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AJ100 2010 Employer of the Year: Architecture plb

Architecture plb did not avoid redundancies in the recession, but it dealt with them in a way that has kept the confidence of the staff.

Sponsored by SIV Human Resources & Management Consultancy

‘We try to let people know week by week how things are going,’ explains Ian Deans, the director in charge of HR. As a result, once it was known that there would have to be job losses, the staff volunteered to take a pay cut to keep them to a minimum. These were a flat rate, except for the directors, who took a bigger hit.

Fortunately work has since picked up in schools and social housing, the two areas in which the practice specialises, and it has started recruiting again. ‘As soon as we could, we reinstated the salaries and paid people back the money that they had forfeited,’ Deans said.

He puts the happiness of staff down to reasonable employment practices and a desire to make sure that everybody has as much job satisfaction as possible. ‘We make every effort to pay the market rate,’ Deans explains. ‘There are several places where you can monitor it.’ But, as he rightly says, nobody goes into architecture for the money. ‘We are in it to produce some good architecture. We can support and foster that with the staff.’

The practice has a very flat hierarchy, with two teams in the Winchester office and two in London. Architects, not directors, lead the projects, so that as many people as possible have the opportunity to be creative. In addition, on major projects the practice holds internal charrettes, so everyone can pitch ideas.

Many initiatives are aimed at fostering communication between the two offices, and - especially in Winchester, where the team is spread across two floors - within the office. Once a week the practice provides lunch for all the team. In London this consists of bought-in sandwiches, but in Winchester a cook comes in three times a week (lunch is free one day and subsidised the other two).

The whole team gets together four times a year. There is a Christmas party, and an architecturally themed summer outing - usually within the UK, although they went to Paris once. The other two occasions, in the spring and autumn, are a little more serious, with presentations and discussions in the morning, and an activity in the afternoon. On the last occasion it was painting. ‘It got very messy by the end of the day,’ says Deans.

There are a range of other benefits which are good but not exceptional. Bonuses are paid to all staff, an egalitarian move that would be good for morale even if the sums aren’t great. There is a cycle-to-work scheme, and there are childcare vouchers, death-inservice provision and group income protection. What is more unusual is a belief in not flogging the staff to death. ‘People are allowed to work in the way that best suits them,’ says Deans. ‘But we try to allow them time to recuperate after big deadlines. And if staff have to be in the office late, we buy them beer and pizza.’

The atmosphere, he says, is different from places he has worked in the past. ‘I have worked in offices where the work was more commercial and the attitude to the staff was more commercial too,’ he says. Asked about how he dealt with morale in the downturn, he says, ‘The staff pretty much dealt with it themselves. And we had a lot of positive feedback when we went through the consultation process.’ If your staff make positive noises at a time of job cuts and wage reductions, you must be doing something right.

Happy days.

Criteria

This best employer in the AJ100 was selected as a result of the answers given to a separate questionnaire that was sent out to participating practices and distributed to those working there.

Depending on the answer to the questionnaires, all those practices that had sent an adequate number of responses were scored and the practice with the highest overall ‘happiness index’ was selected.

Members of each practice were asked about their job prospects, pay and benefits, and also asked about how they felt about the place in which they worked, and about the work that the practice produced.

Happiness index (Hi)

Winner:
architecture plb, =74. Hi = 3.69

Shortlist:
Purcell Miller Tritton, 22. Hi = 1.94

A specialist in conservation and historic buildings, Purcell Miller Tritton spreads its 65 architects across 13 offices. Benefits include study leave, childcare vouchers and regular social events.

Jestico + Whiles, 42. Hi = 1.67

The practice has offices in London and Prague, and is run as a trust for the benefit of its staff. It has been included in The Sunday Times list of 100 Best Small Companies to Work For.

Paul Davis + Partners, 74. Hi = 1.67

Chaired by its ebullient founder, the practice operates from elegant offices in west London and works across the globe. Occasional parties are among the best in London.

HLM Architects, 28. Hi = 1.37

With seven offices around the country, this specialist in healthcare works hard to convey an image of having fun in a serious environment. A photograph of the directors on the website makes them look as if they are about to burst into song.

Assael Architecture, 84. Hi = 1.05

This practice has been known for several years for its generous and imaginative attitude towards its staff, and has featured several times in The Sunday Times 100 Best Companies lists.

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