Kate Youde looks at a new network of London architects which is using an employee loan system to help practices through the highs and lows of business
Recent layoffs at London practices AFK, Apt and Nicholas Hare came not long after Hawkins\Brown axed 19 jobs amid continuing uncertainty over Brexit. The redundancies have put the economic struggles facing architects into focus, making a new scheme aimed at preventing job losses particularly timely.
At Morris+Company, however, half a dozen of its 40-odd employees are currently on secondment with other practices as part of an innovative staff-sharing arrangement set up by the London Practice Forum. Under the scheme, a practice with an employee who is being underused can lend them to another practice that needs an extra pair of hands.
‘It’s a lifesaver to be completely honest,’ says founding director Joe Morris. ‘It’s really hard out there. There’s an extreme ebb and flow of work starting and stopping, and [it] is incredibly stressful to manage an emerging practice in this climate against some of the bigger practices that are generally seen to be the practices to go to.’
The arrangement enables Morris+Company to ‘safeguard people’s jobs’, he adds, and the investment the practice has put into its employees and vice versa.
The London Practice Forum is the brainchild of Russell Curtis, founding director of RCKa, and is an informal collective of 21 London-based architectural practices which share knowledge, experience and resources.
‘It seemed obvious to me,’ says Curtis. ‘Small practices all struggle with the same kind of issues and we talk about these things informally when we happen to meet up at events. But why wasn’t there a more formal forum for us to be able to discuss these?’
The issues range from professional indemnity insurance, – the cost of which can be a barrier to public work for smaller practices – to building information modelling (BIM).
The group, which first met in October last year, maintains a database of practices’ equipment so they can share the likes of 3D printers, plotters and laser cutters. Most interestingly, however, they are also sharing staff.
A reality of running a smaller practices is that the pace is lumpy
‘A reality of having smaller practices is that the pace is lumpy,’ says Curtis. ‘You get periods of manic work and then periods when things slow down a little bit. If you are in a bigger practice you can even out these lumps by doing other things like competitions, but in a smaller practice that isn’t easy to do.’
To help with ‘inevitable gaps’, practices can lend employees to practices that need to bolster their teams on a short-term basis. There is a standard contract in place to oversee the secondments, which are for a minimum of three months, and all three parties (the two practices and the employee) must agree for the temporary transfer to go ahead.
During the secondment, the employee is paid as usual by their permanent employer, which invoices the practice they have gone to for the salary amount.
Curtis says the scheme is ‘an alternative to making redundancies’ and allows practices to ‘hire with more confidence’ because they know that, even if a new project does not go ahead or is delayed, they have the capacity to lend staff to other practices. It is a ‘comfort blanket’.
Mae is employing someone from another practice in a Part 2 role to help with some feasibility work for three months. The practice’s founding director, Alex Ely, says the arrangement is ‘working really well’ and meets an immediate need for additional help. As a smaller practice, Mae does not always have spare resources for projects demanding a quicker turnaround.
He says usual recruitment channels require fees and are better geared to providing long-term staff. Contract staff, meanwhile, are ‘a little bit of an unknown’, take up time with interviews and necessitate working around contractors’ other commitments. In contrast, he says his practice ‘haven’t even had to question the credentials’ of the person on secondment.
The London Practice Forum declined to provide someone on secondment to be interviewed by the AJ, so it remains unclear what employees think of the scheme.
Morris admits the process is ‘not ideal on the face of it’ and needs to be handled transparently. ‘It needs care, it needs attention, it needs empathy for the stress it might cause both to us and the potential staff member,’ he says.
The group is not monitoring the number of staff exchanges – nor the economic impact of its initiatives. But Curtis says: ‘We have been encouraged by how people have embraced this idea of getting experience in another office and maybe seeing a different way of working.
‘The fact that we are sharing a lot of knowledge about how we operate as businesses between us [means] the culture change between one office and another will be less significant.’
The London Practice Forum, which is conducting a diversity survey among its members, plans to publish a set of ethical principles in September covering how its members operate, treat staff and approach procurement. If other practices feel they adhere to these standards, they will be able to sign up to the commitments and join the forum.
Morris says member practices are ‘vexed’ at how the industry works. ‘We are not entirely confident that there are governing bodies out there which really understand what it’s like to be at the coal face,’ he says. ‘A peer-to-peer support system offers a far greater blanket of comfort when you are dealing with live issues.’
A peer-to-peer support system offers a far greater blanket of comfort when you are dealing with live issues
The group has no committee; Curtis chairs its monthly meetings. ‘We don’t want it to be the RIBA,’ he says. ‘We don’t want it to be drowning in bureaucracy … It needs to be lean and efficient and mobile.’
Carl Turner, founding director of Turner Works, believes the model could be replicated in other regions, suggesting between 20 and 30 members as a preferable group size.
He says architects have ‘a natural tendency to be quite territorial’ but that the forum encourages collaboration. ‘It’s a really healthy approach for the profession where we are realising we are collectively quite strong as a group of people,’ he says.
‘We have got a lot of knowledge and experience, and actually we need to be a bit more generous with that and it will help us.’