New research released by the Australian Institute of Architects (AIA) reveals the ongoing impacts the COVID-19 pandemic – and responses to it – are having on architectural practice.
The results highlight changes in the type of opportunities available to architects, a consolidation in remote working, how the lack of face-to-face contact impacts new client relationships and underscore the importance of innovation to survive what the researchers have dubbed the “collective COVID-19 hangover”.
When the AIA first surveyed its members in July 2020, it revealed that a substantial slowdown in projects and measurable shifts in employment were the biggest pandemic-driven changes to the architectural profession.
Now more than 12 months on, this second survey shows that, encouragingly, 55 per cent of respondents have retained and grown their client base, while a further 7 per cent have retained and sustained and 35 per cent lost and replaced their client base, with only 3 per cent losing and not replacing clients.
The pandemic has also seen a shift in the type of project opportunities available to architects. While one-off residential opportunities have increased, there has been a notable decrease across some sectors including commercial (-30 per cent), multi-storey residential (-29 per cent), retail (-21 per cent) and culture and entertainment (-21 per cent).
Concerningly, as at July 2021, 48 per cent of practices surveyed reported observing somewhat of a decline of mental health within their practice due to COVID-19. Subsequent lockdowns suggest that this may have only deteriorated in the intervening period.
The findings also underscore how important face-to-face contact is for architects in winning new work. While only 10 per cent of respondents reported that their relationships with existing clients had been negatively impacted by the shift to exclusively virtual interactions, 29 per cent reported a negative impact on relationships with new clients. As one respondent remarked, “nothing beats a face-to-face meeting”.
Nevertheless, the pandemic appears to have changed how architects interact with their clients over the longer term with 78 per cent of respondents indicating they are now networking with clients through a new COVID norm, a combination of online and face-to-face engagements*.
The pandemic has had a lasting impact on practices’ remote working policies with 36 per cent reporting that they have now introduced a flexible approach to work with time in both the office and working from home.
This is on top of the 26 per cent who already had a flexible work policy in place and in contrast to the 25 per cent who expect their team to eventually return to full-time work in the office.
Just over one-quarter of practices surveyed have responded to the changed conditions by turning to innovation in how they practice and exploring new services.
The survey also highlighted the impacts of a shift to remote working. Views diverged on whether working from home impeded creativity with one-third of respondents (33 per cent) believing it did whereas the majority (60 per cent) said creativity was unchanged.
An overwhelming number of respondents thought design outcomes were unaffected by remote working. On questions of communication, productivity and collaboration, the results were mixed with respondents more or less evenly split on whether working from home has had a positive or negative impact.
AIA CEO, Julia Cambage, commended the practices that are innovating their business model.
“As we have learnt over the last year and a half, the world can change overnight,” Ms Cambage said.
“While the pandemic continues to affect the operation of architectural practices around the nation, this survey shows that members are responding well with agility to changing market dynamics.”
“This report contains important findings made possible through the support of our National Corporate partner, the Built Environment Channel and I encourage members to leverage them.”
AIA National President, Tony Giannone, also called on members to look after one another at a time when people are lacking human connection and support.
“As leaders and responsible employers, we need to do the best we can to support our colleagues through the hardships created by this pandemic,” Mr Giannone said.
Below are some of the report’s key findings:
- 76 per cent of firms said their relationships with existing clients remained unchanged as a result of forced online networking and meetings.
- The negative impact of solely connecting with clients online jumps from 10 per cent with existing clients to 29 per cent with new clients.
- 55 per cent of respondents reported that they had retained and grown their client base, with only 3 per cent losing and not replacing clients.
- 78 per cent of respondents are now networking with clients through a new COVID-19 norm, a combination of online and face to face engagements, with 17 per cent returning to face-to-face only and 5 per cent remaining online only
- The percentage of practice participation among respondents has dropped across all sectors other than one-off residential projects.
- The sectors where respondents identified the largest decrease in project opportunities over the last 1.5 years included commercial (30 per cent), multi-storey residential (29 per cent), retail (21 per cent) and culture and entertainment (21 per cent).
- 27 per cent of respondents said they have explored new services to sell to clients over the last 1.5 years.
- 70 per cent of practices reported that the change to remote working had not impacted design outcomes.
- 36 per cent of practices surveyed now offer a flexible approach to work with time in both the office and working from home.
- As at July 2021, 48 per cent of practices surveyed reported observing somewhat of a decline of mental health within their practice due to COVID-19.
The data within the report was collected in July 2021 and represents the views of over 135 practices around the country that employ approximately 4,700 architects. Respondents vary in practice size and geographic location.
Download the report at https://bit.ly/3BBg2Xc
*Note: Survey data collected early in the current Sydney lockdown and prior to the current Melbourne and ACT lockdowns.