Building Morale, Motivation & Flexibility

Justine Ebzery , 9 February 2022

Fulton Trotter Director Justine Ebzery says that Zoom and lockdown fatigue is real, and keeping up morale and maintaining motivation and energy levels through so much COVID uncertainty has been a key focus.

Where is your practice based? How has your practice been affected by the pandemic?

We have an office in Spring Hill, Brisbane and in Bondi Junction, Sydney.

In 2020 our practice had to very quickly adapt to all our staff working remotely and this saw us upgrade our IT hardware and software. We have continued to improve on our WFH practices since that time through lockdowns (and by choice) since then. We are all better communicators and collaborators as a result.

In 2020 our practice saw a dramatic decline in workload as clients chose not to progress projects due to their own COVID impacts. The JobKeeper program allowed us to retain most staff but they worked reduced hours for an extended period. Our workload slowly improved through late 2020 and we finally returned to pre-pandemic workload levels in mid-2021. By the last quarter of 2021 our workload had increased sufficiently for us to be confident in recruiting some new staff. In recent times, issues with the supply of materials and labour have impacted on our projects.

In 2022, high COVID case numbers meant that once again, most of our team have been working from home. It was not the start of the year we were hoping for but with a good pipeline of project work we remain optimistic that we can meet the challenges that will no doubt arise as we adjust to living with COVID.

What have been the key challenges for your practice over the last two years?

The financial challenges due to a decline in workload and client confidence were very significant.

Staying up to date with constantly changing government COVID safety requirements has kept us on our toes. We are very grateful for industry support with this through organisations such as the ACA, AIA, Practice Managers Group and Chamber of Commerce.

Zoom and lockdown fatigue is real. Maintaining motivation and energy levels has been and remains a key challenge so supporting our people and undertaking activities to keep up morale through so much COVID uncertainty and anxiety has been a key focus.

We have also had to be creative in finding ways to maintain strong relationships with clients and consultants and undertake business development activities with such limited face to face contact over the last two years.

What measures did your practice put in place in response to COVID-19?

Due to the spread of Omicron, when we returned to work after our Christmas shutdown we chose to have most staff work remotely. We did this to minimise the risk to our team and to our projects. We have a number of projects with tight, non-negotiable programs so it would have been disastrous if these project teams were impacted with a large number of team members getting sick.

We are currently undertaking a strategic review of our IT and we foresee further investment will be needed in this area to ensure that we are able to even more effectively work remotely.

What advice would you give to other practices based on your experiences so far?

Communicate clearly, concisely and regularly with your people. Keep people informed. And be patient and kind.

Be flexible and adaptable to changes without notice. Have contingency plans and alternative options available. Try to make decisions that not only meet short term needs but will add value for the long term.

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

The value of what architects can offer is not well understood by the community and many of the government and private organisations who procure capital infrastructure projects. Significant advocacy is required.

More streamlined procurement methods for architectural services on government projects would be beneficial. The submission information required is often very extensive and time consuming, and often the odds of securing the commission are low as large numbers of tenders are invited.

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

Fulton Trotter introduced an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) in March 2021. We have had our people access this service and utilise their online resources. We have invited them in to present some of their seminars over the next couple of months.

Zoom has been a wonderful communication tool for us through the last two years, with very high regular use of social and project chat groups and video call catch-ups for teams and the whole of practice. It has really increased the cross-office interaction with joint staff meetings and social sessions. We have regular Friday afternoon drinks together via Zoom and have had trivia and other activities online.

We were able to have some face-to-face social events in between lockdowns, which also helped enormously with morale. Our staff have been very pro-active in organising weekly yoga classes and an art group.

How can the ACA assist you? What would you like the ACA to prioritise as we face another disruptive year?

Continue to offer resources and a combination of online and face to face events. Continue to advocate for the profession and build relationships with other industry organisations to advocate together.