Ann is a director at Shepheard Epstein Hunter, and has an overview of team welfare. As well as delivering residential and education projects Ann promotes the practice's Responsible Business Agenda.
What makes a practice a good place to work?
Working remotely has meant we’ve been missing out on the practice’s social life of chat in the kitchen, casual conversations and low-key advice and support that we’d previously taken for granted. Now we don’t have them, we’re realising how fundamental these social interactions are to knitting us together into a team.
We can’t recreate the office atmosphere completely but, since the beginning of lockdown, we’ve had a start the week meeting attended by everyone. The meetings started as a way of sharing what we’re working on, but have gradually become a forum for discussing ideas about our work as an architectural practice and a time for us to check in with everyone.
Recently we’ve been debating practice structures; a quote from Alvar Aalto provoked a wide ranging discussion on how we work.
"No organised teamwork is tolerated in my office. The basis of our work is friendly cooperation and the atmosphere is that of a family. All my collaborators are trained architects, none are mere draughtsmen; thus a practice with no organisation, but on my own responsibility, resting on common endeavour, not on discipline." Alvar Aalto Complete works Vol 1 introduction.
Strong themes that came out of the discussion were:
Family means different things to different people; relating practice management to family structures could cause confusion about how a practice is run. Families and business are different; in an ideal situation, love and support for a family member is unconditional. Can a practice offer similar love and support to its members and be a successful business?
A fair and supportive working environment (like a family) with engagement can lead to more output. If you have good relationships with the people you work with, you work harder for them and on a project so feeling cared for at work can boost productivity (and hopefully profits) (the Hawthorne effect https://www.hrkatha.com/features/the-hawthorne-effect-in-the-modern-workplace/).
Families and practices both have responsibilities. It’s hard to think a family could manage without some basic rules of behaviour and responsibilities. Practices have unconditional responsibilities for the welfare and development of their members, but members must also take responsibility for ensuring the practice is a sustainable and profitable business that can look after its members.
A hierarchical team structure can be challenging for architects, and can lead to overspecialisation which is not generally what architects are trained for. On the other hand, strong leadership can focus the design ethos and help manage the design process – without a lead the design process can be open ended and lack discipline, depth and detail. We all agreed that design by committee is bad – too many cooks can lead to bland design.
Collaboration, formally and informally, is essential now to delivering built projects as collaboration is about sharing knowledge and expertise to make better decisions. Collaboration is essential to address issues that have become more complex to deal with such as fire safety, sustainability, social aspects of architecture, and so many others.
To get the best out of a team and to make collaboration possible, good leadership, management systems and tools are needed. Particularly now, with remote working, software tools can aid collaboration. We also need low pressure chats, sketching or pinning up work to get inspiration.
Tying together the threads of family and leadership is the idea of needing clear shared goals. A practice is not like a family in that you can have some control over where you work, leading to the question of why work for one practice over another. If you share the values and goals of your practice, it’s easier to develop a supportive and loving working environment that will hopefully lead to good design, and a sustainable and profitable business that can.
We’ve been reflecting on SEH’s ethos for a while now and these discussions are helping us to articulate our values, define the practice we want to be and how we might get there from where we are now.
Image credits Left: The Aalto House studio in the 1930s Photo by Wolfgang Heine © Alvar Aalto Museum – Right: Alvar Aalto at work