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Five ways to cope with the ongoing new normal of home working

How architects and managers can face this uncertain winter

08 October 2020

This year has been unprecedented in the trials and tribulations it has put architects and practices through. The constraints put in place to slow the coronavirus pandemic have taken an emotional and in some cases a physical toll on most of us.

Kate Marks, Director of Evolution HR, has been providing guidance and advice for practices and other clients in working effectively: both from an employer’s and an employee’s perspective.

She will be giving a presentation called Learning from Lockdown - Working Well Together Remotely as part of this year’s livestreamed RIBA Guerrilla Tactics: Reinventing Practice conference on Tuesday 10 November.

Here are five areas that she urges architects and their managers to consider.

Stay safe, stay healthy

“At the start of lockdown, many of us believed it would be a short-term situation,” she points out. “But architects should remember that there are legal implications to home working.” Marks reminds us that under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers have the same legal duty of care for a homeworker’s health, safety and wellbeing as they would were they in their office. This applies to mental wellbeing too.

Marks advises practices to carry out a risk assessment, suggesting a questionnaire, and also asking employees to take a photograph of their home working environment. Anyone working at home who has ergonomic problems with their back or their wrists is doing themselves no favours by soldiering on. Marks also reminds practices to bear in mind their employer’s liability insurance, and to check what it covers.

Manage people, not projects

“Managers are frequently great at managing projects, but often not so great at managing people,” Marks suggests. As an example, she mentions an email exchange she was privy to, in which an architect submitted drawings from a project at close to midnight. The receiver responded positively to this. Marks counsels that these are warning signs, and that our reaction should be to check that our colleagues are not working around the clock.

Many people have chosen to work flexible hours, sometimes in the evenings. However, especially now schools have mostly reopened, managers should remember their pastoral responsibilities.

“The idea that working through the night is a rite of passage in architecture is something I fundamentally disagree with,” Marks complains. “However, lockdown has transformed some of the more old fashioned attitudes towards flexible working.”

Flexibility in terms of hours is increasingly seen as an expectation rather than a perk, Marks believes. The practices that are demonstrably more sympathetic towards flexibility will be the ones that talent is attracted to, she suggests.

Communication is vitally important when remote working. Make sure that you share any problems with your line manager or, if that is not appropriate, your HR department, an employee assistance programme if your practice has one, or the ARB helpline.

Checking in, not checking on

You cannot manage people if you do not know their situation, Marks believes. It is important to understand the people you are working with and appreciate that everyone is different.

“A weekly Zoom call is not enough,” she warns. “Especially if it is always a group conversation. There are always some people that talk much more than others, which can give the impression you are keeping in touch with all team members but losing touch with the quieter ones.”

She also warns managers that catching up with colleagues that they manage should not simply be about making sure they have done their work. Checking in with somebody to see how they are is very different to checking up on someone to make sure they are working. Employees should feel they are trusted.

Take a break

This applies as much to time away from your desk during the day as to taking your annual leave. Even while working you can take short, regular eye rest breaks by averting your eyes from the screen from time to time, looking to the end of the room, and then to either side of the room. Taking a mid morning coffee break and a lunch break adds structure to your day while of course giving your brain and body some reflection and stretching time.

“When you could not leave the house many saw little point in taking annual leave. 'Martyr syndrome’ is also rife in architecture. People think they could not possibly take holiday. But you need it: it is the only way to absorb and reflect,” Marks states. She advises taking at least one day off per month.

Many practices are now finding that their staff have large amounts of holiday still to take. “Some have responded by informing staff they can take up to 10 days over,” she reveals.

A balancing act is required here. On the one hand, many staff badly need to take a break after an extremely draining year. On the other, many staff would genuinely prefer to carry time over rather than face a stressful period of cramming in work. As ever, speaking to individual staff honestly about their time pressures and their working lives is crucial.

Bring problems into the open

If you do have a problem and you need help, then your first port of call should be your manager. If you are unable for whatever reason to talk to your manager then contacting an employee assistance programme is advised. These are increasingly common in large practices. Your HR department is also a good place to ask for advice if you cannot speak to immediate colleagues.

However, many small practices do not have HR departments: your manager may be the HR department. There are many other sources of support, including the Architects Benevolent Society’s own free support line, listed in the invaluable Architects’ Mental Wellbeing Toolkit.

What is most important is that you talk to somebody. It is impossible to solve a problem if nobody is aware of it.

It is World Mental Health Day on 10 October. The RIBA has put together a list of resources for anyone wishing to find out more about mental wellbeing.

Kate Marks will be presenting Learning from lockdown: working well together remotely as part of this year’s livestreamed RIBA Guerrilla Tactics: Reinventing Practice conference. Tickets are available now.

Learn more insights from other speakers at Guerrilla Tactics in our recent features, Is design work moving to the countryside?, Five smart project management boosts, and Make a new project happen with a visionary idea.

Thanks to Kate Marks, Director, Evolution HR.

Text by Matt Milton. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum: Health, safety and wellbeing

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, Professional Features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD Core Curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as an RIBA Chartered Member.

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