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HR: inhouse or outhouse?

HR is a necessity but how should practices incorporate it into their structure?

The term ‘Human Resources’ (HR) makes some architects’ blood run cold. Many will avoid HR at all costs. ‘I have known practices throw money at problems like absenteeism and pay-offs, but the problem won’t disappear’, says Julie Parker of consultancy Working Visions.

Parker and her partner Uta Werner set up Working Visions in 2005 to provide professional HR advice and training to design and architecture companies. With 29 clients on their books, it appears their offer is one plenty of practices see value in. It’s a niche market, with only one other sector-specific HR consultancy mentioned by those interviewed for this piece: Evolution, founded by RIBA specialist practice consultant Kate Marks in 2003.

The role of HR is critical to the day-to-day functioning of any business, with recruitment, contracts, training and staff welfare all coming under the HR banner. ‘It’s about the whole of an employee’s life-cycle’ says Marks. HR can be most effective when strategically worked into a business plan, for example through staff contracts. A contract should set out detailed guidelines regarding issues including working hours and measures on disciplinary action. ‘If contracts are drafted properly disputes can be resolved amicably and people are happy,’ says Parker.

Architecture as a profession has been slow to appreciate the need for dedicated HR management because many architects value design over business strategy, but practices expose themselves to legal action if they do not keep up to date with current legislation. Marks says: ‘It is generally legal troubles that start the debate about HR.’ The right to flexible working (see AJ 22.05.08) and new immigration guidelines are also particularly pertinent to architecture practices - responding to these requires a rethink of traditional employment structures. Werner also cites the example of the Age Discrimination act. ‘Architects still advertise for candidates with “10 years experience post Part 3”, but this discriminates against younger applicants and negates the fact that experience does not always equal competence.’

‘Architects are often keen to make changes but get scared off by the rigid terminology of HR’, says Parker. ‘It is about mediating between the two - doing things professionally but also in a way that fits in with the office culture.’

Parker and Werner offer four methods of incorporating HR into practice, which are explored over the following pages and which should help you ensure quality and mitigate legal woes.

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