Flexibility, Collaboration & Prioritising Mental Health

Simon Frost , 7 March 2022

Greenway Architects Director Simon Frost has written a generous and thoughtful Practice Q&A, with a focus on the challenges of the blended digital and physical environment, the need for empathetic collaboration in the industry, and the importance of prioritising good mental health.

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

My practice, Greenway Architects SA, is based in Adelaide, South Australia. As an agile and flexible team delivering primarily commercial construction and fit-out projects across most sectors and predominately in South Australia, the pandemic saw a varying effect across our studio.

These effects were both physical and personal, with the challenges of working from home, as well as the nature, pace and complexity of project delivery.

With a strong base in Government and Public Architecture, we have been extremely busy delivering education, defence, sport and recreation and health and emergency services projects through the pandemic. Our business has thrived and even grown over the last two years.

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

There have been a number of unique challenges that we’ve had to tackle. While at the surface they’re all pretty typical, they’ve each come with a particular pandemic bent to them.

We’ve had the challenge of managing client expectations with regards to project programs, both for the design and documentation process. We’ve also had the challenge of collaboration and coordination with remote working arrangements and the physical delivery of projects on site. Then there’s the impact of material and labour shortages, layered with the complexities of managing staff and personal sanity and stress. All of this has made it a particularly interesting few years.

Also difficult has been maintaining an alignment of project scope and budget in light of increasing cost of materials and availability of trades. With clients who’ve received government grant funding aligned with a particular scope expectation, all of a sudden those dollars aren’t stretching as far, causing angst and difficulty in fulfilling expectation.

We’ve also had difficulty in maintaining confidence and surety in the marketplace, both for ourselves with regards to maintaining a workflow of projects through the studio, but also in the available pool of building contractors and their ability to achieve project outcomes on time and on budget.

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

Our response was a fairly standard one, with working from home where possible, social distancing, limiting visitors to the office, and alternate means of attending site and other meetings. The impact of the pandemic in South Australia was admittedly much less than the eastern states with limited mandated lockdowns, which enabled us and other practices to find our own way to continue practice. Greenway maintained about 30% of our team in the studio, with the others working from home.

Omicron had a bigger impact on SA than previous iterations of the virus, with the State opening our borders and seeing a spike in infection numbers. This resulted in more of us working from home than previously, and changing how we worked within the office for those who remained.  Perhaps the recollections of previous longer periods of voluntary working from home, and those who had no choice to because of home schooling requirements, saw all of our team wanting to return back to the studio as quickly as possible.

We’ve increased our flexibility and agility in jumping from working from home to working in the studio, an activity that we didn’t embrace prior. We’ll continue to invest in better technology and systems to be more mobile. At the same time, we’ll be careful to ensure that this increased flexibility doesn’t result in an additional workload or the loss of the ability to switch off after a work day.

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

Breathe – we’re all going through it. While the particulars might vary from practice to practice, state to state, we’re all being faced with many of the same hurdles. I think there’s real benefit in ensuring that you stay in touch with colleagues who are in the same trenches as you.  Reach out – there’s always someone who’s gone through the same.

We’ve had more engagement with the ACA and other industry bodies and contacts in the last two years than ever before. This contact has been both technical but also spiritual as a means of staying the course with the tools and advice needed to do so.

Be empathetic, but at the same time be resilient and strong. One of the issues we’ve found is the general confusion and lack of knowledge of our client base. They turn to us looking for answers (and the cupboard with the rabbits, and the cupboard with the hats, are often a little bare). I’d suggest to other practices that your clients don’t know their way through these issues as much as you do, and you probably know more than you think.

Clients come to us, not only as the creators of beautiful and considered spaces, but also as the solvers of problems and the interface between the ideas and the execution. As architects, we’re uniquely positioned to find clever, out-of-the-box solutions, while at the same time needing to be aware that the output of our decisions will last a lifetime. So, there’s a place for a quick ‘pandemic solving’ answer, but also a place for pause to wait for the ability to deliver the originally expected outcome.

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

Across the country, I believe that our profession and the wider construction industry would appreciate less ‘reactive’ responses from Government and more surety and confidence in moving forward out of the pandemic. I think we’d all appreciate more long-term thinking rather than short-term immediacy, which I know is required given pressures from all corners, but challenging to run a business or construction project through.

I think we could also do with better support from bodies like ACA, AIA and MBA in providing tools for flexibility across all partners (digital contracts that are easy to adapt to changing conditions, etc.) to allow for adaptation, where required, to deal with the constantly changing parameters in which we are working.

There is much to be gained from a closer collaboration between design professionals and our construction colleagues to deliver work in a “smarter, not harder” manner. This, of course, requires empathy, understanding and a good deal of cleverness and forward thinking and planning. I believe this is an environment that would benefit all, including our shared clients.

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

Greenway has put in a pretty standard suite of measures to support one another within the studio, including mental health check-ins for all, but especially for those working from home. We’ve adapted working hours to suit changing need, and tackled clients to buy more time for our work. Of course, we’re also maintaining as much social connection as possible, including Zoom drinks on a Friday afternoon for example, to ensure that we’re all still having some fun.

I’ve signed up all younger team members to the ACA and AIA and encouraged them to engage with the wider profession to understand that this current environment isn’t ‘normal’. I reflect on the challenges that they’re facing at the beginning of their careers and the complexities of learning their technical skills and honing their social and new found professional skills in this blended digital and physical environment.

Personally, through the ACA, I’ve undertook the St. Johns Mental Health First Aid course in 2021, which was fascinating. It provided me with additional skills in managing my own, and my team’s, mental and associated physical health through the pandemic. It’s a program I’d suggest others look into.

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

I believe that the ACA maintaining the currency of content and speed in delivery of important messaging to the ACA family is vital. The challenge with this is, of course, steering the course between empathetic response to member concerns, but also providing leadership, tools and resources allowing us all to maintain our professional and mental balance and stability.

My engagement with the ACA has increased in the last two years, and it’s been great. I would suggest that maintaining a focus on mental health within the profession is a real point of difference between the ACA and other institutions. Management of mental health is critical to ensuing that we all survive, not just through the pandemic but flourish into the future.