What are the opportunities to improve and change leadership and management in the profession? What do they mean for practices and younger staff? Anwyn Hocking presents advice garnered through the Work & Wellbeing survey.

An organisation’s management and leadership are instrumental to employees’ wellbeing and professional development. This article explores some of the recurring practical advice on developing more effective management and leadership offered by the 1,883 respondents. It is a companion to the earlier article outlining suggestions for enhancing workplace communication. Considering that 96% of the respondents indicated that they would like to see substantial permanent improvements following COVID-19, there is much to learn from the summary below of suggestions from those engaged in architecture and built environment professions.

1. Develop and provide leadership training

Employees and employers both proposed training programs to encourage senior staff to enhance their communication skills, management styles, empathy, patience and understanding of wellbeing. As one participant suggested, “more training around managerial and leadership skills” would allow leaders to develop the necessary “ability to delegate efficiently” and gain a greater understanding of “how to invest in time for communication and check-ins”.

The importance of including education around mental health within such leadership training was a common theme. Enabling team leaders to “to know when and how to assess mental health and when not to be invasive” would, as another respondent put it, help leaders “engage as humans with their employees”.

One respondent – a practice director – captured a recent event in which mental health awareness and training had aided them in their strategy with a staff member.

“For instance, one of our staff ‘appeared’ to be having a less-than-happy time. As he was meant to be going overseas at the time, we encouraged him and his partner to have a break (paid). He has done that and stuck his head into my place the other day and seemed much chirpier. But sometimes, it is hard for us to gauge online, and, as I said, know when to intervene. We are trying to be as observant as possible and to include it as an agenda item in our directors’ meetings. Of course, this is always (NOT just COVID). It’s a challenge to:

    1. See if someone is struggling for any reason outside specific work issues.
    2. Have the right methods to broach the subject.
    3. Hope they can see it themselves and/or be able to talk about it openly.
    4. Find the right mechanism to support without being invasive …

We also use some of the [named practice] methods in weekly team meetings of catching up on social and personal events before we review project status and office updates.”

Armed with knowledge and skills, respondents reminded us often that good leadership means little if leaders don’t “lead by example – practising good work-life balance, and acting with good personal and professional management”.

2. Increase diversity at leadership levels

Stop rewarding the same type of people to lead the profession. It’s really becoming boring. Look outside the square.

Respondents urged the necessity of extending workplace gender, cultural and life circumstance equity to leadership levels. By fostering “efforts and advocacy in areas of diversity and equality in leadership”, organisations would be able to respond “to the real issues of our diverse community”. As one participant recommended, we need to “recognise that a lot of people work very hard with little or no recognition or career advancement because of their gender, ethnicity or work-life situation and are not what is falsely or commonly perceived as ‘leadership material’.”

Many participants hoped that the COVID-19-inspired acceptance and shift towards flexible work arrangements would also enable a greater diversity of people with different work habits and life circumstances to participate in “leadership and shareholder levels”.

3. Trust, respect and support staff

Respondents indicated that trusting and respecting the autonomy of staff as individuals and professionals is critical to supporting employee wellbeing. The recommendations for building respect between employees and employers often argued for a review of archaic hierarchical models of leadership. As one participant said, “seriously contemplate a shift from a hierarchical command and control management style to a more flexible style of support and encouragement, where staff are allowed a sense of autonomy and to feel as if they are valuable contributors to the process of design. Recognise that individual styles and personalities respond to different working arrangements and that there is benefit in allowing these to be explored and integrated.”

Another described “exploding the hierarchical and conservative inefficiencies of the industry” by genuinely supporting “creative and inspirational research/work, matching skills deliverables and not getting hung up on titles over genuine cultural development.”

4. Clearly define roles/responsibilities and resource effectively

Employees can’t do their job efficiently if the directions and objectives are unclear. Overwhelmingly, participants described the need for “clear, effective communication regarding tasks” and “better understanding of the timeframes involved to get a thing done to avoid work hour creep.”

Some respondents indicated that this could be achieved through “better data management systems,” including “project teams in design discussions and decisions, by making it participatory not imposing” and involving “directors in design reviews at early stages of design work”.

5. Champion the professional development of staff

Give younger people a chance as well as more support.”

Fostering staff professional development and enabling mentoring opportunities, particularly for younger staff, was another valuable suggestion for improving workplace leadership. One respondent outlined the need for “better professional development opportunities (actual on the job training and attending meetings and site visits)”. They reflected:

I get no support to attend events, but I do want to learn from jobs my firm is doing or skills others have through working more collaboratively. On several occasions, I could have attended a site visit and learned different skills. However, my manager never invited me and never talked about it (and I did raise it multiple times as something I wanted to do). Afterwards, it was never talked about, which was disappointing for me. It was an opportunity, and I felt my manager either forgot or was more concerned about getting work done.”

Regarding the effects of lockdowns, many respondents outlined the challenges for younger staff who often have limited space for working from home and rely on incidental learning opportunities within the office to develop professional knowledge and skills. One participant said, “as a graduate/junior staff member, it is harder to ask small questions to project leaders when working from home” and another commented, “I think junior staff feel unsupported and uncertain, as leaders don’t address this”. In supporting junior staff, respondents advised “senior leaders to give younger people a chance as well as more support” with “scheduled check-ins and mentorship, staff reviews and informal catch-ups”.

The advice shared by the participants of the Work & Wellbeing survey for improving workplace leadership is, in many cases, practical and actionable. In working towards more equitable and supportive work environments, it’s important to take heed of such recommendations and take the lessons learnt during COVID-19 forward.