Life after the open plan office?

Before COVID I spent my whole career working in an open plan office. Most of the time my bosses worked in the open plan too – frequently by choice not by necessity.   Architecture and design is a collaborative team based work environment and we all believed it was the only way to work.  Months spent in lockdown combined with new technologies have seen me reflecting on what the future holds for the open plan office.

Unlike my lawyer siblings, I’d never expected to have an office. If I needed to concentrate I put in headphones or found a quiet room.  I loved the open plan (as long as it was well designed and supported by meeting spaces and quiet rooms) and I couldn’t understand why anyone complained. I thought it was a matter of what you were used to and that the naysayers would just have to get used to it sometime – even the lawyers. After all, around 30-40% of desks are typically unoccupied, why pay for all those empty offices?


Fast forward to a post lockdown 2021, and I realised I’d gradually come to hate the open office, and in my mind I’m questioning its purpose in the current era. Like the enclosed office had their day, are the days of the open office now coming to an end? My suspicion is yes, the post COVID office will have a lot less desks but as with many trends, this was already a development that was starting before COVID.


Even before Covid 19 my own views were probably starting to change. I just hadn’t realised it yet. Five years ago, after my daughter was born, I negotiated a role where I could work from home 1 day a week (not whilst caring for her but to allow me to skip a commute and get some washing done). What it also gave me was a day that was largely free of distractions and usually free of meetings too. This became my time to focus on extensive drawing reviews or writing fee proposals.


In 2020 as the world shut down and our team moved to full time WFH – at first just a few of us, but within a week or 2 – the whole practice. We were in fact well setup already for this. A number of staff like myself already worked from home some days as well as part time meant our team was well used to distributed work. Our technology strategy that had been gradually growing more cloud based, many tools we had started implementing only months before the lockdown such as Revizto and Morpholio Trace became key aspects of our online design collaboration process and proved many tasks could be delivered whilst remote.  Once we added Teams for video conferencing, it was fairly quick to bring  others on board too. We saw many benefits to remote working – many staff were happy and productive skipping the commute, clients based overseas or regionally were better able to participate in meetings, consultants less like to question why they needed to attend a 2 hour meeting for their 5 minutes of input.  The biggest challenge for most designers was the access to our physical materials sample library, although like any workplace not everyone took so well to remote work – and of course we all missed the choice to meet in person.


Our first lockdown actually turned out to be a short one, and in Sydney unlike many other places, we had a year back in the office before our second lockdown. A year where Teams/Zoom meeting still remained the new norm and a lot of time was spent talking about hybrid working – what does hydbrid mean for us, for our clients and for the world of workplace from building owners through to co-working and tenants? The world at large was suddenly interested in talking about workplace – do we need less of it, how often do we go there, and most critically what is a workplace for?


This is a question that didn’t really get asked before COVID. It was accepted by most companies that if you had more than a handful of staff, you needed a physical workplace. Only a very few (usually tech) startups such as Gitlab (a 100% remote company before COVID – they even wrote a guide) bucked this trend. But for anyone returning early to the open office post lockdown, the question of what is the workplace for becomes obvious very quickly. Why am I sitting here in the office with people doing teams calls all around me (of myself on teams) – distracting anyone from doing focus work? Even if there are meeting rooms – is there a point going to an office to sit in a room and do a videoconference? Many people started thinking – if I can do this work from home comfortably why am I actually here? (noting that WFH is not the answer for everyone and usually there is a number of people who will want to go to the physical office regardless). If you then layer on social distancing rules which prevent people gathering in meeting rooms, or hybrid working patterns mean few staff are present, then the physical office really does start to seem pointless to spend time travelling somewhere to do more video calls.  People start to really question what am I getting out of being here physically in the office?


A big point that came up frequently last year in favour of the physical office was the idea of learning by osmosis or of over-hearing colleagues, the serendipitous interruptions and interactions that occur in the course of a day in the open office.  I’ve long been a skeptic of the idea of learning by osmosis, I feel like it’s an excuse for not actually spending mindful deliberate time in training people. I’ve also noticed that more and more communication is taking place by email or scheduled calls, or even while people are on the run between meetings. Less and less do people sit as their desks making calls that graduates might over hear and learn from. To me, the ability to invite an additional team member unobtrusively to listen in on the video call (with no travel time also) might provide a whole lot more learning than overhearing a few calls.  Learning on the job is always going to be essential, but maybe there are better ways to learn that by accidentally over hearing things?


A work culture that relies on accidental communication rather than purposeful communication is also be a problem for people who work part time, or even spend a lot of time out of the office with clients – they too may miss important information – if it is only communicated verbally in an ad hoc informal manner.


I’ve also realised over this time, that much of our conversation and concepts of “workplace” actually refers to the kind of workplace where you have a large diverse organisation with numerous teams working on different projects or areas of the business.  If your company only consists of one or two teams, the conversation and information shared is just as likely to be important information about the nature of your job as social chitchat or random connections or the “water cooler chat”. In a small organisation, you might find you still connect with people virtually as frequently as you did in the office.  You might not notice the absence of the social side of work as much as if you sit on a floor of over 100 people.
I’ve realised that already for me pre lockdown over a few years of working in smaller organisations, networking events and social media had already replaced the workplace providing these kind of serendipitous, inspiring or even just outside of the everyday, encounters. Without consciously thinking, I’d already been looking for new ways to connect. In fact this is what I missed most during lockdowns and found the hardest to simulate (although not completely impossible, I managed to make a few new friends via Zoom during the first lockdown).


So…if we don’t need rows and rows of workstations for people to sit and work at screens (regardless of if that work is intensive concentrated work or online collaboration) what is the workplace for and do we still have an open office? I believe the answer is yes – in part.  Workplaces will continue to evolve and many possible permutations are currently being discussed and explored, but for now, we do still need desks to work at. Regardless of if your work is on a PC or a laptop, many of us need multiple screens for comparing documents or graphics / modelling work and for best ergonomics all kinds of computer work will for now remain best done at a desk (when working hours on a computer anyway). As anyone who has already attempted to juggle a hybrid schedule knows, we can’t neatly allocate all of our meetings and collaboration times to blocks of in office time.  There will also be work in between. There will always be people who prefer to work in the office and who don’t want to work at home. I also can’t see any sense in moving back to an earlier ear of 1 enclosed room per person either. Real estate is too expensive and if you are only in the office 3 days a week why have a dedicated room per person.


There are many new workplace models currently being considered. HASSELL have developed a number of models for the new workplace from developments of Activity Based Working (Turbo charged) to more regional workplaces (Hub and Spoke) or the model which is most divergent from a traditional office is the Clubhouse model.  In this workplace model, the Clubhouse workplace becomes the central focus of collaboration and social activities – a central location for meeting clients and co-workers more akin to a a hospitality or events space than a traditional office, very few desks exist in this model.


Another suggestion is to question if you keep your current fitout, but perhaps you “flip” the use of the open plan office? Natalie Slessor  from Lend Lease suggested that with the bulk of space at the workplace being required for collaboration – maybe this face to face is what takes place in the open plan and the enclosed spaces are used for quiet work.


In my mind right now is a different model. Recently I was visiting the new Marrickville Library designed by BVN and I realised this could in fact be the future of the workplace. The Marrickville Library is an amazing transformation of a heritage building – a new building literally built around a heritage building.  Inside there are an amazing variety of spaces from tiny one person rooms, to surprising little nooks at the top of the stair (and under the eaves of the old building), to larger spaces for reading and working as well as auditorium style stepped seating common to many contemporary offices.  It is a wondrous place to explore (the website doesn’t do the variety of the interior spaces justice). An office based upon this idea would have an open plan area, but not a huge one, and its function is a quiet study space – akin to the library reading room. Other spaces large and small but removed from the reading room become spaces for collaboration. Small enclosed rooms become the places for the video calls and the chats. In all likelihood, this model will mean more enclosed spaces and more variety in the sizes and types of rooms. Outdoor and indoor spaces are all part of the mix. Cafes and hospitality style spaces are also a key component of this new workplace. In some ways this is a logical next step from both ABW spaces and many existing co-working spaces. But this model also opens up intriguing design ideas as to the kinds of spaces and buildings that might make up the office of tomorrow – perhaps no longer are shiny new premium grade towers the favoured answer. 

The most important point right now is that now is the time to question why the office, what is the office and how can we make the office of tomorrow better than the office of the past? The office has never been a static concept, and now more than ever is the time to question, experiment and pilot to see what works for your people, your teams and your organisation. What other kinds of models are you seeing in your office world or picturing in your own mind?

I am looking forwards to spending even more of my own time investigating this topic and working with clients to discover their best workplaces. From 3 December I’m excited to be joining CBRE’s Workplace Strategy Team here in Sydney. Get in touch to discuss the future of work!

Image Credits: Israel Andrade on Unsplash

Work Smarter Not Harder

In theory we all have exactly the same amount of time in our day or our week, but why is it that different situations such as lockdowns, maternity leave or unemployment make time pass so differently – or different individuals feel like they have so much more or less time than others?  While there is a whole host of reasons that impact our perception of time, one of the biggest is how effectively we use it – the common saying to work smarter not harder.  But how exactly do you do that? 

As someone who has gone from a life working a 60 plus hour week to a flexible 27 hour work week, I have a few thoughts on the subject. In architecture and design, many people equate working long hours to loving their job and being creative.  But how much of those long hours are actually being spent on creative endeavours?  Or people think they are simply just not ‘organised’ and believe they can’t change the way they interact with time.  Just as you can train yourself to become better at a sport, a hobby or a language, you can also train your brain to deal with your time differently.  Even if you have trouble concentrating, being organised or have ADHD – you can train your brain and change how you deal with time and organisational skills. (While its not a resource for time management, “The Brain that Changes Itself” is an amazing book about the power and plasticity of the brain)

The first step to doing things differently is to make the decision that YOU want to do things differently.  Maybe you can also bring your colleagues and others around you along for the ride, but maybe you can’t.  At the end of the day though, we can only change our own behaviours and responses and gently encourage others around us to take responsibility for their own choices and actions.

Many people can be very successful in life, but still have problems managing their own time, or respecting the time of others.  Often these people are stressed out and overwhelmed, they know something in their life isn’t working, but they are not sure what it is.  Frequently the noticeable issue is that you feel like every day is spent putting out fires and you may not feel in control of your own time.  This can flow onto the people around you, leaving them feeling the same.  It doesn’t make a great work environment for anyone.

Regardless of our our own time management or our immediate team, often in the collaborative but often combative world of design and construction, external parties are pushing their own agendas and can leave us feeling our day or week is out of our own control.

Set Your Boundaries

People who know me today, assume that I started to set boundaries  around my work life because I have a small child.  Its common that women (and more and more men) will prioritize children, and particularly child care pickups (partially due to expensive fines for being late).  But while this might often force people out the door, it doesn’t always mean that boundaries are set at other times, either on a day off, at night or on the weekends.  For me, I’d actually started to set boundaries around my time earlier.

Particularly in this always on smart phone age, I believe everyone needs to set their own boundaries.   No-one will ever manage all your time for you.  You have to decide when to switch off, when you are available and when you are not.  This includes setting and managing your own notifications on your phone, email and apps.   Its also important to have a culture that makes it clear to team members that they are not expected to be switched on and responding 24/7.  Particularly during lockdown, much of my own work was occurring outside business hours – that doesn’t mean I expect others to be available or responding.  If you know that work emails outside of hours will aggravate you – turn them off (or see below and try meditation).

In this industry you can never avoid deadlines, and occasional overtime is always going to be required, but planning realistic timeframes and negotiating with clients to achieve agreed outcomes can help to manage this process as well as regular communications within teams about current workloads and status.  We use slack and in person meetings to keep track of where everyone is, what they are working on and project resourcing overall.

For many years I have run teams with a significant proportion of part time or remote staff (one team I was the only full time person out of 5!)  As a team we plan our workloads, deadlines and meetings around everyone’s commitments.  Sometimes this takes more work and means agreed hours needs to be thought about and regular meetings might have to be on Teams/Zoom or even to shift days whenever things need to change – but this way everyone is able to plan their days and time around known commitments.  Many teams have seen over the course of the last year that this approach can work.

Delegation and Mentoring

Obviously one of the biggest ways to save yourself time, if you can’t automate it (more on that later) – delegate it.  Many professionals in our industry – be they architects, designers, engineers or even project managers are really really bad at delegating.  Partially this could be because we don’t even get taught how to delegate and many of us have had such  poor examples to learn from.  Delegating is not just handing something over to someone else to do it and then checking every day (or hour) if they did it yet.  Delegating effectively is a mix of training and briefing people as well as a bit of letting go.  

Our industry has been often heavily biased towards a single individual being in control of the project or being the client contact – but this is not always the best team structure – for the client, the project, the business or the time of individuals.  If a less experienced team member is paired with a more experienced team member, not just to draw this and model that – but to take responsibility and get to know the project inside out, it can be a huge benefit to both team members as well as the client and your business overall.  When only 1 team member knows what is going on across the project – you open yourself up to trouble if they get sick, go on holidays or leave your business.

I use a mix of different communication tools for delegating and briefing staff from in person or video chats thru to previous examples, Slack and Trello as well as Revizto.  Just because I delegate a task also does not mean I don’t track the outcome at all, and a lot of these tools help my team communicate with each other when something is complete or any issues or delays in completing a task.

I also spend a lot of my time training and reviewing projects or deliverables (probably actually almost half my time).  In particular, training is often set aside when we are busy but can then be ignored for months at a time as low priority.  Before you know it – you have a team going off in 10 different directions (same goes for regular team meetings or one on one catchups).

Tools

Use the right tool for the job.  Any task you spend a lot of manual time on can be improved – it doesn’t matter if its emails, expense claims or documentation.  Any time I find myself ‘wasting’ time by inputting data twice, or adding up manually, I know there is a better way.  I am constantly on the lookout for tasks that can be improved on and the tools to fix them. This mindset really does help you work smarter.  If you can get a whole team working thinking this way, over the course of a year you can make significant improvements in how you work – and see positive gains in culture as people feel less frustrated wasting time on boring manual tasks.

Slack (or other chat) is frequently a faster way of communicating with team members than email.  Software like Trello, MS Planner or Monday can help you manage your projects, delegate and assign tasks and never forget to do anything ever again!  Is Revit the right tool for the stage you are in?  Do you need to add Dynmo or another free or paid addin to help push Revit in the right direction?  Or do you need to get back to basics and sketch – but could sketching digitally on an iPad make this process faster and more efficient as well as provide consistency?

Your software is just one set of tools though, there are many other tools that can help you with productivity in different ways.  One I like is a music subscription designed to help you focus – Focus at Will. 

For others, trying different ways, places and times of working can make a big difference – if you have the opportunity, then figure out what works for you.  I know some of my colleagues (and much of the world) were surprised at how productive they became working from home during lockdowns!

Processes and checklists

Processes and in particular use of templates can really help you to streamline your time.  The more people or times you are doing a task, the more important templates become.  Templates can range from wording in an email that can be copy and pasted, a standard Trello board, through to your Revit or Indesign software templates.  A template for these kinds of programs is much more than just the graphic look.  Templates also should build on automation, from automating text that is repeated, to page numbering, use of styles and consistency of information.  It surprises me how poorly understood templates are within architecture practices.  Building templates takes time but if done well should pay off quickly and immediately by improving both the time it takes to do something and the quality of the outcome.

Checklists help free up our brains so we can focus on the important and creative tasks.  They also help create a process for ensuring quality of documentation, proposals or anything else you are issuing.

Process is also about how you manage your own time.  Blocking out and committing to time for strategic tasks (whatever than might mean in your role from building templates to business development strategies to one on one meetings with your team members).  Most of us actually know the things we should be doing to take our career, business or project to the next level – we just don’t actually make the time for it.

For me one of the most effective process tips I’ve ever found was around managing emails and keeping a clean inbox – when you open the email, make a decision immediately what to do with it – delete it, file it, move it to your action list (for me that’s Trello) or move it to a folder to be actioned later (I call it _To Do so it sits at the top of my folder lists) – or even better delegate it to someone else.  It doesn’t matter if I’m on my PC or my phone – this is what I do with my emails.  I remember once some colleagues looked at my email when I was out one day and thought it was broken – because my inbox was empty!  You do need to ensure you check and action the to do folder every day you are working for this to succeed.  This won’t work for everyone – find what processes work for you to manage however it is you work.

Sleep and Exercise

When you are tired you don’t perform at your peak, you make more mistakes and things take longer.  You probably also feel like you have even less time (and this is my explanation for over a year of no blogging!)  I have noticed that regular good quality sleep and setting aside the time for exercise makes a huge difference to how productive and creative I am during the day.  If you continue to push yourself to work hard or spend hours awake at night stressing, you will never be able to work smarter.  Having spent the last year dealing with sleep issues in my family, I really recommend taking action – see a doctor, a psychologist, try acupuncture, meditation or even simply cutting back caffeine (much as I love coffee – this is actually the first thing to start with).

Meditation

There is scientific proof that meditation changes your brain.  It can help you sleep, it can help you manage stress and anxiety and it can even help you to become more creative.  I know personally, it is one of the habits that I know I should do more of, but even if you don’t manage to meditate every day, there are still so many benefits.  One of the biggest that I have noticed in myself is the ability to be less reactive and not to take personally emails or other communications I might find stressful or frustrating.   I find this allows me to be more available without pushing up my stress levels, which helps me manage my own boundaries.  Personally I like Headspace app but there are so many different types and varieties of meditation out there, try a few different ones and see what works for you.  Commit to 10 minutes per day for 10-14 days and you will notice a difference.  Mediate regularly for a year or more, and seriously, it will change you (in a good way!)

Other People

The hardest thing to manage is the other people who you work with, but who you don’t necessarily have influence over their processes.  From clients to other consultant members to other teams within your own organisation.  While you can work your best to work smarter – not everyone around you will see the benefits.  That is where meditation and patience comes in!  (if not a change of job) However many of these techniques will also help in managing others around you. By being organised, reliable and setting your own boundaries, you will generally find most other people around you will over time respect knowing what to expect and when to expect things.

Letting go of Ego

One of the hardest and possibly least talked about aspects of not working so many hours is letting go. Letting go and taking a step back from the project or the work, but also letting go of your own ego. To successfully work part time, or likely even at different times means you have to delegate, and sometimes you have to delegate decision making, miss an important meeting or let someone else take the lead. I always try to remember no- one is indispensable – and that if I was indispensable, that would mean I couldn’t take a holiday either!

Different tools, systems and tips work for everyone. Sometimes it really is a matter of giving things a go to see what works. Team environments are a little harder, but being willing to try different ways of working and organising can benefit everyone. What are your tips for working smarter in architecture and design? Or in life generally?

Image Credits: Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

The Future of Work is a ClickBait Headline

I’m a big fan of flexible working and felt positive that the highly successful experiment of months of working from home was finally going to change the world of work. But perhaps not surprisingly, change isn’t always as easy as proving something can be done.

The evidence from any significant reputable source is pretty clear. Overall working from home has been a success. We are more productive and happier. For me, one of the major reputable sources of scale is Leesman, which has surveyed over 150,000 people working from home and reports an overall satisfaction level higher than the office. There are also some people who do still want to work from the office all the time too. Study after study reports that more workers are more satisfied and more productive working from home but, and this is important, most people still want to spend some time each week working in an office.

So I was quite surprised last month to come across this article headlined “The evidence is in: working from home is a failed experiment”. Huh? Really? At least The Guardian labelled it as an opinion piece. Just like the articles of the past that complained about the open and noise and claimed to show “evidence” of the failure of open plan, this article is going to make all the non believers feel better. The author reassures readers not to worry about being “old school” – at heart everyone else feels just like you and is just to nervous to admit it. To prove it – apparently two thirds of worker are craving time with colleagues. I would point out though “More time” doesn’t mean full time. If you actually click thru to read the referenced Microsoft study – under the first heading Flexible work is here to stay “Employees want the best of both worlds: over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. ” That’s not saying working from home is a failed experiment!!!

Even the author admits pretty quickly the headline is wrong “But this point of view is shared by more than a few clients of mine. Mostly, they fit a similar demographic: older, set in their ways, long time in business, family-owned companies. It’s obvious that most companies will need to offer work from home options in the future.” Again that fits with other research which suggests men in middle management struggle the most in seeing benefits working from home or working from home themselves. (Workplace beyond 2020 research by HASSELL, a small sample size but certainly something which is being anecdotally recognised and this gender bias could be a great topic to see more research into)

So a few grumpy middle aged men don’t want to have their staff work from home. But generally the world accepts this is going to be the future? That’s evidence of a failed experiment? This is pretty lazy journalism. Do we need to continue? But this is so much fun let’s do some fact checking on the rest of the “proof”. 

Issues of being stressed, anxious and over worked are not necessarily about working from home but more likely related to other aspects of the pandemic – working from home whilst in lockdown and homeschooling children does not compare to working from home by choice a few days a week.  This last year has not been the norm that working from home could become.  Feelings of too many meetings and too many emails existed long before the pandemic.  The idea of creating ‘meeting free’ Fridays (or any other block of time) makes sense regardless of if you work from home or from an office and if your meetings are in Zoom or in person.  This is clearly acknowledged in the article about LinkedIn giving its staff a week off to cope with burnout – its not about working from home, its about the overall stress of living thru a panedemic.  If you read through to the end of the article, LinkedIn are in fact planning a hybrid working future – with all staff able to work from home up to 50% of the time.  Again, what is the ‘failed experiment’?

As seems to be frequently the case big finance makes an appearance. JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are determined to get back to the old normal! Does anyone really want to reflect Goldman Sachs culture?  If you missed it, the company was recently in the news after some graduate employees created a powerpoint criticising ‘inhumane working conditions’ and demanding a better work culture and work life balance.  I honestly laughed out loud that the author choses this company as one you would want to aspire to.

It’s clear to me that this author doesn’t get the employee side  “there’s this illusion of more independence, flexibility and control over one’s life”.  It is only an illusion if you are working for the wrong boss.   If more people are happier and more companies are making money, I’m not quite sure why its a problem to change the status quo?  What exactly is the point of keeping the old normal of commuting to an office 5 days a week?  From the perspective this article seems to be aimed at – the small business owner – it is really a business decision you are making.  Do you want happy engaged satisfied employees who are more productive?  Do you want to be able to draw from the largest talent pools – both in terms of locations and workstyles? Or is it more important to you to have all your staff in front of you? 

If you own the business – it is still your choice.  Although it is possible, in the future it won’t be – flexibility and options to work from home could well become legal rights for workers.  But as someone who has experience part time working within cultures where its only allowed because it had to be – if I was looking for a forward thinking flexible culture, I know I wouldn’t be choosing the company who were working more flexibly because they had to but the one who valued it.

According to the author of this article, study after study proves it all – it seems Leesman with its database of  over 150,000 responses must have got it wrong.  Instead lets rely on a survey of 2000 Americans, which again proves that working thru home in isolation during a pandemic is stressful, not that remote working is a failed experiment.  The other study refers to data from a 2017 study, which also isn’t a true reflection of what the future could hold.  Before the pandemic, working from home was not normalised in the way it is now.  Whilst some companies worked that way, it was the exception rather than the rule and those working remotely were isolated from those physically present.  The idea that we could achieve an equality of experience between the two and create a truly hybrid working culture was certainly not mainstream.

Whilst in many countries, remote working is still a requirement, here in Australia (and hopefully soon many more able to follow) it’s optional – offices have been gradually opening up again over some months and the “new normal” is now here.  This  kind of headline attracts the people who fit this demographic “older and set in their ways” –  who might be feeling  a bit defensive right now.  I’m really interested to try and understand these opinions.  I think its important to recognise that there are 2 groups here – some are employers and some are employees. The way I see it, for employees, this new normal  becomes another factor to take into account when choosing a new job, or if we stay in the old one.  For some people flexibility and the choice to work from home will be important, and for others it won’t be.

For employers, who are running the company, you can make your own choice so why is this discussion seeming to be such a defensive one? Perhaps again, it is not so much about the realities of working from home and remote teams, but about the stress of running a business during a pandemic and anxiety over lack of control and a lack of knowledge of just how to manage this new world of work. It is also true that many of the studies are focused on the outcome for employees and small businesses are less likely to have been as aware of research and understanding of employee satisfaction and engagement and also want to see the evidence of how this new way of working relates to their industry and their business. This research from Bastion Insights and Pitcher and Partners (although a small Australian sample size) is a really great starting point for comparing and understanding the viewpoints of employers as well as employees.

Finally, lets talk about innovation. The author claims “The model has proven to create more disruption, less productivity and diminished innovation.”  The one point I won’t dispute is the potential impacts of working from home on long term innovation.  However again, we have to consider than extended lock downs with no face to face contact, doesn’t reflect the more realistic new normal of hybrid working where teams connect in person on a more regular basis.  At this point, we don’t really have the data to know what the long term impacts on innovation might be – however I notice that most of the companies which had all / heavily remote cultures pre pandemic were tech companies – so maybe this is all the proof you need…

But either way I’d question if a company run by someone who proudly claimed to be “old school” was innovating anyway.

The biggest point is – it’s not either work from home or work from the office – the benefits are going to come from being able to offer a mix of both. And if you are an employer and you don’t think it works, you don’t have to do it – but maybe it is worth researching a little bit more widely and setting up your own experiment of hybrid – and you can see what might be possible. There is certainly plenty to read out there!

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I know I haven’t mentioned learning by osmosis – I think that could be the topic of a whole blog itself!

Image: Windows on Unsplash

The Future of the Built Environment: Population Pandemic Climate

We are currently facing two forces that promise to fundamentally change the nature of our world and our industry: 

1. Changing demographics and population growth – as we face a future with ever more crowded urban populations, what must we do to cater to their needs and ensure that the Built Environment provides quality of life, freedom and choice? What implications are there for the way in which we work given the need to increase our production drastically, with a declining workforce?
2. A global pandemic reshaping the way in which we work – as remote working looks to perhaps become our ‘new normal’ what will this mean for an industry still centred around a manual labour model and struggling to increase collaboration and coordination? How do we manage this at a time when we are being forced to increase separation and isolation?

There is no doubt that fundamental change is upon us, our industry and the greater world community; but HOW will the built environment change, and how must our industry change to reflect this?

After a 2 year break from blogging – let’s not start back on a small insignificant topic! Last November I was asked to speak on a webinar for Singapore Polytechnic and the Digital Built Environment Institute on the above topic. From my perspective as an Australian, it seemed to me there was a third piece also critical to this discussion – climate change. So my talk addresses this as a third major driver of change. tI was invited to join two other speakers Randy Deutsch and Josh DeStefano to discuss this topic, and I was specifically addressing Interior Design (it was a little intimidating to be speaking alongside Randy, whose books I own!)

To me these three drivers of change are interlinked and have significant impacts on the world in general and on construction and buildings – as both a major part of our economic activity and a major contributor to environmental change. Our whole global economic system is dependent upon population growth. Countries like Japan have economically stagnated because of a lack of population growth, and countries like Australia could follow with the pandemic set to reduce immigration and population growth in coming years. At the same time, COVID 19 was caused by the twin factors of population growth and climate change which is causing increasing contact between humans and wild animals likely to lead to more increasing frequency of virus transfer between animals and humans. Unlike population growth and climate change which have so far been measured in years not days and months, the pandemic has an urgency. Like climate change and population growth, the end of the pandemic has to be a global solution. Unlike climate change and population growth, we see the short term impacts immediately but don’t yet know the longer term impacts on individuals and society. All three of these issues will form the background to future directions in our industry over coming years.

My approach to this topic was to address 10 trends in interior design, which to quote Sir Norman Foster “Instead of change, it [covid] has merely hastened, accelerated trends of change that were already apparent before the pandemic”

1. Flexibility

Flexibility has been a growing topic in workplace for many years (and a personal favourite to write about), however in 2020 when lockdowns instituted an immense global WFH experiment combined with no childcare, flexibility took on a whole new scale of meaning.

Flexibility encompasses place, time and space and all of these became factors for many people during the pandemic. Work from home, work when the kids are asleep or on the weekends, work from the bedroom or the kitchen table. All of these things were and are continuing to happen. Some are positive, and allow people choice as to where and when to work and others were forced upon people due to the unique circumstances of not being allowed to leave the house.

We can expect to see flexible work options remain, becoming more mainstream in the new hybrid workplace of the future. Design of homes might be more flexible to allow for spaces to change from study to guest room or dining space. Design of workplaces is also likely to see a need for more flexibility to accommodate less desks and more variety of collaboration spaces.

Time forms the biggest challenge for flexibility, and needs flexibility of mindset. From flexible start and finish times, many teams and organisations have moved beyond the idea of core hours to any hours – the idea of asynchronous working where people can work together, even if they don’t have work at the same time. (All remote tech company Gitlab being one of the best documented examples)

These changes towards a more flexible workplace will also have a positive impact on urbanisation and climate change. Choices for remote working or hybrid working will give people more choice of where to live and reduce the amount of time spent on unnecessary commuting or business travel.

2. Global vs Local

Interior design (and architecture) have become more and more homogensied globally as international communication and global trade gets easier and easier. Frequently you can’t tell which region of the world an image of an office comes from – particularly if the image is of a social space rather than a desk.

COVID has us questioning the global nature of the world, from travel to exports and imports the gloabalised nature of today’s world has made it easier for the virus to spread, and frequently created significant disruption when borders are closed or the amount of freight is restricted. To rely more upon locally produced goods for food or building mitigates these supply chain issues as well as the impacts on the environment that come with transporting so much stuff around the world every day.

Spending more times in our homes and local areas, rather than driving or flying around the city or the world has also made many of us see our own local area differently. Perhaps we realised we loved where we lived, or for many realised we actually didn’t like it all and wanted to be closer to nature, the beach or family. Once freed from the daily grind of commuting to the CBD, many took the opportunity to move out of cities to regional areas which here in Australia has caused a housing price boom in larger regional centres and coastal towns. Over time, this could very well mean a reduction in the urban city population, and more of a balanced choice between living in an urban centre of choosing a regional lifestyle. This is a trend that was already beginning as technology and wi-fi become more readily available, but the work from anywhere opportunity created by the pandemic has enabled more people to make this choice.

3. Blending

This is one of my personal favourties. Offices that start to like like homes or bars, and homes start to incorporate office spaces. The trend towards more domestic or hospitality style workplace design has been growing over a number of years, and was perhaps reaching its peak just in the months before COVID – I saw a large number of workplace fitouts featuring beds!!! (Casper is a mattress company – but was only one of a number I saw. Google has long been famous for its nap pods)

One of the most extreme examples of this was a solution to the COVID lockdown. These 9m2 pods encompass a work area, bed and small sink/kitchen space. Apparently you could sit out the lockdown in one of these bizzare new alternatives to co-working. Not sure where you would shower or how bad your home setup would have to be for you do want to do this…

I think it is unlikely that such extremities will be a feature of post COVID design – why sleep at work when you can work at home and sleep in your own (clean) bed. What I do think we will see is more comfortable office spaces, less a sea of workstations and more spaces that are designed for connecting with other people from breakout areas and lounges to collaborative meeting spaces. COVID has also meant many of us have become less formal, so I think we will see a dominance of more informal spaces for a mix of face to face and video collaboration rather than formal presentation / meeting rooms. Softer more residential style furniture and styling will make offices more welcoming to staff and visitors alike.

4. Wellness

In 2019 I think its fair to say that THE hot topic in workplace design was wellness. From end of trip studios and yoga classes, WELL buildings (this is an old post but is my own summary of WELL) and plants, corporate psychology and sleep programs, improving the physical health of people within the workplace environment has been a topic of growing importance for a number of years now. The pandemic has brought additional layers to what we might start to consider in the area of wellness. From physical distancing, to touchfree environments, anti microbial surfaces and increased air flow in buildings – again some of these, such as touch free design and increased airflow were already in evidence before the pandemic and will probably continue to grow in popularity as they offer benefits beyond the pandemic. Sneeze guards – maybe not so much in the workplace (although I can see the value in retail).

5. Co-working / living

Prior to the pandemic both co-working and co-living were fast growing sectors, with much initial doubt over if there would be a future appetite to share space with strangers after the pandemic. Whilst the future of co-living remains somewhat unclear, co-working has weathered the worst of the lockdowns and is in many places again booming. Whilst many people think of co-working has open plan hotdesking, for many co-working spaces this has never in fact been the reality. Many co-working spaces consist of smaller suites for individual companies, with shared breakout, meeting and support spaces and in reality these spaces are really no different from a large office building where you might share lifts, coffee shops and toilets with other people – either co-workers or other tenants. The really big benefit of co-working for businesses has been the ability to pay only for the space you need, and the flexibility of not being signed up to a 5 or 10 year lease. Co-working is also being seen as an alternative for individuals who can’t work from home but don’t want to travel into the head office, or indeed for some companies the alternative to even having an office with desks. Dropbox is moving to a 100% collaborative ‘studio’ workplace and will fund co-working as a corporate perk for employees who wish to work from an office.

6. Consumer Tech

Ever since the introduction of the smart phone, our home IT capabilities have frequently been exceeding what we are provided with at work. Whilst most people are frequently used to using multiple apps on their phone and frequently upgrading their devices for personal use, the same adaptability and attitude hasn’t always been seen in the workplace. However as technology becomes smaller and more portable and work has become less formal, these two worlds are starting to merge. Ten years ago it would have been very weird to receive a text message from a client, now its totally normal as is the use of chat groups such as Slack and Teams – and not just for work chatter, but for actually getting things done. Video conferencing has existed for years, but lockdowns have suddenly made it the norm rather than an exception and have also encouraged the software developers to put more resources into developing new features. Technology still struggles to replicate face to face but as development continues, we are likely to see more business applications for virtual and augmented reality (which again are probably more widely used in gaming than business today). Some companies such as PwC are already outfitting staff working from home with virtual reality headsets to enable more immersive collaborative meeting experiences. (I can’t believe I could be calling a meeting an experience…but in this application it seems to make sense!)

7. Smart Buildings

Another area of technology which has been in existence and growing for some years is the idea of technology enabled smart buildings. Automation of elements of buildings from sensors for lights and air conditioning to destination control for lifts (where you chose your destination from a lobby control panel not in the lift itself) are all fairly standard features of new or refurbished city buildings. The integration of these systems to allow for automated environmental controls and / or mobile apps for individual user control really takes them to the level of a smart building. A smart building can create a seamless user experience of navigating a building from entry via a touch free app through to ordering coffee to your meeting room which is preset to your audio visual, lighting and air conditioning requirements. These kinds of systems can also play a part in the pandemic, facilitating touch free movement and building operations and allowing for contract tracing. The collection of data from building occupancy could in future also allow for much more significant design simulations than is currently available.

8. Automation

Automation is the first and simplest step to implementing new technologies in design practice as well as buildings. Even autoCAD can be considered as some level of automation. But now for most practices we are already well beyond this. From tools that general sheets or building levels automatically to add in that upload your drawings and models to aconex while you sleep, many designers are now relying upon automation to undertake routine daily tasks. These tools are frequently based upon simple algorithms and many graduates are now capable of various kinds of visual coding.

The potential of automation for design is growing quickly. WeWork were a key early adopter of technology for interior design and the workplace, and developed an algorithm for automatically laying out desks within an office space a few years ago – this type of automation is now readily available within architectural design software.

9. Machine Learning

WeWork have also been a leader in the use of technology to understand how their workplaces are performing, to analyse improvements and then predict their spatial requirements. Beginning with using apps to gather data on meeting room usage, the research team were able to feed the information on booking frequency, room size, and audio visual technology to teach a neural network. The neural network learns to associate different layouts with frequency of booking, and over time was better able to better predict the actual usage of meeting rooms than the human designers.

This kind of process could allow us to better understand and validate many of our design assumptions and better anticipate the needs of building users. Simulations and machine learning can also help us design buildings to control airflow and spread of viruses. Across many kinds of commercial design from hospitals to hotels, retail and workplace – the future of machine learning has the potential to influence how we plan and design our buildings for better use of space, and could potentially allow us to reduce the amount of space we need to occupy add therefore build.

10. Artificial Intelligence

In some way the last three trends form a grouping of the direction technology is advancing. Automation and machine learning are required before we can get to artificial intelligence. While AI is already making an appearance in many industries (a chatbot is a basic AI), many people, particularly designers, would like to think that an AI will never be able to design – that creativity is a purely human attribute.

Whilst AI in creative industry has a long way to go – one of my favourite examples being the AI paint colour names from Stummy Beige to Stanky Bean – there are already examples of AI artists, fashion designers and more. It won’t be long before we start to see more examples of AI in interior design, although the likelihood is that humans will continue to work alongside the AI for some time to come.

If design and construction leverage these trends, what could our industry look like by 2030?

Thanks to the Digital Built Environment Institute and Singapore Polytechnic for inviting me to join them and share my ideas on this thought provoking topic – up until this invitation I’d been deliberately avoiding joining the pandemic speculations!  Early in 2020 it seemed too soon to understand what the impacts might be, now I’m looking forward to exploring the ideas and topics that have exploded in the world of work over the last year.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image: Photo by Stanley Li on Unsplash

New Posts Coming Soon

It’s been a long time between lunches! Between a hyperactive preschooler, COVID lockdowns and a website rebuild, I haven’t had much opportunity to write for a long time. I’m very excited to have been working on some new content in the last couple of months, which I look forward to bringing you soon!

WORKTECH Sydney Coming Up

I’ll be at WORKTECH19 Sydney on Thursday 21 February – will I see you there?

From time to time, there are certain perks to being a blogger – one of which is the chance to convince people that you do know something about what you do, and you’d be a great person to help them out promoting your event.  While I do this on a regular basis for BILT (which actually probably involves more hard work than perks), occasionally other opportunities arise such as being a Social Media Ambassador for WORKTECH. 

I’ve been attending WORKTECH for a number of years (maybe since they first started their event in Australia actually) and this is the second year I’ll be there tweeting away in my capacity of social media ambassador.

Personally I’m really looking forwards to Dr Nelly Ben Hayoun as a speaker you wouldn’t get to see here in Australia often who is doing some really interesting work at the intersection of design, technology (and everything else really).  Hopefully I’ll have some great inspiration for some new blog posts too.

Here is a link to the full programme, sessions include:

  • BCG Create An Office Of The Future In Hudson Yards, New York | Ross Love, Senior Advisor, Office of the Chairman at Minderoo; Ex- Managing Partner for Boston Consulting Group New York
  • Super-Experience Designing For Talent In The Digital Workplace | WORKTECH Academy & Mirvac
  • The Art and Science of Murmuration: Burning Man’s Culture of Cooperative Leadership | Stuart Mangrum, Education Director, Burning Man Project
  • B:Hive – New Zealand’s Largest And Smartest Co-Working Space | James Grose, CEO, BVN; Greg Smales, Director, Smales Farm
  • Gen Z Workplace | Natalie Slessor, General Manager, Workplace & Change, Lendlease
  • What Is This Tsunami Of Data Arriving From My Buildings Telling Me About How To Save Money?! | John MacLeod, Internet of Things Specialist, IBM
  • A MONSTER AT WORK | Dr. Nelly Ben Hayoun, Designer of Extreme Experiences, NBH Studios | Sponsored by Mirvac
  • Crossing The Threshold – The Sustainable Digitalisation Of Work And Real Estate | Simon Carter, Director, Morphosis | RICS & Morphosis
  • The Sentient Workplace | Philip Ross, Futurologist & CEO, Cordless Group & UNWORK
  • Designing for Fashion David Jones & Country Road Group – Case Study | Heidi Smith, Partner, Gray Puksand

If you are interested in future of workplace, people, culture and technology – then this is a great event to attend. Here is the link to register to WORKTECH Lounge Wednesday 20th February & WORKTECH Conference Thursday 21st February.  I hope to catch up with you there!

If you are interested in the event but not based in Australia, check out Unwired’s website as they hold similar events all over the world.

Ceilidh Higgins

Mental health and the road to leadership

Do we have to accept that “long hours are just part of the job”? Is it possible to succeed in architecture and design without working excessive overtime?

For the first time in Australia, a top law firm has recently been reported to Worksafe for overworking employees, “A source said KWM graduates were subjected to grueling conditions, with some employees choosing to sleep at the firm’s Melbourne office rather than return home. Day and night shifts were allocated so work could continue around the clock.” This probably sounds familiar to a lot of architects and designers – except we might be thinking “They got to sleep though?” and “so if there were shifts…that means individuals were not working round the clock”.  Whilst law is renowned for its long hours, architecture is frequently worse – and far more poorly paid.  Even if we haven’t worked all night lately ourselves, we all know practices where it is common place.  It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this case and what impact it might have on architecture as well as law.  There is no doubt that the long hours culture of architecture takes its toll on many individuals in different ways.

Around the same time as I came across this article, I attended two separate events on the same day – Sustainability Live and a WIDAC networking event.  Through a session “Mental Health in the Building Industry” the topic of the long hours culture of architecture was part of the discussion.  Mental health is an issue that the NSW Architects Registration Board is currently focusing on – and Registrar Tim Horton was part of the panel.  The NSW ARB is concerned about the mental health of architects and commissioning further research to learn more about this important topic.  However it does seem that their focus is on the risk of sole practitioners suffering mental health issues and the resultant risk to the public, than necessarily on the impacts of those working within practice and subject to long hours and bullying cultures.  We have to remember that the job of the Boards is primarily consumer protection rather than protection of the architects – that’s where the AIA and ACA need to be involved.

Personally I do believe that part of the prevalence of sole practitioners and small practices is due to the desire of many mid career architects to escape the hours and bullying and to gain control over their own lives, and not just their own designs.  But the problem we have is that often the long hours have been so well trained into us, and  then you add the pressure of small business, and many architects still can’t get away.  I’m not sure if its funny or scary that some of the young architects I spoke to after the session (and since) had thought the previous session on “Modern Slavery” was going to be about Australian architectural practices and their working cultures…

That evening I attended my first WIDAC (Women in Design and Construction) event – and I was very impressed.  Outstanding speakers and well organised – I’ve already joined! The topic for the evening was “The Road to Leadership” and there were three speakers, an architectural director, a partner in a law firm and a HR executive (the selection of which somewhat seems to match the topics of this post!) Alex Wessling, Sara Haslinger LLB MPP and Kate Evans shared their fantastic and individual stories of their own roads to leadership.  One of the things that all three had in common, and I think probably underpins many successful people, but perhaps even more particularly women, is that while working long hours can sometime seem to contribute to success, working long hours usually lead to problems in your life (be they mental, physical or both) and that ultimately this is not a sustainable path to continue along. The other common lesson is that the path to leadership is windy even if at an outside glance it might not always seem to be so.

My own story also has these threads in common. Initial career success stalled with the combination of a slowdown (GFC) and a psychopathic boss. Years of overwork – sometimes due to deadlines and those around me, and sometimes due to the pressure I placed on myself – combined with the pressure of workplace bullying eventually lead to repetitive strain injury and chronic pain.   Physio, personal trainers, acupuncture, feldenkrais and a dozen different medical specialists and surgery didn’t solve it – for the first few years it got worse.  Starting with my left shoulder, then my right arm, both wrists, my neck, both hands.  Imagine the fear of not being able to use your hands.  To the point where I almost couldn’t work at all.  Then in the middle of all of that I was made redundant from the job that caused it.  All of this defines my story from this point on.  Almost 10 years later, I still have chronic pain in my neck but I am much recovered and can now manage and live with the pain and its impacts on my mental health.

Part of the way I have improved my health is to work part time.  People assume I work part time because I have a small child.  While this is partially true – I dropped my hours to part time after she was born – I’ve found its really helped my health, and I know I certainly can’t work more than 40 hours a week.  I can’t take a job in a practice that might expect me to work excessive overtime.  My symptoms would flare up and it’s just not worth it.  This is one reason why I am passionate about hours and working culture – I don’t want to see more people face these kinds of problems – and the more time we spend crunching over computers the more common it is becoming.  Already almost every architect and designer I know has some kind of neck, back, shoulder or arm pain that flares up from time to time.

At the same time, I have been determined not to let my injuries or my working hours define my role or opportunities within design practice.  Whilst it has meant that I am careful about choosing where and with whom I work (unfortunately for me not always clear at the interview stage), my commitment to my own work life balance or integration has had a positive side effect.  Bullies usually also seem to inhabit the long hours cultures in higher proportions…coincidence?

Now I am lucky enough to work at Custance Associates, a boutique practice where I have a senior client facing role and input to the practice direction, with directors who are supportive and who actually care about the staff who work for them – a team who are a friendly and incredibly talented bunch.  I work flexibly from Tuesday to Friday working at 70% of full time, with some of that time being from home.  Occasionally I work some extra hours to meet deadlines, but its pretty rare.  Nor do my team work overtime regularly.  I have time for my blog, being a part of the BILT ANZ committee, to exercise (which is actually essential for my pain), occasionally to meditate and always to spend with my family.  I am happy.  I think this is something we sometimes forget is even possible in our industry.

So many people I know have continued working in unhealthy environments on the premise that everywhere else is the same.  Maybe a lot of practices are – but not everywhere.  Take the time to define what you want and expect – and then demand that – and if where you are can’t provide it, you can probably find somewhere else that can.  Maybe not so quickly and easily as just any job, but I believe for most of us, it is possible.  If more staff expect that a reasonable work life balance and working hours is possible, and that bullying is unacceptable, then companies will be forced to change – both in architecture and law.  Do you want things to change? Do you believe cultural change is possible? Will you be part of the problem or part of the solution?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image via unsplash

The Midnight Lunch: My Favourite Blogs 2018

 Do you still read blogs or has instagram taken over all your free time?

Back in 2013 not long after I started this blog, I wrote a post on my favourite blogs.  It was pretty popular at the time, but when I went back and looked at it recently I realised it was pretty out of date – a lot of blogs don’t last 5 years.  Also in the meantime, insta has taken over as many designers first stop for inspiration.  Whilst there are great visuals out there on insta, I’m still a fan of blogs, I want to read the story behind the design and also read about other aspects of design –  the psychology, the business and the ideas.

So I thought it was time to update my list.  Many I still subscribe too via the old fashioned way of email while others are sites I just pop into from time to time.  Right now my problem is trying to make sure I don’t subscribe to more than I actually have time to look at. I never did find a replacement for google reader! (Any ideas?)

Yellowtrace
http://www.yellowtrace.com.au/
Yellowtrace remains one of my all time favourite blogs for interior design.  You get both the insta worthy images as well as the stories and interviews behind the scenes.  You also now get extensive coverage of Milan Design Week.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of design or architecture is your thing, yellowtrace covers everything beautiful from furniture to retail and hospo, workplace and residential.  Dana has worked really hard over years to make this an amazing daily dose of design all year round.  What more do you need?

Workplace Insight
http://workplaceinsight.net/
This site sits alongside yellowtrace as my favourite.  Completely different type of articles – the focus is articles on workplace design and psychology, real estate, facilities management and culture (as well as some UK real estate news) with a wide range of contributors.  Not just aimed at designers but a site for anyone managing or part of designing workspaces.  I was honoured this year when I was commissioned to write an article “I’m a designer and I job share with an AI” . As well as this site, the same editors are responsible for Work & Place, an excellent journal – well written and and researched for a similar audience.

Office Snapshots
http://officesnapshots.com
Office snapshots is a staple site for anyone working in corporate interiors – and now moving into healthcare and education too.  Get a weekly dose of new workplaces straight to your inbox, and then visit the site to search for thousands and thousands of images using a variety of product or feature search terms.  While you do get the story behind the design – the quality of the words is not always so good as the photos and can be very descriptive rather than telling the story of the design.

Dezeen
http://www.dezeen.com/
If you are into architecture and interiors then Dezeen covers all sectors.  With daily stories covering products, architecture and interiors arriving straight to your inbox you can keep track of all the big international projects, competitions and controversies, but also check out some little known designers and their work.  Its not just images either, usually there is  intelligent reporting- and an often humorous summary of the weekly reader comments.

FastCompany
https://www.fastcompany.com/
I do notice a bit of cross over between FastCompany and Dezeen.  FastCompany is more focused towards design generally – graphic and website design, product design and technology design. Again, a daily is of stories, I always find at least one that intrigues me enough to click through.

Workplace Unlimited
http://workplaceunlimited.blogspot.com.au/
Nigel Oseland’s blog is another long stayer.  Nigel is an Environmental Psychologist and Workplace Strategy Consultant.  It’s a blog I often stumble across new posts via social media. There is now the option to subscribe via email so hopefully now I’ll be reading more often!

Surviving the Design Studio
https://peterraisbeck.com/
Covering a wide range of topics from surviving the design studio, through to the Vencie architecture biennale, bias and competition in architecture, fees, design and  technology, I enjoy Peter’s style, sense of humour and wide variety of topics. This is probably one for anyone who is anti establishment architecture and it’s culture.

Workplace Design Magazine
http://workspacedesignmagazine.com/
An interior design magazine, as you can tell from the name focused on the workplace. Ideas, projects, products. This one is American and while it covers similar topics to Workplace Insight, I don’t seem to find as much captures my interest. I do like the around the web section for links to a wide range of other articles and sites.

ArchSmarter
https://archsmarter.com/
Once a week, Michael Kilkelly shares five topics that have interested him that week as well as his own writing and courses.  Starting with BIM, technology, automation but you could also find time management, architectural sketching and anything else that catches Michael’s interest.  (rather like this blog!)  Although there is plenty of content on the website, I think you only get the links if you subscribe to the emails.

Life of an Architect
http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/
An American architect named Bob, blogs on all sorts of aspects of practicing as and just being an architect. Great writing and great sense of humour. Life of an Architect has now been going for a long time and I still pop in from time to time.

Parlour
http://archiparlour.org/
Parlour is another website that I both write for and visit from time to time.  Parlour’s focus is gender equity in architecture, but they publish a wide range of articles that effect this topic, from leadership and mentoring style articles, interviews with female architects, the impacts of gender and diversity on design outcomes to flexibility and fair work practices.

Since I first wrote this post I’ve also found I read more and more business focused blogs.

EntreArchitect and The Business of Architecture
https://entrearchitect.com/
https://www.businessofarchitecture.com/
In my mind these two blogs always go together.  They cover a lot of similar materials and are both blogs and podcasts aimed at small firm practitioners.  Covering topics from finances, making a profit, to proposals and marketing, hiring staff and managing a team – everything you need to know about running a practice that’s not the architecture part.

McKinsey
https://www.mckinsey.com/au/our-insights
If you are more interested in what’s impacting companies at the other end of the scale (be that your own or your clients), McKinsey is THE place to go.  Backed by reputable global research, you can learn about strategy, technology, HR, change and more.  With different format articles, spend just 5 minutes or 50 minutes to learn more about topics affecting business today.

ACA – Association of Consulting Architects
https://aca.org.au/
The ACA focuses on being the place to lead the discussion of business of architecture rather than talking all about design.  Another site I sometimes write for – you will find a mix of articles on fees, employment, HR issues, legislation and other matters affecting Australian architectural practice.

Futurism
https://futurism.com/
On a totally different note from pretty much everything else I subscribe to is Futurism.  Want to know about future society, cutting edge medical research, blockchain, the latest robots and anything Elon Musk is up to? This is the place for a very wide range of short articles that can be your starting point to learn more about where in the world we are headed.

I do also pop into many Revit blogs, but for me this tends to be on as as needs basis to search for help rather than regularly reading any particular blogs.  What are your favorites? Perhaps some of you can help out with more suggestions – although I will then need to find more blog reading time…maybe after I finish my architectural registration interview!

Inside Out – Implementing Revit for Interior Design Teams

What is preventing interior designers from taking up Revit? We can’t just keep blaming a lack of content. Maybe we don’t need BIM but why should we use Revit for interior design? And why are interior designers so special anyway? At this year’s BILT ANZ event in Brisbane I presented a class aimed at teaching Interior Designers & BIM Managers how to transition or improve their interior design teams use of Revit.

Over the years that I have been using Revit and attending BILT and other technology and BIM events, I have frequently had conversations with BIM Managers or BIM savy interior designers about how their teams are really struggling to implement Revit for the interior design projects – even in large practices where the architecture team might be quite successfully utilizing Revit and BIM on many projects.  This has surprised me, because I’ve always found so many advantages in using Revit and across the last 5 years have been involved in a number of practice implementations training many interior designers.  So why is it that so many teams are struggling?

So how do you turn your Revit Inside Out (or should that be Outside In?)!Interior design teams have different needs to architects, your architecture template and library might need some work and the Revit essentials 2 or 3 day training courses don’t meet our needs. This class aimed at learning to understand the needs of interior design teams first , both from a technical and a change management perspective. Only once the interior design teams needs and reasons for using BIM have been considered, to then develop suitable content and a training program.

This class drew on my 20 years of experience as a lead interior designer managing projects from very small to very large, including commercial / workplace, education, multi residential and hospitality – for over 10 years working exclusively in Revit and working with 5 different practices to implement or improve their Revit from the Inside Out.  Its a class I have had developing in my head for some years now and drew upon previous popular posts on this blog, Do Revit and Interior Design go together? and Revit for Interiors – Its not perfect.  The content of this class is not advanced or complex.  And that is exactly the point.  You don’t have to have a team of Revit super gurus in order to use Revit for interior design.  What you need to do is understand what your team actually need to produce and focus upon the tools that are going to give them the most bang for their buck, the easy efficiencies – or as I call them quick wins.

You can check out my slide deck below.  Following the introduction, the class is based upon the 3 headings – People, Content & Training.  You can get a pretty good idea based upon the slide headings and my previous posts, but do feel free to get in touch via comments, LinkedIn or Twitter if you want to know more on any particular topic.

I believe the reason why many people are struggling with implementing Revit for Interior Design is too much focus on the availability of just the right furniture, 3D modelling and materials – which are great, necessary and useful – but are not the best place for beginners to start and can suck up a lot of design time and money.  Basic tools like keynotes, filters and furniture schedules can help super power you interior design Revit use and give teams an understanding of families and parameters before trying to create beautiful and amazing 3D models of every custom design.

Revit does ‘work’ for interiors.  Don’t get caught up with content and materials.  Think about the process first.  Consider the people, content and training and with the right support your interiors team can be just as advanced at BIM and Revit as your architecture team.

Thanks to everyone who attended my class, asked questions and came up to chat about it afterwards.  It’s always interesting to share some knowledge as well as hearing about other ways people are tackling the same problems.

Ceilidh Higgins

Images via unsplash.

Is regulation the answer to fee MADness?

Is reintroducing fee scales and further regulation the solution to fee slashing and ‘the race for the bottom’ among architects?  Is this really feasible in a world of increasing globalisation and diversification of service providers?  If not, what other options are there?

Recently I read this article by Shaun Carter, immediate past president of the NSW Chapter of the Institute of Architects and a principal architect at Carter Williamson Architects.  Its really great to see Shaun speaking out on the issues of fees – and what he describes as the ‘existential crisis’ of fee madness – the ‘mutually assured destruction’ of architecture as a profession.

Immediately after reading the article, I felt compelled to join the conversation and comment – and then realised I had the beginning of another article on fees forming in my mind.  Fees are a topic I have frequently written about over the five years I have been writing this blog (from The art(or is that science) of architecture fees to talking about fees and BIMonomics and more recently Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours), and so Shaun’s article was of great interest to me.  Essentially he proposes that the solution is regulation across three platforms – minimum fees (essentially a return to fee scales), government as a model client and limiting architecture graduates.

Is regulation, restrictive trade practices or collective bargaining the right answer? While I used to think that maybe regulation could be a solution, I wonder how does regulation in NSW (or in any other Australian state) solve a problem which is national, but also potentially global? How can you regulate at the edges of architecture – for example in fields where architects and interior designers compete? Do we really believe we can regulate if your competition is Google or Amazon? (Right now in the USA I think its the other way around…Amazon are practically setting the regulations with the offers that came in from cities determined to win Amazon 2 HQ!)  So personally I don’t think regulation, in particular fee scales is the answer.

However that doesn’t mean there is not a place for advocacy and education – both of architects and of clients. I agree with Shaun that “Clients don’t recognize that their service is cut-priced, but have the same expectations as a good, fee-paying client.”  Fees have dropped so far, that many clients including project managers, would have no idea of the real cost of the work they are bidding, only ‘market rates’.  Many clients have no idea of the amount of hours that go into designing and documenting a building or a fitout – I’ve had more than one project manager assume that my job is done after concept design “don’t you just hand it over to the engineers then?”

I’d love to see both the Board of Architects and the AIA take leading roles on the issue of cut priced fees and client education, alongside of other organisations working in the design of buildings – the ACA, the DIA, Consult Australia, Engineers Australia and more. This isn’t just an issue for architects but for all design professionals.

One of the “frequent offenders”clients guilty of this is our own government – at all levels across a wide variety of agencies and institutions. Cut throat fee bidding in government work where price is the only criteria has been a problem for years. Back in 2014 I published this piece on one architect who tried to take a stand against this practice, after uncovering one government agency who admitted they would have to accept a tender of zero if  pre-qualified firm chose to submit it.  (I also commented on this as ‘madness but without the great acronym!)

Maybe if you don’t work in the government sector, you believe that the fact these firms have been in business for long enough, with enough of a reputation and standing to be pre-qualified for government work, that they wouldn’t engage in such foolish business tactics. But when the work is low (or even often when it’s not), it’s such common practice as to be the norm. And then it’s paid for by the staff (even by the principals and directors) working long hours for free or by compromising the quality of documentation – thereby driving up construction costs and waste.  As mentioned in Shaun’s article, there is no way that low fees don’t equate to lowered quality of service. Even if a company is spending the same hours on the project – if many of those hours are unpaid overtime the quality of the work is lower. (There is so much evidence that working 50 or more hours a week compromises the quality of your work).

Shaun’s call for Government to lead the way as a model client is a fantastic idea (and while we are at it, perhaps some model client contracts from Government where risk is fairly distributed and copyright ownership retained?) I agree that if our government at all levels takes the lead in demonstrating the value of good design and the better outcomes that could be achieved, it is more likely more private companies would follow. Whilst I’ll admit, initially this is regulation, I’d perceive it more as leadership by Government, rather than purely a regulative measure.

Leadership needs education.  Everyone who designs needs to be part of educating our clients, but advocacy by the AIA or the boards around Australia could help make a difference. Not just for today’s clients, but by educating tomorrows clients to appreciate design. In Scandinavia, design education starts in primary school and an appreciation of design is a part of the culture. More recently, Australians too are coming to appreciate design, you see this in the quality of our newer cafes, restaurants and shopping centres and in our obsession with home renovation reality TV. But “clients need to understand that design excellence costs money” (and takes time). This is where the home renovation shows do professionals no favours.  Where are the shows about architects or interior designers? Other than Grand Designs, notably absent.

For too long design has been undervalued in Australia, and this is because we need real evidence to back up and underpin this education.  Evidence that will prove to everyone – clients, project managers, even builders and the architects/designers themselves that design really does add value.  To do this we need more research, research like the new RASP project, that sets out to prove the value of design through the question “Do architect designed renovations improve capital gains in the Melbourne residential property market?” Whilst this research relates purely to architects and residential design, there are so many possibilities for commercial, institutional and other sectors to benefit from similar projects. The retail sector already knows it, and has long invested in research to understand how design drives consumer behavior, and the payoff is clear and direct. In other sectors the questions and the payoff is not so straightforward. The problem is that individual clients or practices can’t afford to fund this research. At the University of Sydney around 100 workplaces have participated in the BOSSA project for post occupancy evaluations – how much more extensive would this dataset be if we have if every government workplace had a post occupancy evaluation? Again,this is another area where the Government could play a leading part. Why isn’t the CSIRO involved in this kind of research?  Improving the design of our workplaces could be a key means of improving our national productivity.

While good design does cost money, our professions need to also take responsibility for productivity and efficiency. While we might have BIM capable software, there is so much wasted human capital and time in most architecture practices. Our actual fees might be a lot lower if we invested more in technology and training. The whole of the construction industry is guilty of not investing in software, training or automation. Is this because of a lack of education at leadership level, a lack of understanding of how technology can benefit us or is it fear of change, a distrust of technology and of individually being left behind? Or are we now in a vicious cycle of low fees, with nothing to invest? Whatever the root cause, our industry will be left behind if we don’t invest in technology. I’ve written in the past about the coming wave of automation, (Will a Robot take my Job? and Is Disruptive Innovation Possible in the Construction Industry and more recently, I’m a designer and I job share with an AI) – if you didn’t know, it’s already here.  If you have not started to think about how you can automate routine parts of your practice you will be left behind. When our fees are so low already, how can we afford not to automate where practical? Why should we be calculating the space for fire stairs or toilets when a computer can do this so much more efficiently that we can.

We don’t just need to educate clients, but we also need to train young architects and designers more in business – and even more so, in innovation and entrepreneurship. Architects might not feel that traditional business and accounting is their thing – but innovative ways to develop new business could be more appealing.  Especially if we continue to train architects in such numbers – we need to train them to expect to be other things than a traditional architect, because there will not be nearly enough jobs.  Maybe we don’t need to limit the number of graduates, but to value architectural training as the background to many other avenues of design thinking.  If the next generation are nimble and accept change, and learn how to keep learning throughout their careers – maybe they will take their valuable design thinking into broader roles. I am constantly surprised at how architecture and interior design are creative professions but so many practitioners are so resistant to change (how many architecture practices do you know who have implemented activity based working…)

We can’t just expect the universities to teach business awareness though. For too long in too many practices, fees and charge out rates have been too secret – something that graduates are not expected or even often allowed to know about. Everyone at all levels should understand the fee budget and how their work contributes – just like when a client doesn’t tell us their budget, how can you expect someone to understand how their time contributes to the job cost if you never shares any information with them?

Finally, we need to think about how we charge. The world has moved on from dollars per hour. The ability to make money is no longer linked to human capital. This is the major lesson for all professions where we have historically charged by the hour. So I think we need to be thinking about value based fees, and about not fee scales. I’ve never worked in a time of fee scales, but I can’t see how fee scales in a time of globalisation and diversification are going to protect our jobs and fees. Fee scales won’t stop Amazon or WeWork from taking over the traditional roles of architects.

So what is a value based fee? The value of your work, the value of your ideas.  I’ve written in a lot more detail previously on this topic in the article Architecture and Design Fees: Why Hours.  If we start to think and talk about fees in terms of our value, and the value of our work – can we continue to justify cut throat fees in our own minds?  Aren’t we devaluing our own work that way?  Of course when clients don’t value our work and our profession doesn’t value our work – we have a problem. So thats why proving our value to others is also a key part of the solution.

I agree with Shaun – three things need to change – although my three are different:

  1. We need to value ourselves;
  2. We need to invest in the future; and
  3. Our clients and those who occupy our buildings & spaces need to value us
 Maybe I’ll add number four – we need to envision a future where being an architect or an interior  designer doesn’t always mean working in a traditional practice alongside only other architects and design professionals. Whilst Bjarke Ingels is a talented designer, BIG is a successful mutlinational firm because the CEO, Sheela Maini Søgaard comes from business not architecture. A lot of architects I know would be quite scared by that notion.

Ceilidh Higgins

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