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AJ survey results: How is the profession coping with coronavirus?

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While the results of the AJ’s questionnaire show a widespread shift to home-working, there are longer-term worries about a significant business slowdown. Richard Waite reports

More than a third of architects and architectural assistants will not get full pay for the duration of their sickness should they contract the coronavirus, an AJ survey has revealed.

The statistic is just one of the more worrying findings from the investigation into how the profession is coping – or not – with the rapidly changing working landscape caused by the measures to combat Covid-19.

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The online questionnaire, completed by nearly 600 respondents, paints a patchy picture with many practices appearing to have their heads in the sand. It shows that a significant percentage have been slow to shift to home-working despite the government’s demand for a clampdown on non-essential travel and social interaction early last week.

The responses also confirm widespread fears of a business slowdown, with many reporting that schemes have already been postponed or cancelled. And the survey highlights concerns about just when there will be a return to business as usual.

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‘We migrated to Google Suite about six months ago. It was an easy step to set up remote working via Google Hangouts, Slack and Trello. We bought all junior staff without laptops a Macbook Pro and everyone has been set up to have access to the VPN’

Getting paid

Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s pledge to pay 80 per cent of wages – up to £2,500 a month – for staff who would otherwise be laid off was welcomed by the profession and, in particular, employers.

However, at the time of going to press there was little being offered to the thousands of architects who are self-employed.

‘We have been told to take annual leave or unpaid leave if we do not want to come into the office’

For many, sick pay will also be an issue. Of those answering the survey, 37 per cent said they would not get full pay for the duration of any coronavirus-related illness. Instead they would receive the £94.25 per week statutory sick pay.

Dave Madden of architectural recruiter Mustard said: ‘Different firms are set up in different ways regards sick pay. Usually, the smaller the firm, the more difficult it is to have lots of expensive benefits on the books. 

‘Given most sick leave is short term, it hasn’t really needed to be worried about – until now, of course. Sadly, everyone has been racing to the bottom on fees so there isn’t much fat left to spread around in times of need.’ 

Homeworking – the new norm

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The survey’s results show how widely the profession has adjusted to working from home. By the middle of last week, more than a third of respondents (35 per cent) said all their colleagues were now working from home. A quarter said most employees were now based remotely and a further quarter said ‘some’ were embracing it.

One respondent wrote: ‘All staff are now working from home and the directors have contacted all clients to advise that no staff will be attending face-to-face meetings or site surveys unless it is mutually agreed.’

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However, even towards the end of last week, days after Boris Johnson had addressed the nation to call for homeworking, some practices appeared sluggish to react. The AJ heard reports too of several practices that were still demanding their staff came into the office yesterday (23 March).

‘Our working-from-home plans were last‑minute and made several weeks too late. Too reactionary and not precautionary enough’

Analysis of the responses taken from those filling out the questionnaire from 18 March onwards showed that 15 per cent of firms were still expecting all staff to come in as normal.

Comments included: ‘Remote working is set up, but we are still told to come to work, with the exception if you are really sick.’

Another respondent added: ‘My director thinks everyone is overacting and that we are being ridiculous being worried about Covid19. This is making me and others feel really uncomfortable. The director has even blamed us [saying] if we don’t go to work the business will go under, however we are all self-employed.’ 

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Projects slowing down and the end game

The survey’s results reveal an almost instant slowdown in the industry’s work pipeline. A third of respondents reported that schemes had been put on hold as a result of the pandemic while two per cent said projects had been binned completely.   

There was also concern about when the situation might improve. A quarter (26 per cent) thought they would be away from the office indefinitely while 17 per cent predicted home-working would continue for the next three months.

‘My office started arranging for VPN access software to be installed more than a week ago. On Tuesday it was installed and we were all sent straight home to work remotely. The director is personally delivering desks and webcams as they arrive at the office via Ikea and Amazon Prime delivery’

Paul Chappell of 9B Careers said: ‘The great fear from all our clients is if sites are shut down. At that point workload will rapidly diminish and practices will be left with some stark decisions.

‘I can only hope firms take up the government’s coronavirus job retention scheme, but without knowing how long this situation may last, a number will be forced to take the incredibly difficult decision to make redundancies.’

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Helpful advice

A recurring theme from the responses to the survey was the confused picture and unclear advice from the government – at least initially. One comment read: ‘We need more, reliable medical evidence on how best to handle Covid-19.’

The profession does not, however, seem to be turning for advice to its institutions. As one exasperated employee said: ‘If RIBA official guidance was issued, I’d have little confidence we would follow it. If my company is ignoring the government, why would they listen to RIBA?’

In fact nearly half of respondents (49 per cent) said they thought the RIBA had been ‘absolutely no help’.

‘We went to full-time home-working using our multifaceted digital platform to work as a team no matter where we are. We want to avoid being part of the problem for others’

Responding to the data, the institute’s chief executive, Alan Vallance, said: ‘This is a very unsettling and unpredictable time, and it is vital that all employers do everything they can to support the welfare and wellbeing of their staff. 

‘The RIBA’s Covid-19 hub provides a suite of resources and information for members.

‘The RIBA is engaging with the government on a daily basis and the latest package of support reflects proposals we put to the chancellor last week.’ 

From the AJ’s data it is clear some practices have been more prepared than others to cope with the impact of the spread of the virus. With more uncertainty expected in the coming weeks, architects will be hungry for practical and timely advice to help them survive – and much more of it.

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David Kohn of David Kohn Architects on how his practice has adapted to working from home. 

‘Week 1 ✔️🥇’ …is how I signed off to the team on Slack last Friday. The instant messaging platform, icons and emojis have become a staple of office life over our first week WFH. On Thursday, Slack informed me we had sent ‘2,416 messages across 20 channels’ that week. We had seemingly weaned ourselves off our previous excessive email use almost overnight.

The week had started with the general view that we had acquired too many apps. The week ended with everyone using a different video conferencing app to talk to different people. 

My first online meeting was on Tuesday using Google Meet. Project architect Jenny Hill presented a report to developer Crispin Kelly – for whom we are designing a rooftop house in central London – alongside the project manager Mark Freeman and Brighton-based contractor Millimetre. It wasn’t without glitches, but we got the input we needed. 

On Wednesday, I dialled into the AA using MS Teams along with my office colleague and teaching partner Bushra Mohamed to review our fifth-year students’ portfolios alongside fellow tutors Jack Self, Inigo Minns and Sam Chermayeff, who was in a café in Berlin. Almost no glitches and six students’ work was happily discussed and assessed. 

On Friday, I met with my group from Vistage, a peer mentoring organisation, using Zoom. A dozen of us discussed the impact of coronavirus on our businesses, which range from door manufacturing to coffee importing to financial analytics. The Zoom gallery view, which is the week’s winner, allowed us all to see each other simultaneously, which mattered when sharing some very challenging issues. 

Now a video conferencing veteran, on Sunday I helped my family make its first Zoom call to both sets of kids’ grandparents, in London and Milan. We normally only get together as an extended family once a year. Now I hope we will meet much more regularly and can make plans for when life returns to some semblance of normal.


Readers' comments (2)

  • I have just checked the RIBA website, helpfully they uploaded a "checklist for practices during the Covid 19 crisis - dated yesterday!

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  • This will be a disaster for the construction industry (I count architects as part of it). Even if the restrictions are lifted relatively soon (ie in three months), who is going to have the money to carry out any projects?

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