Pulse Check no. 6
The results of ACA Pulse Check no. 6 reveal the significant impacts that the last two years have had on architectural practice – flexibility is now both the norm and the future. The survey confirms the very tight employment market and reflects a profession that is, on the whole, very busy.
This survey was conducted by the Association of Consulting Architects (ACA) from 18 July–1 August. It builds on five 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.
ACA Pulse Check no. 6 was undertaken by 352 practices, representing more than 7,000 staff. More than half the respondents were small practices, with 1–5 people, but larger practices are also well represented, with 11 respondents employing over 150 people.
Read the key findings below and scroll down to explore the results in detail.
Pulse Check no. 6 suggests that activity in most sectors has picked up again, and is now similar to pre-COVID levels for most respondents. There is an increase in practices working in all types of housing. There are still slightly fewer practices involved in aged care and retail now as compared to before the pandemic, but hospitality has reversed the trend identified in previous pulse checks. Other areas that see slightly more practices involved than before the pandemic are cultural projects, heritage and conservation, community and health.
Anecdotal evidence of the staff shortages and a very mobile employment market are borne out by the survey findings. New staff have been employed by 60% of the responding practices – accounting for new jobs for 960 people – while only 14% have had to let people go. Half the respondents (51%) had staff leave of their own volition and 70% report difficulties in finding staff. The most common reason people gave their practices for leaving was the opportunity to do different types of work elsewhere, followed by increased salaries in new roles.
Flexible and hybrid working
Flexible and hybrid working is now the norm for many practices. There have been significant increases in flexibility, in terms of both where (73%) and when work is done (51%), and a concomitant increase in online meetings and collaboration (72%).
The use of hybrid and flexible working models falls into three similarly sized groups – over one third of responding practices are leveraging experiences during the pandemic to embed long-term flexibility, another third have been working flexibly since before the pandemic, with the final third seeing flexibility as a short term or last resort solution or not working flexibly at all.
Overall, two-thirds of responding practices (69%) anticipate operating with flexible or hybrid working models in the long term. Comments suggest that flexibility is an attribute sought by staff, with many respondents also aware of the challenges of supporting collaborative cultures with a distributed workforce.
The outlook on wellbeing is not as positive as it was in the previous Pulse Check. Comments in this section and elsewhere point to exhaustion, fatigue and ongoing uncertainty, as well as the correlation between levels of work and wellbeing.
One quarter of respondents think that mental wellbeing is better than at the start of the pandemic (down from 40% in Pulse Check 5), another 47% see it as similar, while the remaining 28% consider it worse (an increase on the 15% of Pulse Check no. 5). Senior management and employees juggling multiple commitments remain the cohorts of most concern.
Informal catch-ups continue as the most common type of support offered. This time, the survey also enquired about what types of support would most help the practice – the most popular choice was practical guides to best practice, followed by regular discussion forums around wellbeing issues. This data will inform the ongoing work of the ACA and the Australian Architects Mental Wellbeing Forum. It will also be shared with the Wellbeing of Architects project.
Levels of work and work pipeline
Most responding practices are busy. Over three quarters are either very busy (44%) or moderately busy (33%) – and only 4.8% describe their situation as ‘very quiet’.
The pipeline of work also continues to improve, with nearly two-thirds of responding practices having six months (32%) or more (28%) work, and another 22% having three months of work lined up. Only 8% face immediate work shortages, compared to 12% in Pulse Check 5 and 20% in Pulse Check 4.
Challenges and opportunities
This Pulse Check includes new sections on opportunities and challenges. The statistical responses are included below, but there were also many and fulsome long answer comments. These will be analysed and reported on in detail in subsequent articles. The most prominent challenges included greater levels of sickness among staff, the increased cost of doing business (including salaries) not matched by increased income, rising costs of building and materials, and supply chain challenges. The biggest opportunity identified was the “opportunity to rethink how we practice”.
EXPLORE THE FINDINGS
This report covers the following sections:
- Demographics of respondents
- Staffing increases, decreases and difficulties attracting staff
- The changing workplace – flexible and hybrid work models
- Advocacy priorities
The 352 responding practices employed more than 7,000 people. This means that although the number of responding practice is slightly lower that the last Pulse Check, the number of staff represented is nearly double. This includes over 6,375 full-time equivalent (FTE) ‘technical’ staff, and over 674 FTE casual technical staff. Nearly half (49%) are very small businesses, employing five people or fewer. The survey also has good representation from larger practices, with 26 responding practices employing more than 100 people (and 11 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 building science, graphics, private certification and advisory.
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. The two sectors that have provided new areas of work for practices during the pandemic continue – affordable and/or social housing and private residential, with small increases also reported in multi-residential, cultural, community and heritage conservation. The big drops seen in previous Pulse Checks have mostly disappeared. Once again, the ‘other’ category captures a range of interesting work being done, including government services, design review, defence, research facilities and expert witness.
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 ongoing increased reliance on private clients in general.
Staffing increases, decreases and difficulties attracting staff
Pulse Check 6 asked a range of questions about employing and laying off staff.
It is heartening to see that 60% of the respondents (180 practices) have taken on new staff, while only 42 practices have had to let people go. Half the respondents (51%) had staff leave of their own volition. These patterns reflect the general busyness of the profession.
The practices that took on staff are responsible for employing 960 people, a huge increase in the number reflected in Pulse Check no 5 (shown in the chart below). A further 19 practices were looking for people at the time the survey was conducted.
In Pulse Check 6, respondents were asked for the first time if they had experienced difficulties finding new staff – and 70% responded that they had.
Respondents were asked if they would like to comment further – 44 obliged, offering a range of insights. A number commented on the challenges of finding staff in regional locations, and many point to the challenges of finding experienced mid-career and senior staff. Comments include:
“Extreme difficulty finding staff which has forced us to knock back work.”
“Everyone’s looking, hard to find people with the right technical capability.”
“Difficult to find staff with the experience needed for complex projects.”
“We have had difficulty finding suitably qualified, capable, committed and experienced staff.”
“Cultural shift towards WFH, expectations on pay and conditions very high regardless of experience / qualifications.”
“Our reputation attracts good staff.”
“It’s even worse in the regions… been trying for two years.”
The practices that laid off staff did so for a range of reasons, the most prominent of which was “not enough work to sustain staffing levels” (57% or 21 practices). Three of the multiple-choice options provided received no responses (merger with another practice and/or organisation, relocation of practice and employee declined to have COVID-19 vaccine). Of the 13 respondents who described ‘other’ reasons, ten related to performance issues of some kind.
Anecdotal reports of workforce mobility and intense competition for good staff are borne out by results of the questions about staff leaving of their own volition. Respondents to these questions had opportunities to comment further. A number of respondents commented that intense poaching is occurring between practices, and one noted that a staff member left as they did not want to get vaccinated. Further interesting comments to the broad question include:
“A significant number of staff leaving for lifestyle change – rather than to similar employment”
“We’ve lost two staff, and stopped another two leaving by offering salary increases 10% +”
“We had a few people lured away by large salaries at the end of last year but this seems to have settled this year.”
“Some family needs, wanting to work closer to home, mostly higher wages offered.”
“Limited to those inside their first six months, and one who moved to the development side and hence a much higher salary.”
The survey also asked practices about the reasons staff had given for leaving. Half had had staff leave for the opportunity to do different types of work, and 42% had people leave for higher salaries elsewhere. Once again, the further comment option reveals a range of further reasons, including retirement, travel, returning to education, starting a family, shifting to academia, moving to full-time employment, and finding full-time work too stressful.
All the Pulse Check surveys have tracked perceived wellbeing in the responding practices, and the types of support offered by the responding practices. The most widely offered support is ‘informal catch-ups with management and/or team leaders’ and ‘shared company activities aimed at supporting wellbeing’. The most helpful support for practices to improve wellbeing was identified as being practical guides to best practice. The survey also asked an open-ended question about the factors that impact wellbeing in the practice. Almost 200 respondents contributed and their responses to this question are still being analysed.
Many respondents are positive about the overall wellbeing of the practice. Of the 283 respondents who answered this question, almost 70% say wellbeing in their practice is good or very good. Another 19% say neutral, with only 10% worried and under 2% very worried. Looking at specific cohorts, the numbers start to shift somewhat. As in previous Pulse Checks, senior management and employees juggling other commitments are the ones who have higher percentages in the ‘slightly worrying’ and ‘very worrying’ categories.
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. Almost one quarter rate the wellbeing of practice as much better or better, while another 47% rate it at about the same. More worryingly, 25% say it’s worse (up from 15% in the last Pulse Check) and 2.5% say it’s much worse.
Some respondents took the opportunity to make further comment. Many point to the fatigue of the ongoing pandemic. Among the many interesting comments are the following:
“Ongoing unpredictability with COVID. It seems to be making people sicker at the moment, impact at home particularly on those with children, cost of living increases, world uncertainty.”
“Everybody is tired. Shortages and costs as well as sickness absences make work harder.”
“Pandemic impact is annoying because of isolation but not detrimental to wellbeing.”
“Increased work rate has put pressure on existing staff with inability to find additional resources.”
“Noting that mental wellbeing is affected by matters the practice can not necessarily influence or require knowledge about, especially for employees with other commitments.”
“We have supported some staff through wellbeing crisis, and those situations appear to have stabilised.”
“Two years of extreme stress has taken its toll on the management team of the studio. Lots of support provided but still very challenging.”
“Just a bit too busy, but also hard to get the work done with delays and cost increases.”
Respondents were asked, for the first time, about what types of support would help improve wellbeing in the practice. Over half identified ‘Practical guide to best practice at different scales and levels of practice’, with ‘Regular discussion forum around wellbeing issues’ and ‘Leadership coaching for wellbeing’ also receiving a lot of interest. Comments made point to the impact of the wider industry context and the valuing of architecture on wellbeing:
“Better fees to pay for better workplace services and salaries.”
“This all sounds good but each staff member has a different experience from a death in the family, family member in hospital, financial pressures – cost of living, demanding industry, lack of time etc.”
“We have had policies and coaching etc in place for years; but the pressure of work continues to pile up and many staff are overworked.”
“The factors are more external than internal in our case.”
“Less red tape at a Local Government level, abolish staged progress claims (by banks) and lower cost of building (streamlining supply issues) will assist in breaking down roadblocks to getting projects to construction stage.”
“All of the above. I really like the practical suggestions so we can ensure our practice is providing the best possible outcomes for staff.”
“Genuine rest and easing of craziness in the world.”
“Better managed projects and improved feedback.”
A small number of respondents also expressed cynicism about wellbeing, and one suggested that graduates don’t know how lucky they are.
The changing workplace
As in previous Pulse Checks, respondents were asked if there have been lessons learnt during the pandemic experience that will be taken forward. This time we also asked additional questions about hybrid working models and flexibility.
As in previous surveys, the most common ongoing change is increased use of online meetings and collaboration and increased flexibility in where work is done. In the comments, many respondents pointed out that their practice had already been working flexibly prior to the pandemic, while a small number reported challenges with flexible work:
“As we all work from home, the only thing we do try to manage is contactable hours. Some start early/ some later so as long as there is a point where everyone can communicate at a similar time daily, it seems to work.”
“Were already flexible in time and location.”
“Employees will work from home when they have COVID, if well enough to do so. It’s not that we are more flexible now, it’s just that it is more common now. New mothers coming back from maternity leave will often work when it suits them with a target amount of hours for the fortnight. It is best, on many levels, if employees work in the office during office hours.”
“We had implemented a Flex Work Policy prior to COVID, but only started fully utilising it across all roles during the pandemic.”
“For the past 15 years we have always had flexibility for staff, both men and women. And as we are in WA the impact of COVID was less on staff but did affect our project timelines.”
“As a small practice we discuss flexible working arrangements continuously but have not provided a policy. Just reassure staff to confirm what they desire as individual work plans in relation to flexibility.”
“We have tried all of the above. The general result seems to have been a loss in productivity (and thus revenue) as well as no change or improvement in mental wellbeing (except a reduction in wellbeing for senior staff in management roles). The result has been that we have had to wind back some of the flexibility offered.”
“Major issue is that deadlines don’t shift due to staff illness, putting a strain on other staff members.”
“I am a sole practitioner, working from home office in a remote location (island off an island). Isolation was nothing new.”
“These were in place prior to COVID but have become more of a focus moving forward.”
The use of hybrid and flexible working models falls into three similarly sized groups – more than one third of responding practices are leveraging experiences during the pandemic to embed long-term flexibility, another third have been working flexibly since before the pandemic, and the final third see flexibility as a short term or last resort solution or are not working flexibly at all. Those who chose to comment reflect a similar mix, with many commenting on the benefits of being together in a studio environment:
“My ultimate goal is a work from home system where we have a communal hub where we meet for Monday planning meeting, days where we are needing to hit deadlines and possibly a more formal space for staff to work beside me a little more. This may help to reduce some of the work frustration.”
“We have allowed a senior staff member to work remotely. Our preference is the whole practice works in the office at all times.”
“We have had a diverse (cloud based and geographical) workforce for six years.”
“We support flexible working practices to accommodate employees’ needs. We have a preference for our team to work in the studio as a team.”
“Remote work suits experienced staff; however, we experienced difficulties supporting/mentoring students/recent graduates remotely.”
“Flexible work arrangements are available to our team when it suits both project and employee needs.”
“Yes, the technology for online working has its uses. But it can be draining, time consuming (particularly onboarding) and depersonalising and abstract.”
“We generally utilise and welcome flexible working practices.”
“Still evolving, but hybrid in some form is normal now.”
“Our team prefers to work from the office. The flexibility is open for anyone to contact our director and ask for any changes as requested. For example, asking for a mental health day, to work in the afternoon instead of the morning, work from home or remotely, etc.”
“Pre-COVID this was offered to individuals, but the positive of the pandemic has resulted it to be open to all staff.”
“We are and have been increasingly flexible about how and when and where we work. We believe that the office is a valued social setting and we are keen to keep the studio as active and shared space as a first choice.”
The percentage of staff working remotely in the week of the survey varied widely. The largest cohorts were at either extreme – 22% of respondents had all staff in the office and 17% had all staff remote.
Practices were asked which flexible or hybrid working models they use – and were asked to identify all that apply. Individual and ad hoc flexibility are the most prevalent models, wth more structured approaches used by fewer practices. The responses to open questions provide detail of different approaches. A minimum of three days in the office is mentioned by many. A sample of responses is offered below:
“Each staff member has a day off/week – nominated by them as a regular day, but it can change with some notice based on their need.”
“We work remotely with min. hours per week with mandatory weekly meetings with deadlines for work. Once a month we work in a shared office to review projects, processes etc.”
“Our model is collaborative, we negotiate what works for the office and the staff member, and based on current and ever changing circumstances.”
“Minimum 4 days in the office for grads, and up to 3 days at home for others.”
“There is always some flexibility dependent on the circumstances of individuals. Surely this is common sense.”
“We ask that staff attend office 3 days out of 5.”
Pulse Check no. 6 sought to understand the challenges faced by architectural practices. Questions on this were spit into three areas – challenges relating to staffing and employment, challenges related to project management and delivery, and those related to running a business. Each section generated many comments in addition to the options offered, as did the open-ended question about ‘any further challenges. A selection are included below, but these comments will be analysed further and discussed in a subsequent article.
The most common challenge in relation to staffing and employment related to higher than usual rates of illness, followed by upward pressure on salaries not being matched by increased income, difficulties attracting experienced staff, and exhaustion. In most cases these various challenges do not exist in isolation from each other.
Additional comment on the challenges associated with staff and employment:
“The profession is so competitive on times and fees that it is difficult to offer adequate remuneration for professional staff and reasonable time frames to achieve the high level of quality demanded of the profession in a competitive and litigious environment.”
“Our youngest staff member misses out on informal learning due to her being located remotely (regional) and therefore having limited office time.”
“Not being able to go back to a regular office routine has become increasingly frustrating over time. Flexibility is good for work/life balance but difficult to maintain focus and productivity in the long run. In my opinion.”
“A huge number of new enquiries for projects (a good problem to have!) but finding the balance between growth and declining a lot of potential work.”
“More expectation from staff to work remotely since pandemic, even though this has not proven to improve production rates or quality of work.”
“One can get better paid as a kitchen hand or a building labourer. Many of our clients’ junior officers are paid more than our senior and experienced staff. This is a systemic issue for the profession.”
“Management exhausted from pressures of the last two years.”
The costs of materials, supply chain challenges and other delays were most dominant in terms of challenges associated with project management and delivery. Many who commented also pointed to challenges with local councils and other consultants.
Additional comment on the challenges associated with project management and delivery:
“Many clients are now commissioning projects in discrete stages, many of which may not proceed or worse are being cancelled mid-stage. This is making it difficult to forecast our long term order book, staffing levels and overall practice management.”
“Primarily the increased cost of construction, and impacts on clients and their budgets, and on builders who have fixed priced contracts signed then costs increasing for them.”
“We are having difficulties with consultants in terms of timing and deliverables, which impacts our programs.”
“Also struggling with the technical capacity of some consultants and particularly the lack of knowledge and flexibility of Council staff and other agencies.”
“Builders under great stress due to current industry environment. Projects taking much longer than contract timeframes. Government sets architect fees based on contract timeframe. Government being lenient with builders by not claiming liquidation damages. However, government refusing to pay architects for extra months of work. This means government projects are being financed by architect’s mortgages. This is a challenge.”
“Sub consultants suffer similar pressures and health issues, which impact document delivery.”
“Many people are suffering a degree of emotional fatigue – it’s hard to keep up the positive energy and momentum for a small project.”
“Building cost escalation; overly pedantic compliance at Council assessment stages; banks being ridiculously naive about how architect administered construction processes work; staged progress claim demands by banks corrupt the proper administered process.”
“We are uncovering errors or omissions in our consultant documentation that is due to their lack of collaboration or coordination either within their own office or with our documents due to their WFH arrangements.”
“Inflation, rising interest rates, lack of government understanding and support in relation to construction supply chain delays, increasing cost of major building products ie timber, concrete, steel. Increased building regulation including Building Regulated Design, to satisfy harder to satisfy accessibility requirements, difficult to pass Nathers / thermal assessments, Councils becoming far more strict in assessing Development Applications, Councils taking far too long to provide a DA consent. All these things are posing severe challenges in the architecture and building industry, making building far more expensive and inaccessible to most people I believe. As a consequence I am noticing a downturn in prospective client enquiry.”
“Construction costs having massive impact on viability of projects. Clients cancelling or putting projects on hold. Hard to find clients willing to commit to bigger budgets with rising interest rates.”
“In a rapidly changing environment, managing expectations and providing a level of comfort to clients is difficult, especially at the commencement of a project, in balancing a desired scope against an achievable budget… especially when that budget is cooked by inflationary pressure at multiple points in the process.”
“Expectation that construction delays mean that our contract admin fee stays the same. No variations on government projects due to extended timeframes or additional works.”
“Our fees in relation to managing the above problems and factoring that into our costs. Then the general public accepting paying more in an inefficient market.”
The top challenges associated with running a business related to the increased costs not matched by increased income, the ongoing shifting of risk onto the profession, and fees inadequate to service projects appropriately.
Additional comment on the challenges associated with running a business include:
“Economic uncertainty is leading to clients rarely committing to full commissions at the start of projects.”
“Our industry is racing to the bottom – we have lost our position as the lead and expert in architecture.”
“A lack of an ability to compete with other architects for fees, noting that there are many levels of possible scope in contracts and clients do not seek to understand them.”
“While our fees are adequate we are not being compensated for the increase in construction time and this is the part that is killing our bottom line.”
“Government departments still (despite huge amounts of work by the ACA and AIA) issue EOI contract terms that are uninsurable for architects. Increased project timelines mean negotiated fees are becoming unprofitable. Insurance premiums are constantly increasing. Overheads (rent and utilities) are becoming challenging to afford.”
“Trying to keep ahead of a changing and increasingly over-regulated design/building environment.”
“Software pricing escalations – ArchiCAD just scrapped 500hr PPU license model after I had paid for it and are refusing to honour my purchase. This is a current dispute I am facing.”
“Increased passing of risk onto architects generally seen as positive – because it also gives more power/ responsibility. eg DBP Act.”
“Project delays impacting cash flow.”
In addition to cataloguing the (many) challenges, Pulse Check no. 6 sought to understand the opportunities that practices had found over the last six months. The opportunity identified by the most respondents was the chance to rethink how we practice. As one respondent commented: “We have all learned a great deal from the pandemic.” Other interesting comments include “We have taken a lot of time to work on the business side of the practice during the pandemic. This has led to an increase in profit margins, and new work opportunities.” and “Opportunity to employ staff interstate, and work remotely across three offices.”
Current levels of work and work pipelines
Responses to the questions about current levels of work, and future pipelines of work, continue to be heartening, particularly when compared to the concerns about levels of work expressed in the early Pulse Check surveys.
Of the responding practices, 77% are busy. This includes 44% that are very busy (119 practices) and another 32% (another 88 practices) that are moderately busy.
Financial position and outlook
As in the previous Pulse Check, this survey asked a number of questions that aimed to capture a sense of the level of business confidence, and confidence in the profession. The outlook continues to be fairly positive for practices, but the reported expectations about the future state of the profession are much less positive than a year ago.
The first of this set of questions asked about the current financial position compared to the start of the pandemic. Approximately 45% of responding practices are in a better financial position (compared to 38% of respondents to Pulse Check 5) while 27% are neither better nor worse off. More worryingly, about one third of practices continue to be worse off, with 9% much worse off.
Projections about financial health a year into the future show a very similar pattern to descriptions of the current situation. This is a contrast to Pulse Check no.5, which identified future projections as much more positive. This time, almost 46% of respondents expected to be better off to some extent (down from 60% in Pulse Check 5), and another 36% expected to be in a similar position.
Projections about the state of the profession over the next year are substantially less positive than the last survey, with less than a quarter of respondents expecting the profession to be better off in a year, and almost one half (45%) expecting the profession to be worse or much worse off.
Lastly, we asked about advocacy priorities and what people value about the ACA. Fees and procurement are identified as the most important area for ongoing advocacy, followed by awareness of the role of the architect/value of architecture in the wider community, the allocation of risk, and unfair contracts.
We are very pleased to see that the ACA’s work continues to be valued by many.