By Hannah Brown, SHRM-SCP, Brown Creative Consulting LLC
In 2020 Policy in HR was thrown, like most other things, into a reactionary mode with many architecture and interiors firms forced to figure out work from home. Most had never considered remote work as feasible. The combination of physical and mental isolation was taxing and work meetings often become our sole source of socialization leading employers to also become focused on health. Our industry pulled together to make remote work a reality, often looking to employers outside the AEC industry that already embraced remote work with policies in place to reimburse employees for expenses related to home offices and for work by an employee in another state.
As 2022 began, many firms hoped to be back in the office full time only to have new outbreaks leading to quarantine for large numbers of the staff. This push and pull led many firms to do what they do best – reflect on the problem and design a solution that works for their firm. What was unique in this, from my perspective, is the amount of polling we did among the staff to shape our solutions.
At the same time, the call for change from the Black Lives Matter and MeToo movements caused many firms to reflect and sometimes, not always, make changes to improve their support for diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEI&B) initiatives. While hybrid work and a focus on health and wellness are beginning to settle into a variety of policies, the promise of DEI&B is not a quick fix and will hopefully gain momentum in the years to come. I believe it will, because the newest members of our teams, who are accustomed to having a bigger voice in remote, hybrid, and leave policy, are going to hold those of us in leadership accountable to our promises. If not, they will move on to firms with DEI&B success stories.
Hybrid work: It’s here to stay in one form or another
On the West Coast, a common approach to work is a hybrid policy, partially in-office and partially remote. The typical recipe is 3 days in office and 2 days remote with the firm selecting the days in the office and making attendance mandatory. This has allowed more all-staff meetings, culture building, clarity on when staff will be available, and more time for learning from colleagues, who may not be part of our project teams.
Remote days force us to be clear about our communication styles and needs, which is healthy for all purposes. One small team I work with went around the virtual table to express how best to reach each person for critical or quick questions. The process repeats with every new hire. We now know who needs a phone call or a text, versus chatting on Teams. The result is far less frustration and speculation that someone is ignoring urgent questions.
The flip side of a hybrid work policy is that, in most cases, fully remote work is far less tolerated and often not accepted. During the last few years, employees scattered, especially from the San Francisco Bay and other metropolitan areas where the cost of living is high. A frequent request has been, “Can I continue to work here even though I’m in a different state and a plane flight away?”
While this worked for a time, employers are realizing that their local staff take on a disproportionate share of in-person and onsite meetings. Impromptu, creative design charrettes aren’t easily held via zoom. Fully remote employees are realizing they are assigned more production and rote work, and that out-of-sight may mean out-of-mind, leading to being passed over for promotions, plum projects, and mentorship opportunities to name a few oversights. Several of my clients have been hiring this year and before even listing the skills needed for the position, the request I hear is “I need someone local.” The exception is for highly specialized positions, such as senior technical architects, marketing and accounting staff, where remote consultants and staff may bring fresh perspectives from another part of the country.
Time off policies: A focus on wellness and longer-term support of staff
Almost every firm I work with has reviewed and implemented at least one new time off policy. Summer Fridays are being embraced more often by smaller firms, where staff work 9-hour days and then have every other Friday off. Or staff work an average of 36 hours per week and take half-days off on Fridays. Other firms opt to have a week of rest in between the winter holidays, gifting the week around Christmas and New Year as additional Paid Time Off. Some offer the opportunity to work from a distant location for a limited time period, often 2-3 weeks, so long as the team member can attend meetings and work during the same core hours.
Many long-term leave policies help support women in the office, who often take on a disproportionate share of family responsibilities and caring for others. California Family Rights Act (CFRA) debuted in 2021 and directly addresses a call for protected, paid family leave – a need identified in several publications around the missing 32% in architecture prior to 2020. In California, employees working for firms with more than 5 on staff now have 12 weeks of CFRA protected leave, 8 of which are subsidized by the state’s Paid Family Leave program. Employees may use CFRA leave to bond with a new baby, adoptee, or foster child or to care for someone who is seriously ill. Oregon has just added a Paid Family Leave program this year with similar benefits and protections, and on a national level we are seeing discussion of a Paid Family Leave program and strengthening of protections for pregnant employees. This is pushing businesses in other states and small firms to offer similar leave to compete for staff and retain staff, who have often become highly valuable by the time they start families or have aging family members who need help.
DEI&B: Acting now means change for our future
In California and other states, the push for pay equity is tangible with most firms required to publish salary ranges for open positions and all employers prevented from asking for salary history from a candidate. Larger scale planning for DEI&B initiatives must be meaningful, plugged into the heart of the firm, and looking at long term solutions. We all witnessed firms issuing a statement on DEI in summer of 2021. Belonging was just emerging as a concept, and sometimes Justice was included too.
But where is the change in the firm of 2023? Performative activism, where a firm trumpets its DEI&B mission statement or its charitable contributions without a commitment to ongoing change in its hiring, recruiting and retention falls flat and will not have legs. The programs with impact build from beginnings that have meaning to the all staff, that build engagement, and that have a commitment of ongoing time and resources from leadership.
Companies with a DEI&B mission in action are looking at ways to improve their positions in relation to a larger problem, larger audience, larger landscape. Some firms are working with high schools that serve students underrepresented in architecture to support enrichment activities in design or offer internships. Others are taking on projects, which may be pro bono or provided at a reduced fee for nonprofits that work to restore justice for underrepresented communities. Others offer Paid Time Off to staff for volunteer work. Many of these initiatives are just gaining traction. The results, particularly in working with students in high school, won’t be seen for years to come. The hope is to ignite a passion for architecture and design in our future clients and colleagues.
The industry is only now settling down from the upheaval of the pandemic and the many cultural shifts happening in society. We have more change ahead with the influence of AI and technology, climate change and the ups and downs of the economy. However, by identifying and shaping policies that bring flexibility, fairness, and diversity to our workforce, we can be better prepared to negotiate these shifts.
Resource: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Policy from ARUP
Hannah Brown, SHRM-SCP, of Brown Creative Consulting LLC built her career upon a diverse set of experiences managing and marketing architecture firms. She also taught Professional Practice in the Architecture Department at California College of Arts for nearly a decade. Unique to most consultants, Hannah holds degrees in creative fields with a MArch from UC Berkeley and a BA in Art History. Hannah is devoted to finding creative solutions to organize the operations of architecture and landscape architecture firms. Currently, her practice spans the Bay Area of California, specializing in the issues of running a practice with 4-35 people.
(Return to the cover of the November 2023 PM Digest)