Workload uncertainty creates staffing challenges
The sharp decline in workload expectations in the latest RIBA Future Trends Workload Survey highlights the difficulties practices are facing in staff and resource planning as future workload flow continues to look uncertain.
The June survey saw the balance of practices expecting workload to improve over the coming quarter fall back to +10 compared to +23 in May. In London the balance turned negative, dropping to -3.
Large and medium-sized practices remain generally upbeat about future staffing levels, although a number of practices said the real uncertainty they face is the six to 12-month medium term rather than short term workloads – intensified by the General Election outcome and the start of Brexit negotiations – and how to maintain stable staffing levels for the longer term.
Laurence Osborn, director of London-based GRID Architects, says the past year has certainly had an impact on the continuity of projects, with a consequent effect on resourcing.
‘A number of projects have either been suspended through funding or construction cost issues or have taken longer to materialise than expected. Whilst we have been fortunate that these 'breaks' in instructions have always been filled by new enquires or new instructions, it makes resource planning more volatile,’ says Osborn.
‘As a result, our forecasts for resource requirements have needed to be constantly monitored and updated, and it is a constant balancing act to ensure we have adequate resources to service instructed work and have the ability to pitch for new work whilst not being over or under resourced.’
‘When work does get re-instructed it needs to be carefully managed as there is an expectation to be able to mobilise in very short periods of time. In addition the staff familiar with that project may have been re-committed to another project and may no longer be available. Whilst clients are sympathetic to these issues it of course falls on the practice to manage and meet expectations.’
GRID’s strategy has focused on the creation and retention of a well-trained core team with the skills sets to work on all stages of a project. It is rare for team members to be pigeon holed as ‘design’ or ‘delivery’ architects, says Osborn, which enables the practice to be more flexible and distribute experienced staff where they are needed.
When work is instructed at short notice, teams can be supplemented with contract staff.
‘Retention of staff, particularly at senior level remains an issue. The benefit of working for a medium-sized practice is the professional growth we provide and in-depth involvement in the projects. However, after obtaining this experience we often finding our staff are being 'head hunted'. Fees are certainly not going up and overheads such as premises are going up. It is impossible to compete with salaries that are being offered by larger practices or more commonly from client and contractor organisations,’ says Osborn.
‘What we try to do is focus on providing a balance that will appeal to staff. This is done by carrying out performance reviews, setting out career progression and creating what we hope is a good work environment. Through consultation with staff, we believe these aspects, combined with a focus on high quality design that staff can be proud of, remain the drivers for the majority of people in the profession.’
For larger London practice Pollard Thomas Edwards (PTE), the most difficult recruitment challenge is finding experienced residential designers, says partner Patrick Devlin.
‘Our workload has continued to be strong, as have enquiries. Recruitment is time consuming, and good residential experience is not easy to find, particularly at a more senior level, but we have taken on some excellent people,’ says Devlin.
‘As Revit skills are becoming more common, our internal programme is also getting increasing numbers of our staff trained up, so that pressure on these skills is easing.’
Another challenge, of course, is London living costs, which are beyond practices’ control. Devlin adds that as long-distance commuting increases, PTE has found that distance working can be successful in the right circumstances.
Thanks to Laurence Osborn, director, GRID Architects; Patrick Devlin, partner, Pollard Thomas Edwards.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a ‘Practice News’ post edited by the RIBA Practice team. The team would like to hear your feedback and ideas for articles: firstname.lastname@example.org