- Article by Tili Bensley-Nettheim
The Association of Consulting Architects Australia’s (ACA) third pulse check reveals architecture practices’ continuing concerns about the work pipeline disruptions caused by COVID-19 and uncertainty about transitioning back to offices.
Pulse check No. 3 builds on the knowledge developed through the pulse check surveys No. 1 and No. 2 to inform the ACA’s advocacy and better understand the impacts of COVID-19 on architectural practices.
The ongoing challenge of the pandemic’s pipeline disruption is the topline finding of this third survey. Only 17% of responding practices indicated that they have enough work to see them through to the end of the year and 37% of practices reported being currently short of work. Many practices are still facing project delays and cancellations; however, 24% of respondents have also had projects restart, and another 23% anticipate project restarts shortly.
Transitioning back to workplaces presents the next challenge for firms. More than half indicate that there are positive aspects of the new working arrangements they will bring forward, while another 22% are not yet sure what the impacts will be. A return to previous arrangements is forecast by 24% of respondents.
ADR speaks to ACA chief executive officer Angelina Pillai about how practices’ concerns have changed over the three pulse checks and supporting architecture’s transition out of this period.
Across the ACA’s three pulse checks, where have you seen COVID-19 taking the greatest toll on architecture firms?
- Project cancellations, projects being put on hold or anticipation of both. The approximate value of these projects either being cancelled or put on hold were valued into the billions (based on data from responding practices).
- As a result of the above, there is widespread concern about the pipeline of work. By pulse check #3, of the responding practices, only 17% indicated that they have enough work to see them through to the end of the year and 37% of practices being short of work right now
- Which leads to the other major toll on firms which is around work conditions and employment arrangements with many practices forced to make staff reductions, standing employees down, cutting their hours and/or considering redundancies, none of which are desired outcomes for practices
What are architecture firms expressing as their greatest concern about returning to their offices?
Whilst most of the respondents are taking a range of approaches to returning to their offices with protocols in place for hygiene, social distancing measures, flexible workplace arrangements and proper wellbeing initiatives to name a few, the key priority for many is ensuring that safety at work is paramount.
The other concern which we saw in the third survey is for those juggling work and caring responsibilities, and senior management. This is a shift from the previous survey, which had identified more concern about younger employees.
Productivity levels are also cited as an area of concern, with a worrying 13% expecting a slow return to recovery and 5% not anticipating ever returning to pre-productivity levels.
What arrangements put in place during the pandemic do you think architecture practices will want to retain?
From the data, it appears that flexible workplace arrangements are likely to continue and an enhanced focus on wellbeing initiatives being retained. With regard to prioritising the wellbeing of staff, the responses were heartening with more than half having processes in place to support wellbeing and a good percentage looking into it. These results align with anecdotal evidence that the pandemic period has seen a concerted effort by practices (both leaders and employees) to prioritise mental wellbeing. The ACA has also initiated mental health and wellbeing forums across the branches for regular check-ins and a forum to connect and share strategies. The message is that we are not alone in this and the ACA community is here as a supportive network of peers.
How have you seen staff wellbeing change priority through pulse checks No. 1, 2 and 3?
Certainly awareness about the importance of staff’s mental health and the overall practices’ wellbeing have been placed as a priority. Practices are talking about this more and calling out its importance. From conversations with members, there is a general feeling of employers and employees working together to address and manage issues before they deteriorate. From the data, over half of the respondents in the third survey felt that the wellbeing of their practice was similar to the onset of the pandemic, with over a quarter suggesting that it had improved. The ACA has curated information and published advice on mental health and wellbeing on our website.
How will the ACA support practices as they transition out of this period?
The ACA will continue to provide access to information, timely advice, resources and advocacy. We plan to continue to seek feedback, provide a platform for connecting and urge governments to listen to our members. Our dedicated COVID-19 section of the ACA website is the go-to place for these resources.
For example, from pulse check 3, it is evident that the Federal Governments’ Job Keeper scheme had helped several practices retain skilled practitioners and enable them to continue to operate. This is critical so as not to lose this valuable experience from the profession and there is a sense that it is an opportune time to upskill for the post pandemic scenario. However, with Job Keeper payments coming to an end in the coming months, there is concern about ‘falling off the cliff’. Feedback from our members is for an extension to this scheme. So, data collected from our surveys will help inform ACA’s work in advocating for an extension of the Job Keeper program together with other industry bodies.
As practices transition, staffing issues present as a key concern (see 1.i above). The cyclical nature of the construction industry, particularly during an economic downturn, inevitably leads to an insecurity of workflow and it is even more uncertain during this time. Quality people are lost from the profession and the wider industry, with many practices unable to retain valuable staff. Each time this occurs the profession loses some of the brightest talent, who unfortunately do not return when the economy picks up. While downturns are beyond the ACA’s control, we believe we can assist to maintain the employment of valuable staff by creating a platform for sharing staff between practices in a collegiate manner. The ACA has brought forward the release of the Resource Sharing System in direct response to the increasing need to retain and sustain employees in the workforce now and into the future.
The ACA represents the interests of architectural employers in industrial matters and is working hard to provide resources and support for navigating COVID-19 pandemic conditions.
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