Those working within what at the start of December was the Perth office of health, community, education, transport and defence architecture firm Designinc know what it is like to go through structural change within their practice.
Having announced a split with the national firm early that month, the new architecture firm renamed itself DAPM. One week later, however, liquidators were appointed to DAPM and the firm is reportedly set to be reincorporated under a new name known as Modcon Architecture, which is seeking to establish itself as a leader in modular and prefabrication architecture. Whilst some of the former practice’s workers are set to be rehired, it is understood that this will not be the case with everybody.
This but one example of a case where an architecture firm is forced to undergo a process of upheaval. Indeed, significant reorganisation can occur when practices either acquire other practices or are themselves acquired, have divisions spilt off, move into new sectors, upsize or downsize in response to economic conditions or simply engage in restructuring in order to improve operational performance.
That raises interesting questions about how change can be managed from a viewpoint of leadership and people management.
Speaking predominately about people management, Michelle Gibbings, founder and director of change management consultancy Change Meridian, says a common mistake is to assume that all workers will respond to change in the same way. Whilst it is true that a number may in fact feel threatened, others may embrace what they see as a new opportunity, she said. For this reason, Gibbings suggests that change should in fact be managed one worker at a time.
In terms of why people might feel threatened, Gibbings says an underlying cause of human fear revolves around fear of the unknown. This can be exacerbated during organisational change in cases where people are uncertain as to what will be happening to them going forward. It extends beyond whether or not they will in fact have a role; concerns can also include a lack of clarity as to how their role might change, who they will be reporting to, what level of responsibility and authority they may have and who they may be working with, she said.
Gibbings says another factor revolves around a loss of control and a sense of disempowerment which comes from people feeling that change is being ‘done to them.’
In order to address these issues, Gibbings says clear communication is essential as to how the change will impact individuals and any ways in which their role going forward is likely to change. Where possible, it can be useful to involve workers in the change process and to empower them to influence how the change is implemented.
Whilst it may not be possible to give workers a say in the final outcome, it may be useful to give them a degree of input as to the process by which change is occurring. Staff input, for example, could be sought in terms of what the practice’s values might be going forward.
At a leadership level, Gibbings says it is important to be clear about why the change is happening, what the practice hopes to achieve through the reorganisation, what role people will need to play in making it happen and how the change will impact individual project managers and their team. It is also important to develop a road map outlining how the change will proceed and to monitor results so as to enable people to see progress, she said.
Robert Peake, director of architecture and design financial and business management consultancy Management For Design, said one of the most critical components of successful change is to ensure that the entire leadership team is in alignment and on board with what the practice is planning to achieve, why indeed the change is required, and the consequences of not acting.
Often, Peake said, partners within firms are at different stages in their lives and careers and have different priorities. Significant change, he said, was not always being driven by consensus but in fact by one or two partners, with other partners being less excited and less connected with the process.
It is also important, Peake says, to seek advice from experts outside of their businesses who will assist with leadership alignment, planning for and actioning significant organisational change. As with many businesses in other sectors, decisions regarding structural change within architecture firms can tend to be made on the go and in some instances, can be made without the entire flow on consequences being thought through completely, he said.
Communication with the key people in the business was also imperative, Peake added.
Peake says resistance to change amongst staff does not tend to be as much of an issue in architecture compared with some other sectors. Architects, Peake says, tend to be highly focused around projects and do not always see their longer-term careers as being wedded around any one individual firm or employer.
Furthermore, in what has been a reasonably strong architecture market over the past decade and a half, those who do wind up leaving the firm in organisational restructures tend to source other work and re-invigorate their careers relatively quickly. For these reasons, Peake says, architects do not have as great a tendency as people in some other sectors to necessarily feel threatened by organisational change.
“Architecture is quite a transient occupation currently and the typical tenure of an architect at any one practice is statistically two and a half years,” Peake said. “Architects are not necessarily seeking this long-term career support, they are looking for projects, responsibility and opportunity. If they are getting that in a business, they don’t pay attention to who they are working for or what it is going to be in terms of the leadership changes. Not that this is necessarily a great thing.
“That sort of thing is not their main priority.”
Where people are let go for work-related issues, Peake says architectural firms generally do well in terms of support provided to those affected. Whereas in some other sectors you might occasionally see people leaving immediately after being informed that their position was in fact being made redundant, Peake says he has not seen this happen in his time consulting with architecture firms.
Finally, Gibbings says it is important to allow adequate time for the reorganisation to take place. A common tendency is to underestimate the amount of time necessary in order to execute the reorganisation, she said. This is especially the case as the reorganisation will typically need to happen simultaneously alongside regular daily tasks.
“People often underestimate how much effort is required to make the change work,” Giddings said.
“We have this lovely ability as humans to be overly-optimistic about how long it takes to get something done or how much we can do within a particular time frame. Therefore, we don’t necessarily allocate enough time and energy to focus on change and nor do we allocate enough time to have the right type of conversations to make sure that all of the people who are impacted by the change are fully on board and understand what it means to them.”