Emerging from a Sydney lockdown, the new practice EM BE CE has ambitious plans for rapid growth and to foster a workplace culture of open conversation, transparency and equity.
EM BE CE is a new design studio, which was established in July 2021 by directors Mladen Prnjatovic, Ben Green and Chi Melhem. The practice name is derived from a phonetic rendering of their first name initials: Mladen, Ben, Chi – EM BE CE. The name embodies the studio’s approach to a collective and collaborative working ethos. EM BE CE is a team of eight, currently working on over 15 projects in a range of sectors. The practice aims to work across the spectrum of the built environment, from the chair to the city, with a focus on mixed use, multi-residential projects, commercial projects, urban renewal, heritage adaptation, precinct planning and bespoke homes.
Prior to setting up EM BE CE in July 2021, Mladen, Ben and Chi spent 20 years working at and leading the Sydney practice Tzannes. As directors, they participated in the leadership of Tzannes, contributing to its identity over time to introduce new sectors of work, new ways of working and new ways of making architecture to the practice. They have started EM BE CE with the ambition to extend this legacy into a fresh new studio, working with the philosophy that good design is for everyone. They aim to apply the same creative thinking and problem solving to every project in their care, regardless of scale or budget.
We do not have a top down approach, we work in an open and collaborative environment to ensure the best idea wins, regardless of who it comes from. This establishes a high level of engagement from every member of our team and results in productive, creative and often unexpected outcomes. At EM BE CE, there are no silos. Our broad range of work and engagement through all stages of design and delivery ensures a depth of skills within our team.”
What stage is the practice at?
As an emerging practice that has only been open since July 2021, we have the benefit of drawing on the strong culture of our previous practice and partnerships and collaborations with organisations such as Parlour and the Champions of Change Coalition. These experiences have provided a strong platform for us to start our practice with a fresh perspective. We are between steps 3 and 5 of the WGEA Equality Roadmap, with systems in place and culture embedded with our small team. With a steady growth forecast over the next two years, we are in a good place to achieve an equitable leadership and organisational structure.
How does the practice understand and define equity?
It’s important to differentiate between equality and equity. Equality provides everyone with the same level of support regardless of their circumstance. Equity, on the other hand, recognises that everyone is at a different stage in their career and life with different needs. These differences require a tailored level of support to suit each individual.
How equity is defined and measured
An equitable workplace has a balance and diversity of individuals at every level of the organisation. While many individuals strive to grow into a leadership position, we also acknowledge that certain individuals do not wish to progress beyond certain levels of the practice. We respect this, and so the measure of equity is both a quantitative representation at each level of the business as well as a qualitative measure of career planning.
We aim to listen to each member of our team, understand their goals and establish a career and work plan to suit their ambitions. It looks at both the short and long term to allow for a roadmap. The roadmap will be reviewed annually and updated as required. It’s important to treat the roadmap as a qualitative measure which focuses on outcomes and is not a checklist. We also understand ambitions can change, so staying flexible, agile and open to change is important.
While we appreciate the ultimate measure is an equal number of men and women in leadership, our focus is in the meaningful steps before this. We believe leadership is about having the best person for the job; it is earned through talent and experience irrespective of gender. While talent in most cases is innate, experience is gained through opportunity and time.
Traditional gender roles have a significant impact on how experience is gained. Time and opportunity is often compromised when an individual becomes a parent. Our aim is to make up for their reduction in time with increased opportunity and levels of support to ensure they can continue to grow their experience.
Reducing the gender roles gap through initiatives like equal carers leave, equal parental leave pay and all roles flex will hopefully level out the current inequity for women and encourage more men to share in responsibilities outside of work.
What workplace culture does the practice aspire to? What formal policies and strategies does the practice have in place to increase equity?
As a new practice we have the advantage of establishing a fresh new culture. Through the lessons learnt from our past experiences, we have retained a lot of the positive foundational principles that underpin good culture, as well as the freedom to refine and aspire to industry best practice. These are outlined below.
How we work:
We have an open and collaborative design studio. We do not have a top down approach – the best idea wins, regardless of who it comes from. At EM BE CE, there are no silos. Our broad range of work and engagement through all stages of design and delivery ensures a depth of skills within our team. Our way of working is centred on bringing together diverse viewpoints to unlock fresh thinking. This is only possible in the context of a diverse workplace.
- All roles flex
- Paid overtime that is managed
- WHS and safe work environment
- Bullying and Harassment Policy
Processes and Procedures
- A Roles Description Matrix provides clarity on the interrelationship between skills and expectations, and how they change with experience. This helps provide guidance on career growth and progression.
- Annual performance review
- Annual financial review
- Design reviews
- Studio “GIN” – a chance to get together and share anything from personal, practice and project information
- Sponsoring of our team through public acknowledgment and endorsement from everyday tasks, to our clients and through to industry events
What are the key issues relating to equity for the practice?
As a new practice we have an opportunity to ensure we establish equity at every level of the business as it grows. It is a managed process that looks at both the structure of new staff balanced against the career planning of our current team.
Our biggest challenge is managing growth and being ready for the structural change as we grow. Our ambition is to be a practice of 20–30 in the next five to seven years, working across a diversity of sectors. This requires careful planning to ensure the structure of the team and skill sets suit the size we are as we are growing and the strategic positions needed to reach our target practice size. It includes managing career pathways for a relatively small practice as well as creating opportunities through the growth period.
We have open discussions with our team with regards to future planning. This allows everyone a sense of engagement in the practice and for those who are interested in leadership, a level of ownership of the growth plan.
What informal approaches have helped change or develop the workplace culture?
Our practice is only three months old, so we are still establishing and implementing our systems. We have learnt from past experiences that there are some key approaches to maintain a positive and equitable workplace culture:
- An open communication between staff
- Regular catch-ups
- Acknowledging achievements and contributions, regardless of how small
- Leading by example in both the way we speak and act at work
- Directors are open about flexibility and juggling personal commitments to demonstrate to staff the family-friendly environment in which we work
- Calling out unacceptable behaviour when we see it, even if it is something we see outside of work, to keep the conversation open and front of mind
- Maintaining a sense of humour with our staff
What processes have been used to implement change?
It is still early days for us; however, we have found some of the impetus for change comes from being aware. This awareness has been achieved through various pathways:
- Open conversations
- Industry partnerships and collaborations such as the Champions of Change Coalition and Parlour
- Industry events and talks, such as Parlour Salons and speaker events
- Measurable data and research to formulate a strong business case that change is feasible and beneficial
Who has led the process and who is involved?
All three directors are actively involved and on board with achieving equity in the workplace. The diversity of our backgrounds and skills bring different perspectives to our practice leadership, which often results in very robust discussions. Our 20 years history of working together allows us to have very honest and respectful conversations, and in most cases we reach an agreed position that everyone endorses.
What progress has the practice made?
Our leadership in our previous established practice has allowed us to start our new practice with an informed position to implement policies and strategies straight away.
Have there been any surprises?
Having worked with each other for 20 years, we still surprise each other with our views on certain assumed things. For this reason, we discuss all our big decisions and core practice principles to ensure that communications stay open and we continue to be aligned.
What challenges has the practice faced in the process of improving equity?
As a new and small practice, our team has been carefully selected to suit our current projects as well as our forecast growth. We have hired the best people for the positions that have needed to be filled and already there is a slight imbalance at each level. There will be opportunities to rebalance as we continue to grow. We are keeping a close eye on this and we may need to invest in the “potential” for staff to grow into positions in order to ensure diversity within our practice is achieved.
What effect has the pandemic had on equity initiatives?
The practice started in the middle of the Sydney lockdown so it has not had an impact on equity in our practice. The flexibility of remote working has allowed for staff at every level to manage their commitments quite well. The challenge for us is how to embed culture for a new team who are all working remotely as a starting point. We are very conscious of the noticeable challenge of informal conversations, banter and collaboration that happens in the office and have endeavoured to stay connected through regular Zoom catch-ups and Teams chat.
What future plans or intentions do you have in relation to equity?
- Paid parental leave
- Expand our GIN sessions into the equivalent format of Parlour Salons to facilitate the internal conversations with our team
- Listening and Learning
- Data collection and metrics to understand our practice benchmarked against the industry
What key lessons or tips can you offer others?
- Understand the numbers, but focus on addressing the issues that are causing these numbers. As a small practice our numbers are continuously in flux and proportions are significantly impacted by just one new person. (Just as much damage is caused by putting a person in a position because of their gender as it is with not putting a person in because of their gender.)
- Don’t assume you know; hold listening and learning sessions with your staff and hear what they have to say.
- Get involved in industry bodies and attend industry talks to understand the broader picture and what best practice could be.
- There is a huge body of research and tools to help you make change; start with the Parlour website.
- Understand and measure your own practice so you know where you are at today and where it is you need to go.
- Commit to implementing change; there’s no point listening to your staff if nothing is going to be done.
- You don’t have to do everything at once. Incremental change managed well can be very effective. At the same time, don’t wait until you have the ‘perfect answer’ to an issue before you make a change. This may stop you from ever acting. It also may not be the perfect answer you thought it was.
- Monitor your progress, review it and be flexible and responsive to change and feedback.
- Keep the conversations open.
- Be accountable for your actions; equity is more than lip service.
Practice size: 9
Ownership model: 3 directors, equal ownership
Location: Chippendale, NSW
Directors: 2 male (46, 47), 1 female (42)
Senior architect: 1 female (32)
Architect: 1 male (32)
Graduates: 3 male (23, 26, 28), 1 female (30)
Sectors: Interiors, single resi, multi resi, commercial, public, urban design, feasibility