More than flexible, a better culture of work

How might architects design better work, not just flexible work, to deliver a better work culture?

Many architecture practices are embracing the challenge of flexible work challenge. They’re choosing, however, to work the same way but more flexibly instead of rethinking the way to work and finding a better way. I think they can do better and build a better work culture in the process.

I hope we can all agree flexible work practices are a part of a good work culture. The case has been well made for flexible work arrangements. There’s an excellent article by the Association of Consulting Architects on What is flexibility & why does it matter? But as I’ve stated, architects can do better than considering how they might adopt more flexible work arrangements.

The reason some practices are finding it a challenge to adopt flexible work is that they’re not doing so with a view to working better, but simply to working flexibly.

What if we agree not to call it flexible work but just work? Not everyone wants flexible work, but everyone wants a better work culture.

Finding a better way of working rather than the same way of working more flexibly.

Flexible work culture is the bedrock upon which better work can be built, but it’s not the only consideration. There’s no one-size-fits all option and it’s necessary for every practice to consider the answers to many questions (below) as part of any consideration of what better work culture looks like for them.

Rethinking how you work with a beginners mind

Rethinking the work culture might require more than alterations and additions to your existing work practices. Start from a tabula rasa and a beginners mind. Forget preconceptions, rethink the status quo. What would an ideal work practice look like? Demolish what you do and how you do it for the purposes of the exercise. You can always look at ways of adapting what you have later, but for now start from scratch. What’s your ideal work culture look like?

An exercise in rethinking work

What’s the culture you want?

Take the time to plan and write out a description of the culture you want.

Start with the end in mind. Intentionally plan out steps do you need to take to achieve that outcome?

What experiments can you try?

Don’t spend time coming up with reasons why something isn’t possible, you don’t learn anything from that. Experiment instead.

Since there’s no single solution, practices need to find the approach to work that fits them best. It’s worth taking the time to creatively brainstorm as many ideas as possible and designing a series of experiments to test out how you might work differently. Fully commit to each experiment to ensure you are able to learn something of value. Take the time to analyse the results and iterate where possible and valuable.

Leap quickly into the experiments that are easily reversible (where you can easily revert to back to the starting state). Take more care with those experiments that can’t be reversed. Use “We can if…” thinking.

We can if…

This is one of my favourite frameworks and if you’re a regular reader of mine you’ll have seen me mention it numerous times. Humans are hard wired for the negative. It’s evolutionary. It’s safer to identify the dangers or what will go wrong. Yet architects are creative people, capable of coming up with numerous and creative solutions to problems. So whenever you can only see the reasons why something isn’t possible or won’t work, take the time to come up with as many conclusions to the “We can if…” framework.

For example if there’s a sticking point around the difficulties of having office meetings to keep people abreast of all projects. You might come up with:

“We can if we communicate in an online platform like Slack, posting regularly about progress on each project.” ”We can if everyone is required to be in the office on the same day a week.” “We can if we do all meetings online, regardless of who is in the office.” ”We can if the person responsible for each project writes up a summary to be emailed to everyone in the office at the end of the week.” ”We can if everyone has access to all notes and correspondence for each project and is personally responsible for reviewing when they’re free.” etc

The point of “We can if…” is to come up with solutions rather than becoming stuck on the problems.

What’s an office for?

Having a dedicated office space has been the default setting for decades. Yet there are many organisations working successfully without a dedicated office and doing so prior to Covid, including duckduckgo, Basecamp, Buffer, Toggl, Upworthy and there are countless others. I’m not suggesting architects dump the physical office but instead carefully consider it’s value and what it’s for from their perspective. This consideration is to encourage practices to maximise the value their physical office brings, whilst also maximising that of remote work. It’s not one or other but how they work together to provide the most effective and satisfying work culture.

To take a deeper dive on the subject, this article is worth the 5 minute read: What’s the purpose of the office – and do we still need it?

How will you embed your values?

As Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Sometimes our values go the same way. A classic example is an unreasonable request from an important client and the practice too willing to accommodate at a cost to their values. By embedding office values into the work culture a misalignment of values might be avoided. This might include easy and ready triggers to say no to clients or situations.

Practicing a growth mindset as a value might, for example, in this endeavour. Embedding a time for formal learning as a benefit to all staff and the work culture and a time allocated as an inalienable commitment. Ensuring it can’t be compromised and lost. Unless practice values are embedded in the work culture they’re all too likely to be compromised.

(Here’s a good primer on practice values: The Importance Of Establishing Company Core Values — And How To Define Them.)

What are the procedures and systems to be adopted?

We tend to habituate to our current procedures and systems. Accepting their shortcomings without question, failing to consider whether there’s a better way, or worse, not even noticing. What’s working? What’s not? What could be better?

By embracing more flexible work it provides an opportunity to ask all these questions and rethink what you do and how you do it.

For example, one advantage of not being in an office is reduced interruptions. Providing space for working more efficiency. Intentionally creating interruption free blocks and freeing up time for other things. Things for example such as programmed time for connection and communication – writing up or reading.

Rethinking procedures and systems is a space ripe for experimenting.

What does good communication look like?

Frankly, good communication is everything.

It helps keep everyone in the practice in alignment. It also facilitates learning and growth. Real time or asynchronously.

There are many many platforms to allow communication to happen. You’re seldom restricted to one. Face to face, phone, video such as Facetime or Zoom, email, messaging apps such as WhatsApp, messaging platforms such as Slack, office wiki, project management platforms such as Basecamp, and it’s likely I’ve missed some other communications spaces too.

Communication is for many reasons, including conversation and connection, creation, instruction, information, feedback, check-in, review and so on. All are important and none should be forgotten. Some platforms, it must be noted, lend themselves best to certain types of communication – personal feedback is best face to face whilst information can be delivered on software platforms.

Communication is a space for experimentation. Testing, iterating and seeking feedback from all involved in order to refine and deliver the best possible communication.

I write about Wellbeing below and also worth noting here. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of prioritising regular virtual meetings and check-ins to maintain a sense of office culture and connection with team members.

It’s worthwhile considering a culture of transparency and open communication. Where all members of the office are encouraged to share their thoughts and ideas freely, and decisions affecting everyone’s wellbeing are made through consensus-based processes.

There’s many sides to consider in practice communication.

Where do people want to work?

People might work at the office, or remotely at home, a local co-working space, on the road, interstate, overseas, at a friends, at a cafe. All might be possible if the focus is on the work produced and the technology allows. It’s not just at home or in the office.

Ignore sunk costs

A sunk cost is an investment made in the past that is no longer relevant to decisions and investments you might make in your future. This might be an investment of money, of time or emotion. Ignore your sunk costs, if they no longer serve you.

The lease on a large office space, for example, might represent a sunk cost. If considering embracing more flexible work, a large space may not longer serve the practice. Insisting everyone comes in every day just because you have a a big space to fill it does not advance the work culture. It wold be better to cut the losses and move to a smaller space, or at least consider other options with what to do with the additional space.

Embrace the possibilities for a better culture

Remote work

I wrote a whole post on this almost 2 years ago. It holds up reasonably well.

How architects can do remote working better

Remember remote work is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Different practice members will have different needs and preferences. Be open and responsive to team needs and feedback.

In regard to remote work and wellbeing, be aware of and addressing potential issues related to isolation and burnout that can arise when working remotely. Encouraging informal virtual interaction and socialisation, such as virtual coffee breaks, to promote a sense of team cohesion and connection.

Design a culture of remote work designed to the unique needs of the team.

Wellbeing

Ensure the physical and mental health of your practice by investing in well-being, creating policies and procedures around safety. Provide the resources generously to help everyone maintain productivity

Consider incorporating elements of mindfulness and well-being into the office culture, such as meditation breaks or yoga classes, to promote mental and physical well-being for team members. It’s important to ensure the physical and mental health of your team members by investing in their well-being, creating policies and procedures around their safety, and providing ample resources to help them maintain productivity.

Agency

Embracing agency is something that might need to be developed. Team members who’ve come from offices that have not allowed for a level of agency may need some time to grow into and become comfortable in. When everyone feels they have agency, the office is less likely to develop group think. Ideas and a practice thrives with agency, supporting the development and growth of the office.

Allow each member of the practice to take ownership of their own goals and give them the freedom to manage their own tasks and objectives, especially for those working in their remote office. It allow more space for learning and growth and most importantly it builds trust in the team. Trust can be a superpower in an office.

Growth mindset

Creating a culture of continuous learning and development, where team members are encouraged to learn new skills and take on new challenges. This can help to foster a sense of purpose, engagement, and growth, even when working remotely.

Diversity

When thinking more flexibly about a practice, more becomes possible, especially when it comes to diversity within the practice. Firstly when building the practice, people should be employed for cultural add not cultural fit. Cultural fit does not lead to diversity and contributes to a monoculture and group think.

Remote work and more flexible thinking presents an opportunity to diversify the team, by recruiting team members from different locations or backgrounds. People who otherwise might not be able to contribute due to their circumstances.

Boundaries

The boundaries of your architectural practice define your priorities. Establishing limits, and what you will and won’t accept. I’ve previously written about boundaries in The art of setting boundaries.

Productivity and hours

Let go of the number of work hours individuals or the practice does. Focus on productivity, how to maximise and improve it. People’s value is in the work they produce not the hours they work and when they work.

Consider experimenting with unconventional working hours or schedules to promote life and interests outside of the office. It invariably contributes to greater productivity and can contribute new ideas and ways of thinking from outside the architectural bubble. This might involve flexible schedules, such as half-days on Fridays or compressed workweeks, or experimenting with alternative work schedules, such as 9-day fortnights or alternate generously work hours.

Management

Work needs to be managed, the bigger the team the greater the need. There’s no single best or right way to do this, however, I’ve always thought Basecamp’s strategies around remote work were brilliant. Their management structure is especially good too.

Basecamp limits the number of people a manager is responsible for, based on the “two pizza teams” principle – teams small enough that they can be fed with two pizzas. Thus making space for more personal relationships.

Managers are responsible for regularly checking in on individuals in their team, based on a schedule that works for both. They discuss what they’re working on and how the manager might support them in their work. The regular check-in is designed to ensure everyone feels supported, keeps them aligned, as well as ensuring everyone is aware of the team’s progress and of any obstacles.

The key lessons here are that it’s embedded in their work culture, it’s personal and communication is the central plank.

A better work culture

Flexible work should be more than just flexibility in hours and location. It should embrace a flexibility of thinking. Allowing for a rethinking of work in the pursuit of building a better work culture. Entirely rebuilding what work looks like from the ground up.


Image by Marc Mueller [edited]

Hi! I’m Michael

I’m an architect and coach. I help architects rethink their practice and support them as they uncover better ways to work. I’ve worked in architecture for over 25 years, and I ran my own practice for 14 years. I understand architectural practice from the inside out. Fun Fact: my NSW architect’s registration is #10 007 and I have a license to skill.

I believe improving practice takes asking hard questions and deep listening.

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