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Workplace: 'You’re limiting yourself  by not opening  up to different types of working'

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With the market picking up, our panel of architects and HR professionals discussed the increasing importance of staff retention

‘Architects take professional pride in what they do, and sometimes you can’t get them out of the office with a crowbar.’

This statement from Debra Larkman, HR development director at BDP, sums up a problem facing many architectural practices: how to manage a professional culture where, according to an AJ survey conducted at the end of last year, nearly 40 per cent of architects work at least 10 hours of overtime every week – most of it unpaid.

At a roundtable event organised by the AJ and architectural recruitment agency Bespoke in December, architects and HR professionals from some of the UK’s leading practices discussed how to maintain a balanced and productive working culture and, beyond that, how to attract and retain staff at a time of economic uplift and intense competition for work.

1) Resourcing
The market has picked up in the past 18 months and demand for architects’ services has risen. However, many practices shed staff during the recession and are ill equipped to deal with bigger workloads.

Said Tracy Meller, associate partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners: ‘Workloads have gone up and we’ve sought to recruit extra staff on that basis. However, it can take time to get the right person so staff are stretched until we employ people to take on those roles.’

Andy Whiting, director of Hut Architecture, said that staff did not mind working overtime so long as they knew it was temporary. He added: ‘We deliberately make sure that if somebody’s put in extra hours one week they get a quieter week afterwards. We do this sometimes by literally drafting people off their project on to another one, to give them a bit of a break.’

Many high-profile design offices – RSHP included – use contract staff provided by recruitment agencies such as Bespoke. This helps them deal with the current skills shortage along with peaks and troughs in workload, converting quality candidates to permanent where possible.

Another solution to short-term resourcing gaps is asking recruiters to payroll freelancers on their behalf rather than paying them directly. Bespoke founder Lindsay Urquhart-Turton said: ‘I think this is a response to the ever-increasing administrative responsibilities of the employer and associated liability risks. It also saves time when practices are hiring people for short periods.’

2) Culture
Aside from workload, delegates agreed that a healthy gender balance, an open attitude to flexible working and a learning environment all helped create a positive workplace culture.

As Neena Thakkar, business director at Pollard Thomas Edwards, said: ‘You’re limiting yourself as a practice by not opening yourself up to different types of working.’

Opinions were divided, however, over ‘quirks’ intended to boost morale, such as a Friday afternoon drinks trolley. Charlotte Henney, company secretary and HR partner at Robin Partington & Partners, said her company’s 5pm ‘barista’s bell’ was just one fun initiative that ‘helps to promote an energy in the office’ – and attract new recruits.

But Whiting said such an approach had its limits, particularly if alcohol was involved. ‘I’ve never seen anyone on our team have an alcoholic drink at their desk,’ he said. ‘It’s just a bit awkward. Of course they might be desperate to get to the pub, but they don’t want to have a drink while they’re finishing their work.’
3) Development
AJ acting deputy editor Will Hurst asked delegates whether progressing individual careers was harder for small firms that lacked a dedicated HR department.

Whiting thought his nine-strong practice could hold its own on that front. ‘One of the main reasons people choose to work at small practices is because they feel they can really make a difference,’ he said. ‘They are a cog in a relatively small machine. That is highly rewarding … and I recognise that and give them a lot of control.’

Charlotte Henney with Debra Larkman

Charlotte Henney with Debra Larkman

Larger firms may have established career development structures that dictate salaries, responsibilities and rewards.

Henney said Robin Partington & Partners had an ‘airport’ system of ‘arrivals’, ‘duty free’ and ‘departures’, which set out how people progressed through clearly defined roles within the practice. Each role had a strict specification and salary bracket, and people had to fulfil certain criteria before they were able to move through to ‘departures’ – that is, prepare for the next, more senior, role.

‘This system, which is reviewed each year, has been really successful as it is obviously completely clear and transparent,’ she said.

Meller thought RSHP’s personal development structure was ‘more flexible than that – each person’s development is recognised on an individual basis. We don’t have tiers, and it isn’t that sort of rigid structure.’

She argued: ‘If someone’s learning and taking on more responsibility, and their skills are developing, then the more responsibility they acquire and the more their success is recognised.’

Fiona Ballance, principal at Pringle Brandon Perkins + Will, said that ‘despite the big investment’ necessary, practices should offer decent training opportunities so staff felt they were progressing within their careers even when they were not yet ready for promotion.

‘We want all our staff to be learning about new software, new systems, new ways of working,’ she said.

Unfortunately, said Tammy Sternberg, HR manager at Hawkins\Brown, there is no professional body that is obliged to oversee continued professional development (CPD) and advise practices on what training they should offer their staff.

Neena Thakkar

4) Rewards
Henney said Robin Partington & Partners’ reward structure was based on an employee trust model, ‘whereby if the practice is successful, everybody who’s been there for over a year is entitled to call themselves a partner, and we make dividends available on a points-based system according to salary, years of service and so on.’ In addition to financial rewards, she said, there were incentives such an annual summer party. Last year the practice went to Spitbank Fort in Portsmouth, an old Napoleonic fort that has been turned into a luxury hotel – ‘50-odd architects shipwrecked on an island for the day’.

Islands are clearly the way forward when it comes to staff outings, observed the AJ’s Will Hurst, after Meller revealed that Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners had last year ditched its traditional Barcelona trip in favour of hiring an island off the Essex coast for the weekend.

‘About 100 people get put up in houses on the island, and then there’s a field with glamping yurts for others, and a pop-up nightclub and other entertainment such as fishing and cycling,’ she said.

‘People came back saying “that is the best office away weekend we’ve ever had”. It genuinely pulls people together in a way nothing but muddy wellies and rain can.’

All practices offered financial rewards in terms of bonuses and other packages, while Hawkins\Brown was preparing to launch a voucher scheme for long service, and Robin Partington & Partners offered cash rewards for notable staff contributions, for example if they set up new, extracurricular initiative.

But Pollard Thomas Edward’s Thakkar noted: ‘Often the benefits that don’t cost you anything are the most important … when it comes to retaining staff, it’s about saying “thank you” to your staff and giving them public and private recognition and positive feedback.’

5) Communication
Responsible internal communication was identified by all delegates as one of the key ways to engage and retain staff.

‘For us, it’s a big thing because we’re spread over a lot of locations,’ said BDP’s Debra Larkman. ‘We have to use all sorts of different ways of making sure that there’s a two-way communication between leadership and staff, and that important messages are disseminated.’ Methods include company intranet and email announcements, as well as discussion sessions in the office with leaders talking face-to-face to relevant teams, and via a committee body called BDP Life, where representatives from each office meet with directors twice a year to talk about what’s going on, and to air any concerns staff have.

Heather Storry at Gensler remarked: ‘There is so much communication in the world, I think it’s easy for people to switch off when there’s too much of it. If you have the luxury of being able to talk to your staff face to face because they’re all in one place, that would naturally be the best option.’

Delegates agreed commercial information often considered sensitive should be made available to staff as much as possible as it helped to limit surprises and keep staff motivated and engaged. Hut Architecture’s Whiting said: ‘My employees are increasingly interested in seeing the financial machinations, the guts, of the practice … They want to make beautiful buildings but they also want to make money.’

His firm has a webpage where staff can see the profitability of every job. ‘So, in actual fact, we never talk about it because it’s, kind of, omnipresent,’ he said. ‘You can see it all the time. It’s one of those things you don’t have to have that awful conversation about – notifying staff their job’s running drastically into the red.’

Lindsay Urquhart-Turton founder, Bespoke
Lucy Cahill head of recruitment and client relations, Bespoke
Will Hurst acting deputy editor, Architects’ Journal (chair)
Tracy Meller associate partner, Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners
Tammy Sternberg HR manager, Hawkins\Brown
Charlotte Henney company secretary and HR partner, Robin Partington & Partners
Andy Whiting director, Hut Architecture
Debra Larkman HR development director, BDP 
Heather Storry regional HR leader EMEA, Gensler
Neena Thakkar business director, Pollard Thomas Edwards
Fiona Ballance operations director, principal, Pringle Brandon Perkins +Will

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