the profession in times of need, saw architects seeking help with financial difficulties in the first three months of the pandemic. However, says its chief executive Robert Ball, as ‘fatigue’ with the pandemic kicked in, mental health became more of an issue, with enquiries rising ‘quite dramatically’ for therapeutic counselling through its partner charity Anxiety UK.
Ball explains that architects are facing ‘a huge range of issues’, including redundancy, and that it is important for practices to make people aware of the resources available, both through employee assistance programmes and independent organisations. ‘It’s become increasingly obvious that without leadership championing wellbeing in the workplace, it isn’t going to work,’ he says.
Hazel Whittaker, senior associate for strategic appointments at recruitment agency Bespoke Careers, says practices’ approaches to wellbeing during the pandemic are influencing career choices.
In the case of someone unimpressed by their company’s performance, any thought at the back of their mind about switching jobs has moved to the front. ‘There are going to be some movers perhaps next year [where] you would have thought “Gosh, you would not have thought they were unhappy”,’ she says. "We’ve had some really great relationships with clients during this period, getting through together and building resilience".
There are clearly benefits and drawbacks to the new way of working, but will practices incorporate any of the changes they had to implement because of Covid on a permanent basis?
Peter Minnis, director of TODD Architects, which has its headquarters in Belfast, says his company is focused on getting employees safely back into the office. ‘There’s this lovely phrase [I have seen]: human interaction and collaboration cannot be replaced by an Ikea desk and a strong Wi-Fi connection,’ he says. ‘I think there’s certainly something in that.’
That said, TODD is putting together a policy to allow for a blended working model in future – a mix of working in the office and at home.
Glen Howells reopened its Birmingham office in June with hand sanitiser at every door, someone taking employees’ temperatures in the morning and social distancing of up to eight or nine metres.
Stressing the importance of choice, Bansal says managers spoke to staff individually about returning to the office and helped them make the decision right for them. ‘I don’t think that working from home is going to be the solution,’ he says. ‘I think it’s having that balance.’
HKS will also be adopting a ‘hybrid solution’, says Gallagher, by allowing people to work from home if they wish. On the back of weekly staff surveys conducted during the pandemic, the practice realised that having a 1,100m2 office in central London, which could house 120 employees, was not the best use of resources. It decided instead to sublet half the workspace, which saved it from having to furlough staff or make redundancies, and ‘reset’ the purpose of the office.
And it is not only working methods between colleagues that have changed because of coronavirus. Gallagher says his team has also ‘got far closer to our clients’, with the shared experience helping to break down barriers and build trust. ‘I think as a profession … we had to take a little bit more control back, remind our clients [of] the added value architects bring,’ he says.
Arup’s Wright agrees that relationships with clients, like those within architecture teams, have become ‘more authentic’. ‘We are all visible in our home settings,’ she says. ‘People’s kids wander in or out, or the cat’s sitting on the table.’
The economic uncertainty caused by Covid-19 has not stopped practices winning new work. While there have been redundancies in the sector – often down to clients cancelling jobs or putting them on hold – some businesses have expanded. TODD opened a new office in Manchester in the autumn, while Ryder Architecture added more than 50 extra members of staff over a six-month period.
There are lots of excellent people in the market at the minute that perhaps wouldn’t normally be available. Ryder associate Ruth French says her practice adopted a mentor structure whereby new recruits could ‘buddy up’ with an existing member of staff to help them settle and learn the company culture. She adds: ‘We’ve had some really great relationships with clients during this period, getting through together and building resilience.’
Practices are particularly keen to hire contractors, according to Lucy Cahill, principal for architecture at Bespoke Careers. ‘There are lots of excellent people in the market at the minute that perhaps wouldn’t normally be available, and they’re available that day, the next day,’ she says.
Ryder meanwhile has recruited former employees who had moved away from the cities where the practice’s offices were based and had not expected remote working could work for them. Now, recent experience has made them realise that they can work for the practice ‘irrespective of geography’.
So it seems that, for those who want it, flexible working is here to stay. It is a silver lining of Covid – a word no longer in use at Glenn Howells. After noticing its negative impact on people’s mental health during the second lockdown in England in November, the practice decided to ‘look ahead beyond Covid’. ‘We’ve got to safeguard the wellbeing of our people and one way to do that is to build hope,’ says Bansal.
Author: Kate Youde, Journalist, The Architects' Journal