Innovation Day & Being Prepared

Kirby Roper , 15 September 2021

AMWF Vic/Tas member Kirby Roper reflects on the stresses of regular snap lockdowns and ways of maintaining wellbeing in practice, including the establishment of Innovation Day and being prepared for future disruptions.

Kirby Architects, 5 employees

Does your practice have processes in place (formal or informal) to check on people’s mental wellbeing? How successful have these been?

We are a small practice, so informal processes work well for us. While we are working from home, we touch base every day, even if it’s just to say ‘Hi’. We have weekly opportunities for personal discussions that can be about the details of our work or about how we are feeling. We think it’s also important that professional development isn’t put on the back burner during lockdowns, so we send our team updates and information that support professional development. Everyone needs to feel that their career is progressing and has purpose. It helps us all to feel that some things are still progressing as normal.

What support systems did you have in place pre-COVID?

Pre-COVID, our main support was a one on one catch-up. It was often in the context of coaching and staff performance reviews. Plus, we’ve always had a flexible hours policy and supported work/life balance. That was a good foundation to making sure no-one felt burnt out. The stress associated with so many lockdowns takes a toll, so we’ve maintained that flexibility and made sure that we can flip from working from office to home with quality tech support to maintain consistency of workflow. This has been really important in the current work environment.

Our weekly Monday meeting/morning tea was always a valuable time for the team to connect, share their interests and make sure the vibe of the team was positive and supportive. If anyone needed a hand, we could sense it and take steps to offer support. Now, I have to be mindful that in a Zoom meeting it’s harder to sense if someone is struggling. So, I touch base with each person with emphasis on giving them individual responsibilities and things that they feel they can control and contribute to. I provide ongoing feedback to all staff.

Have you implemented any new initiatives or strategies to improve wellbeing since the arrival of COVID in early 2020? What are they and how useful / successful have you found them?

Innovation Day. One day a month is set aside to do something innovative together that will freshen up our architectural practice. It is a paid working day, without pressure to answer the phone or respond to queries. For example, we have explored a new CAD tool, or spent a day together in a ceramics studio. In 2020 we designed and had made a shopping bag. Initially it was intended for sharing samples, but we involved the whole studio and created a bag made from plastic bottles that can be easily folded to slip into a handbag or pocket. It is Kirby Architects branded, is comfortable on the shoulder and beach friendly!

Our next innovation day is planned around coming together to rock-climb, then we’re off to a builder’s workshop to test out some paint finishes and stains on different substrates, followed by a visit to a tile supplier to see what’s new. Also planned for future innovation days is furniture making…

Innovation Day is typically followed by an out of office catch-up and chat about things that are not necessarily work. We’ve done everything from cocktails supporting local businesses, decadent Millstone pastries for afternoon tea, to Pizza Religion pizzas.

How have you communicated your policy, strategies and initiatives to employees? Have you rolled these out in formal meetings or training sessions, or informal catch-ups, for instance?

We discuss our strategies and initiatives at staff meetings to make sure everyone feels up to date and involved. We have a studio folder with our company manuals and office guides to make sure this information is readily available to staff. These are referred to in day-to-day practice and during professional development training. It tends to bring a vitality and freshness to what you’re doing.

Practice owners/Directors often neglect their own needs. How do your practice leaders take care of their own mental wellbeing?

So true! It’s easy to forget about looking after our own mental health when we are focused on taking care of others. I found that the Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum (AMWF) was helpful in this space, reassuring us that it’s okay not to feel guilty about looking after ourselves as employers. It was a really good reminder.

Do you have any plans or ambitions for future initiatives to address mental wellbeing issues within your practice?

The whole office undertook the mental health first aid course during 2020. We think it would be good to review that, we’ll benefit from a refresher on:

  • self-awareness skills for identifying how we are feeling; and
  • how we can incorporate mental health awareness into everyday life in a more conscious manner.

On a practical note, we now have a checklist for what we should think about when we go into the lockdown – for example, setting up a suitable home workspace, equipment travel bags to transport essential gear, reminders for recording your information for tax etc. It helps to take the stress out of the snap lockdown when you feel in control of the transition.

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

Everyone’s experience in this pandemic is unique, so it can feel quite isolating. I find it helpful to remember that whatever struggle or problem comes up, we’re not the only ones going through it. It helps to be open and talk about it. I try to be prepared and I’ve made sure I’m familiar with early signs of stress in myself and my team.