Elle Thompson reports on the office cultures of three Part 2 architectural assistants and presses the case for the all-round benefits of open, engaged workplaces
How are you finding the work? What do you make of your team? Is there any further support you require? Such are typical review questions – from a process all too often neglected within the architectural profession. But whether you are a Part 1 experiencing your first taste of practice, a Part 2 returning to a familiar firm or you’re starting anew elsewhere, the benefits of engaging with it can be felt by the individual, the employer and the wider practice.
As a new starter fresh from contemporary architectural education and with the learning of previous practice, a Part 2 architectural assistant is particularly well placed to appraise a practice’s working culture – the atmosphere, values and behaviours embodied in it. These attributes are influential in defining a practice’s approach to the key issues facing the profession, for example working conditions and response to the climate emergency. Such matters require an open and reflective discourse, something the next generation of architects has shown familiarity with.
Last autumn, Shukri Sultan’s coverage of the union movement presented the impact that groups such as the Section of Architectural Workers, (SAW) and the Future Architects Front (FAF) are having on the culture and performance of the architectural profession. Most notable is their influence in bringing an architectural worker to the position of RIBA president-elect – Muyiwa Oki.
This provocation to challenge the profession is why I am here – a Part 2 crossing the three-month milestone in their second practice – writing about working culture. It’s also why a number of my new-starter peers were enthusiastic to share their thoughts on the matter, albeit anonymously. Perhaps at some point, thoughts on our workplace can be shared without fear of dismissal. These are individual experiences, but they do offer a certain insight.
The physically absent leadership, ambiguous mentorship and the lack of team catch-up has made for difficult working conditions
Assistant A: Large practice pitfalls
Large practices are notorious for a strong social scene. For assistant A, it has been the thriving opportunities to step away from their desk in a globally renowned practice that have been the redeeming facet of an intense working culture.
Weekly talks are sandwiched between monthly socials hosted by alternating teams, peppered with the after-work drinks that come with a central London office. ‘It feels like you need to be social to be known’,says Assistant A, reflecting on the lack of integration across teams in the typical working day. Between a flexi-work policy – employees can work from home two days a week and enjoy flexible start and finish times – and years of Covid disruption, new faces equate not to new starters but a lack of knowing ‘who is who’ in a fragmented workplace.
This is a problem for Assistant A. At their previous practice of almost 100, the new starter would shake the hand of every team member, an act that dissolved barriers across the office and set the precedent for good communication. Despite a 300-plus strong workforce, their current practice feels closer to a series of small practices which happen to share a physical space but differ greatly in management, workload and opportunities.
Most notably for Assistant A, the physically absent leadership, ambiguous mentorship and the lack of team catch-up – daily, weekly or even monthly – has made for difficult working conditions, with overtime expected at a moment’s notice, out-of-hours emails and inconsistent working patterns.
Assistant A puts this working culture down to sustained learnt behaviours of generations of senior management, leading to burnout and dissatisfaction among colleagues. It has prompted Assistant A to question the alignment of their values with the practice. ‘It takes a strong character to define workplace boundaries’ they say.
But this new starter will keep striving to assert what is possible in the working day as a means of countering a ‘chaotic’ workplace culture – with one eye on the job market all the while.
Assistant B: Challenging inherent culture
Assistant B uses the comradeship previously experienced in these pits of overworking to benchmark their current experience. As a learned behaviour from their East Asian home culture, they have long accepted toxic working conditions and the dissolution of life outside of architectural employment. After two years of UK-based student experience they have begun to challenge it, moving away from a large-scale practice following a disengaging, CAD-driven interview process, in favour of a medium-sized practice. Assistant B didn’t want to be a ‘small piece in a very big machine’.
More desirable was a practice with an imaginative approach to design, which they got. And although workplace culture was not what drove Assistant B to this current employer – the practice’s website doesn’t mention the working experience it offers – the office has a friendly and approachable professional environment in which ideas and input are acknowledged by all. These traits relate closely to Assistant B’s educational experience, which encouraged students to voice an opinion, be informed on their working rights and exercise their values. Coincidently several colleagues share this experience, all graduates from the same institution, which illuminates the link between practice working culture and what we experience as students.
It is to this inclusive type of practice that Assistant B credits their ease in settling in. Every week begins with a whole office meeting, bringing consistency and transparency, followed by CPD or invited speakers suggested by the team. Despite these more formal activities, Assistant B notes the lack of social events instigated by the practice. Fortunately, all is not lost in this lack of social investment; good working habits, including taking the full lunch break and leaving promptly at the end of the working day, have created strong social bonds across the office which thrive outside the workplace. That comradeship is born of the successes of the working environment, not its failings.
Representatives from each level of the practice meet fortnightly, bringing the directors feedback from the office floor
Assistant C: Transparency in employee ownership
Assistant C is also in a medium-sized practice, though not only as an employee but a shareholder. Employee-owned trusts (EOT) are being offered across architectural practice. For Assistant C, this model of business ownership – detailed on the company website – was part of the appeal of what they deem a ‘progressive’ working culture in which employees are seen as an investment and ‘not expendable’.
On the surface, the practice appears to be like any other; teams are arranged in bays and feature members from across the hierarchy, a tried and tested mode of spatial organisation aiding collaboration and passive mentorship. But within it strategies are interlaced, tying teams together across the office, which Assistant C believes encourages greater levels of engagement in everyday practice operations and, as a result, creates a collaborative working culture.
One strategy of particular note is the employee council. Representatives from each level of the practice meet fortnightly, bringing the directors feedback from the office floor. It is within this communication channel that Assistant C has felt comfortable suggesting changes to the working day to accommodate different cultures. Another example, the monthly whole office meetings, gives employees transparency by informing them on both projects and more sensitive information such as practice performance.
Consequently the physical office space is populated, despite offering one flexi-day a week: people want to be there. Assistant C says this is responsible for their record of having had multiple conversations with every member of the team since starting. Such conversations first followed the introduction of new starters in the weekly newsletter, sending a short profile straight to their colleagues’ in-boxes. A recent European City break aided this, and gives further evidence of the practice’s commitment to investing in both the working and employee experience.
The employee experience so far is exactly what Assistant C wanted: space to be included, inspired and influential. Since starting they have actively sought to instil a peer review culture among their fellow assistants.
Whether it be defining working boundaries, challenging inherent views, or curating new working strategies, conscious engagement with working culture can improve architectural practice more widely. The future of architecture looks optimistic and the awareness presented in these accounts is testament to that. But first, we must all accept the responsibility to look beyond the product of practice, at the cultures which permeate its production.
Elle Thompson is an architectural assistant at William Matthews Associates and Sheffield School of Architecture collaborative practice graduate