Ethics have always been important to me, embedded throughout my upbringing. I have always strived for an empathetic approach to the collective creative process and value people and their diverse contributions.
My first two experiences as a student of architecture were in practices where ethical employment was evident from day one. There was a genuine interest in mentoring and valuing people’s time and commitment.
Throughout my career as an architect, I have worked for practices of varying scales, from sole practitioners to large global corporations. I have experienced different approaches to ethical employment and workplace culture. What I have learned from this experience is the value of respecting my time and those around me, whether they are colleagues, clients or collaborators.
From my experience working and collaborating with a wide range of practices, I‘ve witnessed an expectation at some practices to work additional hours as required, for a fixed salary which I believe is detrimental to an individual’s wellbeing. This experience was reinforced by reading the results of the 2021 practitioners survey which showed that more than one-third of respondents worked regular unpaid overtime causing job dissatisfaction. In my experience such culture leads to a high turnover of staff with the flow-on effect of lost knowledge and skills within a practice. It’s widely accepted that the cost of hiring and retraining far outweighs the cost of nurturing staff in their career. But more than this financial consideration, ethical workplace culture leads to the attraction and retention of talented individuals and is an investment in the practice as a whole.
The culture within my current practice was not fully evident to me in my younger years. However, in hindsight and with the benefit of working at other practices in Australia and internationally, I now recognize the innate culture and business model. While I believe it is unique, I don’t believe it is by any means revolutionary; the principles are simply good practice and a recognition of the value and trust we should have in our team members.
Last year I became a practice director, making the shift from being an employee to an employer; a change which has given me a new-found appreciation for the complexity of issues faced. I’ve become an active participant in the balancing act of running a viable and sustainable business while advocating for the individual. Looking at practice management from this lens has cemented my belief that creating an environment to attract and retain the best talent is the most sustainable way to practice.
Fundamental to a practice’s ability to provide an ethical workplace is establishing client-architect agreements and workplace conditions that enable an environment conducive to people doing their best work. To me, this means setting realistic fees, scope and programs from the start by educating clients on the value good architecture can bring to a project. Setting up realistic project expectations allows a practice to provide competitive remuneration, paid overtime and the ability to support careers through parental leave payments and other related initiatives. In addition, by structuring resourcing to allow all roles to be flexible to suit individual needs, time for peer-to peer mentoring, training and study assistance, these aspects can be built into budgets and employee time allocation to foster career progression.
I consider the idea that if you value your people, you need to value their time central to ethical employment. This means having a business model that allows you to set the work conditions you desire while balancing the fees and scope of projects that suit this model. Resourcing project-based work in inherently difficult, no matter which industry, with leaders forced to respond to factors outside of their control, sometimes daily.
Having an agile workforce is vital to us in an era of economic instability and is an effective way to manage our resources to suit project load. One example of how we generate this agility is to, at times, ask people to increase or decrease their hours to suit the current project demands. This has enabled us to service projects that effectively without hiring and firing. The process is transparent and completely voluntary. People are consulted, guaranteed their salary and if they choose to increase their hours they are remunerated for those additional hours. If they choose to work less, their salary is prorated and feedback has shown they enjoy other aspects of their life during this quieter period. We’ve found this transparent culture and approach to resource management has equated to longer-term employees and increased wellbeing, enabling skills and knowledge to remain embedded within the practice.
A sustainable business model also means creating a positive design culture, by instilling work methods that are collaborative and lead to better design outcomes. Creativity and good design come from allowing staff the space, time and agency to develop design skills, both on their immediate projects and by taking a wider view of their personal development.
Long and unrewarded hours do not create the best environment for people to be their most creative and effective. While we all feel the pressure of requests to reduce fees and have been substantial undercutting occurring within the industry, I believe this is unsustainable and generally disrespectful to ourselves, our staff and the public. It is detrimental to the wider industry and I believe we should all hold ourselves to a higher standard. It is our collective responsibility as leaders in the profession to advocate for more respectful practices. We need to focus on the value in what we provide our clients – a unique service and a design process that inherently takes time.
In an era of significant wages pressure, resource shortages, and unprecedented economic, climatic and global turmoil, there are no doubt challenging times ahead. Ethical practices, are however, sustainable and necessary to ensure the wellbeing of our people and our industry. The broader community benefits by retaining and attracting more talented people into the industry, enhancing their ability to design and help create the future places where we live and work.