ACA Pulse Check 5 – findings
ACA’s first Pulse Check for the year – the fifth since the pandemic began – gives a fairly positive account of the rebound from COVID. It also points to some of the unforeseen benefits of having to deal with issues such as workplace flexibility which will continue to shape the work practices of architects over time. The profession showed remarkable collegiality last year. It is important that we don’t lose that sense of common purpose as we redesign our future profession.
This survey was conducted by the Association of Consulting Architects (ACA) from 22 April– 3 May. It builds on four previous Pulse Check surveys to create longitudinal knowledge about the impact of COVID-19 and the profession’s response. This informs the resources, advice and advocacy programs developed by the ACA.
Sectors and client types
Activity has dropped off somewhat across most sectors. The exception is Private Residential and Affordable and/or Social Housing, both of which have seen an increase in practices working in these areas. The biggest drops are in retail, aged care and hospitality. (In Pulse Check 4, the biggest drops were in multi-residential and commercial.) There has been an increase in reliance on private clients, with 23% of respondents relying exclusively on private clients and 92% of respondents working for private clients to some extent (up from 85% prior to the pandemic).
Levels of work and work pipeline
Responding practices are fairly busy overall. Almost two-thirds are either moderately or very busy, and only 6.8% describe their situation as ‘very quiet’. Nonetheless, notes of caution are sounded in some of the comments, which point out that for some practices the busyness does not translate into increased profitability, and that low fees and fee cutting are ongoing threats.
The survey reveals a range of experiences in relation to the pipeline of work, but the overall situation is positive, and an improvement on the situation documented in Pulse Check 4. Of responding practices, 12% face immediate work shortages, compared to 20% in Pulse Check 4. Almost half the respondents (47%) have six months or more work lined up, as compared to 38% in Pulse Check 4. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the levels of busyness correlate to work pipelines – with three-quarters of those who describe themselves as very busy also having a pipeline of six months or more work.
The JobKeeper Payment scheme was very important to architectural practices, with 72% of the Pulse Check 5 respondents having accessed it. Pulse Check 4 showed that the JobKeeper Payment scheme had a strong positive impact on practices’ ability to retain staff and prevent stand downs, and revealed concerns about the impact of reductions, with 22% of respondents to that survey expecting the changes to have a negative impact on their ability to keep staff on and 42% uncertain about the impact at this stage. In this context, it is very heartening to see that only 7% of Pulse Check 5 respondents had to reduce staff following the end of JobKeeper.
Employment and workplace arrangements
Over half the respondents had employed new staff over the last year, with most employing one or two new people. New graduates were the most common new hire, which is a positive given the levels of anxiety among recent graduates during COVID-19.
Over 40% of practices had changed work arrangements during the pandemic, with the negotiation of new flexible work arrangements being the most common adjustment – and the one that is continuing to be used. All of the other changes – such as reduced hours or reduced pay – are much less common now than earlier in the pandemic.
The experiences of working during the pandemic have also led to ongoing modifications in how and where work is done. Almost 60% of responding practices intend to make changes to ongoing working and practice arrangements as a result of experiences during the pandemic. Another quarter plan to return to how things were, while 16% are not yet sure. The most common change is the increased use of online meetings and collaboration, followed by flexibility in where work is done and flexibility in when work is done. When disaggregated by size, stronger patterns emerge – 88% of larger practices (employing 50 people or more) are planning ongoing change. Three quarters of the medium sized practices (employing 20–50 people) are doing likewise, as are half of the smaller practices (employing 1–10 people).
The outlook on wellbeing continues to be fairly positive overall, with senior management remaining the cohort of most concern. Almost 40% of respondents think that mental wellbeing is better than at the start of the pandemic, another 42% see it as similar, while the remaining 18% consider it worse. This is a substantial improvement on Pulse Check 4, where one third of respondents thought wellbeing was worse than at the start of the pandemic. Comments point to the correlation between levels of work and wellbeing, and to general levels of fatigue and exhaustion.
Current and future outlook
Levels of business confidence, and confidence in the profession, are fairly positive, but there are some who are experiencing significant stress. Approximately 38% of responding practices are in a better financial position than they were at the start of the pandemic, while 29% are neither better nor worse off. More worryingly, about one third of practices are worse off, with 14% much worse off. Projections about financial health a year into the future are more positive – with almost 60% of respondents expecting to be better off to some extent, and another 32% expecting to be in a similar position. Projections about the state of the profession over the next year are also mostly confident.
EXPLORE THE FINDINGS
The 366 responding practices employed more than 3,700 full-time equivalent (FTE) ‘technical’ staff, and 560 FTE casual technical staff. Over half (52%) are very small businesses, employing five people or fewer. The survey also has good representation from larger practices, with 16 responding practices employing more than 100 people (and five of these employing over 150 people). Architectural practices from NSW and Victoria comprise 64% of the respondents – a similar pattern to previous Pulse Check surveys.
Discipline areas and sectors
Respondents were asked to identify the disciplines represented in the practice. Unsurprisingly, architecture dominates, but many responding practices include a range of related disciplines. The areas indicated by those that selected ‘other’ provide an interesting account of the range of work undertaken by the profession, including regulatory, community engagement, expert witness, design advisory, environmental consulting and assessment, and accessibility specialists.
The survey also sought information on the sectors respondent practices are active in, and for those the practice was involved in prior to COVID-19. Two sectors have provided new areas of work for practices – affordable and/or social housing, and private residential. The biggest drops are seen in retail, aged care and hospitality, with all other sectors also recording small drops. Once again, the ‘other’ category captures a range of interesting work being done – industrial, pro bono bushfire rebuilds, access, writing and design advisory.
Respondents were asked what percentage of work different client types were responsible for, once again recording the situation prior to COVID-19. The overall patterns are fairly similar, with an increased reliance on private clients in general.
The Pulse Check surveys continue to track working arrangements, both immediate impacts and expectations of ongoing change.
Practices were asked what percentage of their staff was working remotely in the week of the survey. The responses reveal a wide variety – 40.84% of respondents had no-one doing remote work that week, while 59.16% have some form of remote work in that week, including 14.15% who have all staff working remotely.
Over half of the survey respondents had not changed employment arrangements during the pandemic. Of those that did, the most common change was the negotiation of flexible work arrangements, which are ongoing. The use of most of the other measures has declined, with the exception of increased working hours, which is more prevalent now than at the time of the survey.
It is heartening to see that over half the respondents (175 practices) have taken on new staff, reflecting the general increase in activity across the industry. These practices are responsible for employing 58 students, 105 graduates, 81 mid-career practitioners, 58 experienced practitioners, and 11 people in other roles.
All the Pulse Check surveys have tracked perceived wellbeing in the responding practices. In this survey, we also asked what kinds of support had been offered in practices. The most popular support given is informal catch-ups with management and/or team leaders (54% of respondents had it in place pre-COVID, another 15% set them up during COVID). Wellbeing check-ins were also popular, with 25% of respondents having these set up pre-COVID and another 17% of respondents setting them up during COVID. Only 15% of respondents have an EAP program – 9% of these were already in place pre-COVID and 6% joined up during COVID.
Many respondents are positive about the overall wellbeing of the practice. Of 307 respondents, 75% say wellbeing in their practice is good or very good. Another 13.68% say neutral, with only 11.4% worried and most of those are ‘slightly’ worried. But looking at specific cohorts, the numbers start to shift somewhat. Senior management and employees juggling other commitments are the ones who have higher percentages in the ’slightly worrying’ and ‘very worrying’ categories. It rises to 19.25% for worrying for senior management and 14.12% for employees juggling other commitments.
Respondents were also asked to rate wellbeing now as compared to the start of the pandemic. The responses are generally heartening, with the vast majority of respondents saying wellbeing is better or the same. Nearly 39.75% rate the wellbeing of practice as much better or better, while another 41.99% rate it at about the same. More worryingly, 15% say it’s worse and 3.21% say it’s much worse.
Some respondents took the opportunity to make further comment, and made a range of interesting observations, particularly about having to re-establish ‘norms’ of behaviour. One person says “I think people juggling caring responsibilities have better wellbeing in a hybrid world.” Another comments that as work increases, so does staff numbers and morale. Others point to the general feeling of fatigue: “Everyone feels mentally exhausted”, “general fatigue”.
The changing workplace
Respondents were asked if there have been lessons learnt during the pandemic experience that will be taken forward. Almost 60% of respondents (186 practices) say that there are positive aspects they’ll bring forward, while another 23.79% of respondents (74) will return to previous working arrangements and 16.4% are not sure yet.
The most common ongoing change is increased use of online meetings and collaboration, while many practices also expect to have ongoing flexibility about when and where work is done.
Disaggregating by practice size reveals stronger patterns – 88% of larger practices (employing 50 people or more) are planning ongoing change. Three quarters of the medium sized practices (employing 20–50 people) are doing likewise, as are half of the smaller practices (employing 1–10 people).
The impact of JobKeeper was significant for many practices, which was accessed by 72.93% of respondents. Encouragingly, only 16 of the respondent practices (7.05%) have had to reduce staff because of the loss of JobKeeper, while another 36 aren’t sure yet. Of those who did reduce staff numbers, some made further comment that they hoped to be able to re-employ people shortly.
Current levels of work and work pipelines
Responses to the questions about current levels of work, and future pipelines of work, are also heartening, particularly when compared to the concerns about levels of work expressed in earlier Pulse Check surveys.
Of the responding practices, 64.63% are busy. This includes 38.91% that are very busy (121 practices) and another 25.72% (another 80 practices) that are moderately busy. The further comments provided in response to this question reveal a much more complex landscape. Some talk of “momentum building”, others describe “working at 225% capacity” while some say there is “zero pulse”. One describes the construction industry as in “complete overdrive”, but there are lots of attendant issues – another talks about the “overheated market and timber in short supply”. The level of work is not necessarily translating into profit for all. As one respondent wrote, “Busy but not translating into profit so increased frustration”.
The survey reveals a range of experiences in relation to the pipeline of work, but the overall situation is positive. Over a quarter of respondents (82 practices) have more than six months of work. Another 20% (61) have six months of work, while another quarter (78) have three months of work. Only 12% of respondents (37 practices) say they need more work right now.
The levels of busyness correlates to work pipelines – with three-quarters of those who describe themselves as very busy also having a pipeline of six months or more work.
In the comments, many respondents refer to unconfirmed projects: “We have work for a few years, simply due to the nature of our projects and their lengths. However, the key question is cash flow and hitting our financial monthly targets, then two months, is the best we can forecast.” “Very erratic – lots on hold – new things – very hard to see more than a month or so ahead.”
The comments in response to both questions also reveal concerns about low fees: “There are too many tenders and the architectural fees are still too competitive and not sustainable”, “we’re submitting proposals but a there is fee pressure even with ‘COVID pricing’ ”.
Financial position and outlook
The survey asked a number of questions that aimed to capture a sense of the level of business confidence, and confidence in the profession. In general, the outlook is fairly positive. The first of this set of questions asked about current financial position compared to the start of the pandemic. Approximately 38% of responding practices are in a better financial position, while 29% are neither better nor worse off. More worryingly, about one third of practices are worse off, with 14% much worse off.
Projections about financial health a year into the future are more positive – with almost 60% of respondents expecting to be better off to some extent, and another 32% expecting to be in a similar position. Projections about the state of the profession over the next year are also mostly confident.
Lastly, we asked what people value about the ACA. We are very pleased to see that the ACA’s work continues to be valued by many.
The ACA is working hard to provide resources and support needed to navigate this period. We will continue to provide resources, expert advice and opinion and timely and up-to-date advocacy on behalf of the profession.
Thanks to everyone who contributed to the Pulse Check 5, and the preceding surveys.