The need for improved communication was reiterated again and again in the Work & Wellbeing survey. The answers to the open questions contain a wealth of advice and reflection about the potential futures of the profession, from broad speculation to detailed suggestions. Anwyn Hocking identifies core themes and assembles key advice.
I hope everyone takes time to remember how it was during COVID and take the lessons forward … humans have a tendency to conveniently forget in favour of the status quo of the previous world structure.”
It’s important to reflect on what worked well during COVID-19 and take the lessons learnt forward. There is much to learn – 96% of respondents to the Work & Wellbeing survey indicated that there are opportunities for permanent improvements in workplaces and work cultures following COVID-19.
A great deal of advice was offered in the responses to the open questions, which sought input on a broad range of topics – from professional experiences before and during COVID-19 to mental health and wellbeing and the future of work and the profession. This series of articles – advice from the Work & Wellbeing survey – presents some of the recurring practical suggestions offered by the 1883 respondents engaged in Australian architecture.
Communication was a pervading theme throughout the long-form responses. Large numbers of respondents indicated that improved communication between staff, leadership teams and the profession as a whole would enable people to work more effectively and enjoy what they do more and would enhance wellbeing overall. Improved communication was seen as benefitting both employees and the practices and organisations they work for.
Survey respondents were also asked to broadly rate the quality and frequency of communication from their workplace during the pandemic. The generally positive replies to this question suggest that many workplaces have made a significant effort during the pandemic and have a good base to build on. Others have quite a lot of work to do – as is reiterated in the long-form answers. The concrete suggestions offered by respondents and summarised below can inform all.
1. Cultivate greater transparency
The need to enhance transparency was a dominant theme. Employees described a feeling of often being left in the dark and pointed out that more active and transparent communication would allow planning and better engagement with the organisation. As one respondent suggested, “be as transparent as possible around providing information to staff on required changes or pivoting to enable them to also adapt adequately.”
For many, the lack of transparency made redundancies all the more confusing. One respondent commented that management needed to be “more upfront and transparent with the state of the practice before (they were) made redundant,” while another was concerned about how poorly redundancies were handled – “there were no farewell morning teas as nobody knew what was happening.”
With greater transparency, some participants predicted that they would be able to support their organisation better. As one explained, “I’d like to be more involved in what else is happening in the practice and offer support, but we are not structured in this way.”
The expectation of transparency from management was matched by encouragement to employees to be more transparent about their concerns and expectations. As one participant suggested, “be more vocal. This is the time to question current practice and call for change.” In the words of another, “employees should never hesitate to share their stress of anxiety,” and “we would like our staff to discuss the issues openly and let us know what will work for them.”
Some respondents also suggested introducing an honesty and transparency company policy to ensure “inclusive and consultative” planning that recognises “people are the heart of impact.
2. Provide frequent communication and create opportunities to offer feedback to senior staff
Many respondents suggested more frequent communication and opportunities to provide feedback would promote practice morale. As one insightful respondent put it, “maximising communication, minimising fear.” This should include multiple options for discussing experiences and providing feedback to senior staff. Suggestions included, “workshopping things collectively in a group” and anonymous surveys to enable “quieter people in the office to feel as though they can have a voice.”
These suggestions were accompanied by clear articulations of the potential wellbeing benefits of increased transparency and communication. As described, “leaders being open, showing some vulnerability and being transparent allows for so much more understanding and compassion between each other and others outside the immediate working environment. This leads to a stronger sense of wellbeing for everyone.” In this context, however, the importance of following up on employees’ suggestions was emphasised, “rather than it being a mere box-ticking exercise”.
3. Continue to use digital platforms for communication
The shift to working from home meant increased engagement with digital communication technologies. While technology problems were abundant in the early days, many came to love and see a future in the office for Zoom, Teams and the array of other modes of communication.
As well as enabling greater flexibility, such technology allowed people to reduce their daily travel time and environmental impact. As one respondent advised, “meetings online rather than in person are just as effective and don’t require each person to waste time commuting,” while another commented that they were “able to connect with clients and share the design process digitally, which saves on flying and helps the planet.”
4. Increase informal and personal check-ins
Informal and more personal check-ins were a common suggestion to enhance communication. This more “human” method of communication could provide people with “indirect support and foster a feeling of connection.” As one participant recommended, catching up with staff “in a more casual, day-to-day manner as if you care about them as individuals – for instance, have a virtual coffee and talk about non-work/task-based subjects – that would give the company the best insight as to how people are going, and how they may be able to offer support.”
Several respondents also commented on the importance of checking in with senior staff: “We need to be patient and work together. Everyone needs to remember this is an unprecedented event and people are doing the best that they can. I think we also need to remember that Directors and other senior staff are probably also under large amounts of stress and worry and that they need our support as well.”
5. Increase office-wide communication
Increasing office-wide communication, respondents suggested, would enable staff to structure their time better and enjoy a greater sense of togetherness with their colleagues. One respondent reflected that “our weekly office meetings have dropped off in the last month, so I often have no idea what is happening in the office with my colleagues. I’d really like regular meetings on projects and an overview of key priorities to help structure my week/month.”
In contrast, another respondent described their experience of office-wide communication increasing: “Greater efforts to improve awareness of the projects other people are working on and general sharing of knowledge across the office have been improved during COVID 19, which I think improves morale and wellbeing. I think this is one positive of the pandemic that other businesses could learn from.”
Communication is a fundamental aspect of any organisation. There is a great opportunity to foster the communication lessons learnt during COVID-19 to move toward more supportive, inclusive and collaborative workplaces.
Remote working/teaching unleashed a lot of creative potentials in problem-solving (how to work, communicate, collaborate and design together, especially in remote teaching). It was inspiring and eye-opening to be part of this process.”
Anwyn Hocking is a researcher and designer working with Parlour and Monash University’s XYX Lab. She recently completed her MPhil in Architecture and Urban Studies at the University of Cambridge as an Ackman Trust Scholar, Bateman Scholar and recipient of the 2020 Dalibor Vesely Prize. Her research traverses sociology, epidemiology and architecture to explore experiences of identity, community and wellbeing within different urban typologies.
The Work & Wellbeing survey is a collaboration between Parlour, the Architects Champions of Change Groups and the Architects Accreditation Council of Australia. It was open from 21 June–3 July 2020. The survey was devised and developed by Justine Clark, with input and support from Gill Matthewson, Naomi Stead, Susie Ashworth, Maryam Gusheh, Brian Cooper, Julie Wolfram Cox, Monica Edwards, Chi Melhem, Thihoa Gill, Ben Green and Gemma McDonald.