Targeted funding & thinking long term

3 August 2020

Justine Ebzery reflects on the need for targeted funding for new public housing projects, public schools and community health infrastructure, with well-considered procurement processes and adequate resources for design and planning.

Is your practice registered for JobKeeper? If so, what have been the implications for your practice?

JobKeeper allowed us to retain all of our staff, albeit on reduced hours, despite a significant decline in project workload and revenue.

Have you found difficulty in applying for Jobkeeper because of variability of monthly reimbursements such as subconsultant accounts?

If you are referring to the monthly declaration of Current GST Turnover for the month and projected for the following month, we have not really had difficulty as we have few core consultants at the moment.

The second phase of JobKeeper has now been announced, with reduced subsidies and a tiered payment system to kick in on 28 September. What impact do you foresee this having on employment within your practice?

It will give us more time to build our workload back up to pre-COVID levels and allow us to continue to retain our staff and increase their hours back to normal levels.

What are your impressions of the government stimulus announced so far?

The Federal Governments JobKeeper program, Cash Flow Boosts, accelerated depreciation and Instant Asset write-offs have all been welcomed by our practice. The Queensland and NSW state government payroll tax relief has been similarly welcomed.

In terms of stimulus to increase our workload, we are not sure that the governments have hit the mark yet. We are yet to see or feel significant action that could lead to increased work for our practice. There has been a great deal of talk but many of the projects that have been announced by state governments were already in the pipeline before COVID. There are a huge number of practices competing for the projects and many of the fees submitted are dangerously low. The race to the bottom with consultant fees affects the service offered and the product delivered. Poor documentation leads to more cost variations during construction.

Ultimately, this will result in further costs to the community in the longer term as decisions are not well considered due to time and fee constraints. The government housing package for new homes and major renovations is unlikely to lead to any work for our practice and feels like a missed opportunity to improve the quality of housing stock in Australia and enhance environmental outcomes.

The Queensland state governments stimulus of regional development is welcome, as well as the NSW government bringing forward capital works. Both appear to be stimulating some work for planning projects – but it remains to be seen how much of this work flows to the architecture community as current procurement practices are skewed towards construction management and design and construct. Our experience is that these procurement practices may (arguably) accelerate project delivery, but do not elevate design outcomes and longer term considerations.

The stimulus measures to cut stamp duty and changes to the planning requirements should also boost activity, but again I suspect their impact on our practice will not be significant.

What do you believe needs to happen to support our profession and the wider building industry?

Targeted funding to design new public housing projects should be implemented, along with the bringing forward of capital investment in our public schools and community health infrastructure, starting with proper design and planning. Capital investment in community assets, parks and recreation facilities would be desirable in order to improve and enrich health and wellness in the community. All of these measures would have enduring benefits for all Australians.

How has the pandemic affected workflow and productivity within your office? What strategies do you have for dealing with these challenges?

In the initial working from home phase, we experienced technology and slow internet issues, which reduced productivity. However, as we harnessed the power of some of our new software and tools, we found most teams communicated and collaborated very effectively.

Home schooling (remote learning) also presented some challenges for some of our staff; however, they were able to work early in the morning or later at night to accommodate their parent teacher role. We have dramatically reduced time spent travelling to meetings. Some of our senior staff found they worked more productively from home; however, our less experienced staff are generally more productive working in the office and being guided by more senior staff. We have seen an improvement in energy levels with the return to the office. I suspect our culture would suffer if we totally worked from home long term; however, I think a hybrid of working most of the time in the office but some of the time from home will remain a permanent way of how we work.

Has your practice returned to the office, in part or whole?

We had half our staff return to the office initially to give us time to test our new COVID-safe processes. Most of our staff have now returned to the office for most of the week. We have one staff member who lives in Tweed and due to the Queensland border controls continues to work from home.

How are you ensuring a COVID Safe workplace?

We have a COVID-safe plan that we prepared utilising resources from Safe Work Australia.

We issued the written plan to all staff and conducted a return to the office induction with each person before they returned.

What additional measures have you put in place?

We have a staff and visitor sign in and out process including an acknowledgement that they are well. We have room occupancy limits, practise physical distancing and continue to conduct most of our meetings via video conferencing. We have additional hygiene and cleaning measures in place.

Has your practice returned to ‘business as usual’ or have you incorporated additional flexibility in your employment arrangements? (work from home, staggered starts, etc) How is this working?

We have additional flexibility with staff who are exhibiting minor symptoms or working a shorter day being able to work from home. Start and finish times are also more flexible to allow for travel in off-peak periods in order to maintain distancing on public transport. It is generally working well.

What measures have you put in place to support your employees’ mental wellbeing? How is this going?

We have a whole of office Zoom chat to share some office-wide banter. We have regular team meetings and one on one check-ins allowing for an informal method of monitoring mental health wellbeing. We have continued with social activities via Zoom, including art and yoga classes. We have shared resources on metal health and wellbeing via our staff meetings, COVID communications and e-newsletter.

Justine Ebzery is a Director of Fulton Trotter, and is based in the Brisbane office. She re-joined the practice after an eight-year role with the Queensland Government’s Project Services office – in this capacity she oversaw major government infrastructure all over Queensland. At Fulton Trotter, Justine works closely with the administration team to coordinate financial management, human resources management, planning and marketing, information management, risk management, governance and organisational dynamics. In addition, she continues to lead education and health projects for government and not-for-profit clients.

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