Text: Simon Nelson
Why is it that so many of the cream of recent architecture graduates are turning their backs on what many would have thought of as dream jobs, to make a living from teaching, model-making, rendering and other ‘peripheral’ activities? Why is it that some high profile design-led practices are struggling to retain staff, in particular, the brightest of the current generation? Should we, as a profession, be concerned by this trend and, if so, what can be done to address the issues?
There is no doubt that there is a high level of expectation and optimism from students graduating at the end of five or more years of architectural studies and, for those who have achieved the highest results, expectations are even higher. Years of sleep deprivation and total immersion in architecture, being pushed to achieve superior design outcomes and then being rewarded by not only the highest marks, but also public praise and recognition, positions the best graduates as the masters of their universe.
Yet reality is rather different. While these graduates may have been masters of their universe, once they step outside the rarefied atmosphere of the academic institution, they find themselves in a different, parallel universe in which they have fallen to the bottom of the pecking order, where they are often perceived as being under-skilled and naïve. Most outwardly accept their newfound status, but beneath the surface lingers disquiet, frustrations and a lack of motivation.
To consider this issue, we need to understand what motivates people. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, better recognised as a ‘Hierarchy of Needs’, which is usually depicted as a triangle, although it should be noted, not by Maslow himself. The five ‘needs’ (he later proposed three more) are: physiological, safety, social, self esteem and self-actualisation; and people are said to be motived when needs are unmet and that, in most, they follow the order as written previously.
It could be argued that the high achieving student has already moved significantly up the hierarchy of needs pyramid. On commencing their first full-time job since graduation, they have met physiological, safety and social needs. Through their success as students, they have also had their esteem needs met through achievement, recognition and the respect of others. Maslow suggests that, once sated, a need will no longer be a motivator, even if the circumstances of the person change, as in a student moving from academia to practice. What matters is that the need has been satisfied and that these exceptional students are now looking for something more, namely self-actualisation through creativity, personal growth, the realisation of their potential and, ultimately, fulfilment.
So while a high-achieving student leaves architecture school looking for something more, their peers, who had maybe not achieved as much in their studies, are still motivated by a need for recognition and respect. Could this be why so many exceptional students get disillusioned in practice?
It is only when we look at the whole cohort of high achieving students that we can identify that some are forging strong careers with practice. Is this just a case of each person being different and that some are more satisfied than others with what architectural practice offers, or is there something deeper going on from which we can learn how to better utilise the staff within a practice?
To answer this, we need to understand what motivates people in the workplace. Frederick Herzberg has probably had the biggest impact on how we can think about this, with his 1968 paper, entitled ‘One more time: How do you motive employees’, which became the single most requested article from the Harvard Business Review. Today, some 45 years later, the paper is still as relevant as when it was first published.
Herzberg identified that a job is made up of a mix of ‘hygiene’ and ‘motivation’ factors, and showed that hygiene factors don’t motivate. Hygiene factors include salary, job security, status and work conditions. Simply put, get these wrong and people are demotivated; while getting them right does little to really motivate the majority of employees.
The answer to motivating staff and to job satisfaction is found in what Herzberg rather naturally called ‘motivators’, which his research showed to be factors such as achievement, recognition, the nature of the work itself, responsibility, advancement and growth. So strong are those motivators that they account for 81 percent of job satisfaction.
So now we begin to build a picture of a group of talented young architects who perceive that they have already achieved much and who, Maslow suggests, will be looking for the very thing Herzberg says motivates people. For many, they fail to find work that satisfies their needs and which motivates them, but it doesn’t need to be like this because, as already highlighted, some of these achievers do remain in practice and flourish.
We need to consider whether we really need to be concerned by a small group of disgruntled employees, irrespective of how talented they are. After all, there is currently a surplus of graduates and it is easy to replace people who don’t actually want to be in a job. The problem is that recruitment is costly on many fronts, not least in time, loss of productivity, training and man management. A stable, happy workforce will always be more productive and creative. If we can get the motivators right so as to attract and retain the best talent, it should also have a positive effect on the rest of the staff. Who doesn’t want a highly motivated and happy workforce?
In considering this, many informal interviews were conducted and a picture has emerged. Those who remain in design-led practices and express contentment in their work report similar experiences. They say that their skills and work are valued, that they are given tasks and responsibilities that stretch them and allow for personal growth while they feel that their contribution to projects gives them a degree of engagement, which increases their commitment to both project and the practice. Some of most common comments were: ‘my contribution is valued’, ‘I am learning so much’ and ‘I am being given real responsibility’.
Those that are disillusioned believe their skills are not valued, their tasks are menial, that they aren’t given opportunity for personal development and that they aren’t treated as individuals. Some report that they feel exploited for skills that need little architectural input, such as three-dimensional modelling and rendering. Some admitted that they were merely drawing up the ideas of others, while others felt that they were not given the opportunity to make any real contribution to the projects. These employees are rarely, if ever, given responsibility; their work is overly supervised and heavily constrained by the ideas of others.
Times have changed and so has architectural education. While some claim that architecture schools aren’t teaching the skills that are needed in practice, others recognise that the skills being taught are different but equally useful. As architectural education evolves, so must careers within practice.
Interestingly, the practices that manage to retain their staff and, in particular, the best of the recent graduates, are described by their staff in a very different way. Bosses are described as mentors, tasks are considered testing and allow for personal development, contributions are valued and employees are trusted through being given responsibility. In almost every case, one thing stands out: irrespective of how small the role might actually be, employees feel that they have contributed to the design process, rather than simply been given the task of representing someone else’s ideas. In management speak, the employees are empowered and have a sense of engagement with the end product.
It is through that empowerment, engagement and responsibility that a practice can develop a motivated and loyal workforce. While there is no getting away from what some see as the less interesting aspects of a project, such as detailing and construction drawings, there is no doubt that employees are more motivated when they feel truly engaged. Every practice needs to find a way of achieving this because it goes to the heart of organisational culture. Ideas and examples of what has proven to work would form a whole article on its own, but in the end, an organisation needs to develop a culture that works for it, rather than copying what works for others. For now, all that needs to be considered is this should not be left to chance and needs to be deliberately and carefully managed.