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Back to the future: how should we work in a post-pandemic world?

Architectus Principals Marina Carroll and John Sprunt had recently taken on the roles of Studio Leaders in our Sydney and Melbourne studios when both cities entered the lockdowns of 2021. The experience of overseeing large teams through this time gave both a new perspective on the value of the busy, dynamic design studio – where in-person interactions and the collective creativity of a group is often what propels projects and ideas to new levels.

During a recent AIA Lean in Series discussion, Back to the pandemic future, John and Marina – who has since moved on from the role of Sydney Studio Leader to become our Education Sector Leader – reflected on what they learned from this experience, and how they believe the pandemic has changed the nature of contemporary work.

Here, they summarise their insights from that conversation.

By the time we entered the lockdowns of 2021, we were one and a half years into the pandemic and a sense of fatigue was building.
While we were proud of how we had worked and what we had achieved throughout the uncertainty of the past two years, we knew that the pandemic was beginning to take a toll on our clients, projects and our people.

Nonetheless, across the business, the team had shown astounding resilience and adaptability. When projects were put on hold or scaled back, they pivoted, putting their creativity towards new ideas and opportunities, many of which directly responded to the needs of clients navigating this strange, pandemic world.

When the time came to return to the studio, we organised a program where sectors nominated days for their teams to be in the studio. Critical mass is key and working alongside a team is essential for productivity and morale.

Returning to the studio, there was no mistaking the sense of renewed enthusiasm and the energised atmosphere between people eager to reconnect with their colleagues. Roundtable discussions started back up. There was a renewed focus on what couldn’t be replicated online such as building physical models and collaborative design across a role of yellow trace. We could see firsthand how important many of these tasks we had previously taken for granted are in the creative process.

We began reflecting on some of the questions surrounding contemporary work that the pandemic brought into focus: How do we strike a balance between remote work and working in the studio that leads to the best project outcome? How can we ensure we don’t lose sight of the lessons the pandemic has taught us about work-life balance? How has the pandemic changed projects themselves?

Architecture and design practices around the world are grappling with similar questions. Some have towed a hard line, instructing staff to return to the office full-time. Others have offered their employees the option of fully remote work. Many companies have adopted a hybrid working model, attempting to combine the best of the pre-and post-pandemic worlds.

We fall into this hybrid category. Post-pandemic, we have mastered the art of digital collaboration. All our monthly national design reviews are now held over Zoom, and we have significantly reduced air travel across the business. All our studios have adopted a 3-2 model, which requires in-studio attendance three to four days a week, with some flexibility to work from home.

This approach strikes a balance that works for our people and leads to the best outcomes for our projects. It recognises the importance of the studio as a physical place where ideas incubate and grow but also reflects important lessons we learned through the pandemic.

While staff must coordinate their studio days with their project leaders and teams, we also understand that giving the staff the option to work from home on certain days has benefits.

The entire team are equipped with laptops that facilitate this flexibility. Some find the quiet of their home lends itself to highly focused aspects of their work. The more introverted among us recharge on their days working from home, returning to the studio with the energy to collaborate and fully engage with their peers. The option to work from home gives some time back to those with long commutes, and it helps people strive for a work-life balance that suits their lifestyle.

People have always been at the heart of how we operate as a business, something that is serving us well in the current employment market.

We know that contemporary workers are more inclined to leave jobs they find unfulfilling. We’ve grown familiar with ‘buzz’ phrases such as ‘the great resignation’ and concepts such as ‘quiet quitting’.

People are unwilling to let their work overwhelm their personal lives. In many industries, including architecture and design, well-qualified job seekers now have their pick of jobs.

How do we reconcile these cultural changes in the context of the architecture and design industry – an industry known for its long-hours culture, where stress and burnout are commonplace?

We believe the answer lies in the strength of the relationships we build across our teams. Collaboration is a word that gets thrown around constantly in this profession – now is the time to reflect on what it truly means.

Historically, our industry was built on the apprenticeship model where the master guides the apprentice as they develop their skills and experience over many years. This hasn’t changed. We need to encourage a culture of the open exchange of ideas and knowledge sharing where everyone on a team feels valued. Training the next generation of architects requires close and trusting working relationships where burgeoning talent can develop the breadth and depth of skills required for the job.

Working alongside people who are great at what they do is inspiring, especially in creative work like ours. It helps people understand what is possible as their careers progress. Simultaneously, people should feel supported through their failures and celebrated for their successes. Mistakes are part of how we grow and develop personally and professionally. This is hard to provide in an online environment that can reduce our profession to task-based activities and reduce the sense of creative pursuit.

As team members gain experience, they deserve meaningful opportunities on projects that interest them. It’s the responsibility of leaders to create these opportunities within their project teams.

One of our Senior Associates in Sydney, Craig Early, recently commented, ‘People are my projects’. His words capture the way forward for our industry as we enter a post-pandemic world. Our projects and clients will always be our highest priority, but that can and should co-exist with our responsibility to the profession and the next generation of architects who will design and shape future cities.