The A/E firm workplace in 2021: Just don’t say “required”

Here are a few of the different types of workplace models and associated dynamics at play across the A/E industry in 2021.

By Morrissey Goodale November 29, 2021
Downtown Chicago. Courtesy: CFE Media

Leadership teams across the country are trying to figure out the optimal workplace model for their firms. What’s the right blend of physical in-person and digital engagement—or phygital? To do this, they’ve been interpreting mixed signals from government agencies; gauging the hopes and concerns of their employees; guessing which options to offer new recruits; taking direction from their clients; looking for clues from their firm’s KPIs; prioritizing the health of their employees; and walking a political tightrope.

The result? An almost infinite patchwork of workplace models from coast to coast. Long gone are the days of everyone in the office for 40 (really 50) hours a week. Every leadership team is endeavoring to craft a model that captures the best of their pre-pandemic culture and marry it with today’s post-pandemic set of circumstances. For an industry that both values and champions data-driven decision making, leadership teams across the country are making these decisions in a largely data-free way. There’s no dataset or role model for what “works” today. The largest industry firms—typically role models for “best practices”—are operating in a stiflingly bureaucratic nightmare universe of federally mandated regulations that render their workplace models largely irrelevant to most other industry firms. So each leadership team is landing on a workplace model that is unique to their firm.

Here are just a few of the different types of workplace models and associated dynamics at play across the A/E industry in 2021. I can say with 100% confidence that all of these will change over the next 12 months. For an industry in which the biggest challenge is finding and keeping talent, the stakes are high for each and every leadership team. Employees are voting with their feet. Get your workplace model right, and encourage (be careful not to “require”) your people to market it hard via social media to attract and retain talent. Get the model wrong, and watch your competitors accumulate the talent you need.

From pole to pole and everywhere in between: At one end of the spectrum, we see firms that look almost exactly like they did in January 2020. Most all of their employees are in the office with zero mask-wearing, and they have no pandemic-driven office reconfigurations. While the world around them has changed, their business models have largely remained the same. At the opposite end, there are firms in which the vast majority of office staff are still remote, with their leadership teams affording employees 100% flexibility on how/when they do their work. Most firms, however, fall between these two models.

Hybrid models and mixed results: There are firms embracing a hybrid workplace model in which the leadership teams are loving the results. Not just the reduction in wasteful expenses (inter-office travel and all its associated costs), but also increased employee happiness and improved financial performance. At the same time, there are firms in which the leadership teams have growing concerns about how their hybrid model is negatively impacting everything from project performance to professional development.

Much like Voldemort, whose name is not to be spoken: There are firms in which the following words have completely and mysteriously disappeared from the lips of their leadership teams: “required,” “mandated,” “must,” and “directed.” It’s as if these leadership teams are unwilling to provide clear policy directions for fear of alienating any of their employees. The problem with this approach is that many other employees want clear directions.

In the words of Benny and Björn: “Money, money, money.” Lots of firms are providing financial incentives to their employees to return to the office, including monthly bonuses. Also on offer: free lunches, “happy hours,” free parking, and dedicated office spaces. Firms are retooling their benefits packages fast to keep up with the associated changing needs of their workforce. You get the idea: “Come on down!”

Is this any way to run an A/E firm?! The variety of hybrid models in play boggles the mind. For your consideration, here are some: firms in which 30% to 40% of employees are in the office one to two days per week; firms with everyone in the office just three days a week; firms with 50% of staff in the office and 50% fully remote; firms that are 90% remote (with no plans to come back); firms with 20% of staff in the office every day with the balance remote; firms in which leadership literally does not know what percentage of staff are in the office (nor do they have a benchmark); firms in which employees are encouraged to be in the office two days—of their choosing—a week; firms with 95% of staff back in the office (a plot line similar to HBO’s The Leftovers); firms in which employees have the choice to work from home on a single designated day (I call this the “2019 model”); firms with 75% of employees working in the office at least one day of the week; firms with offices open but encouraging employees to work remotely; firms with less than 50% in the office. You get the picture—there is no trend. Just every firm trying to find their way with no playbook in a high-stakes environment.

Federal dollars rule: There’s a special pain for those firms that are precisely adhering to the seemingly ever-changing, never-clear federal government requirements on workplace protocols. Their leadership teams are frustrated with the lack of clarity and the resulting angst among their managers and employees.

Masks for some, not for others: For those firms with some or all of their employees back in the office, the internal dynamics are also all over the map. In some, only unvaccinated employees are asked (not required) to wear masks when not at their desks or in common areas, including conference rooms. In others, all employees (vaccinated or not) are subject to mask requirements.

Pilot programs: Two days in the office is a common approach for firms to dip their toes back into the physical world. Many firms have started their hybrid journey by “encouraging” (remember, not “requiring”) employees to be in the office two days a week. Leadership teams are relying on managers and employees providing feedback on what “feels right” and what “works well” to figure out the next steps. Some are moving to three days per week or more. Some are stuck at two.

Work like you’re booking an online tee time: Many firms are connecting the number of days employees spend in the office with the space that will be dedicated or available to them. In some cases, a minimum number of days in the office is required for a dedicated space. If employees do not meet the minimum number of days, then they must “reserve” space in blocks of time (hours, half-days, days) depending on the specific work needs. In some firms, tenure or title gets priority reservation privileges—they can reserve their place a week in advance. In others, it’s a free-for-all—spots open up at midnight for everyone to compete. It’s like booking a tee time online at a semi-private golf course—membership has its privileges and gets the morning tee times—everyone else gets to scramble for the twilight rates and maybe get 14 holes in before it gets dark.

The new “land grab” and the end of the “pack rat”: Many firms are downsizing their office footprints resulting in smaller offices. In some cases they’re using pre-pandemic network usage data to assess in-office occupancy and planning accordingly. (I’m not convinced this is the right baseline.) Managers are looking to maximize the space allocated to their teams (which is a euphemism for maximizing their own personal space—but that’s a different article titled “Where has all the Level Five leadership gone?”) in a shrunken physical world in which it’s still unclear what will happen with their office space in the future. This is bad news for “pack rats” (generally boomer professionals) who have spent a career accumulating three-ring binders that have been left unopened for at least five years but look fabulous on shelves.

Working al fresco: Those firms with offices in warmer climes are maxing the use of any outdoor spaces in their office configurations compared with pre-pandemic days. It’s a simple but powerful tactic for them to deploy to assuage fears of folks who are concerned about time spent indoors. (I know this is a tough point for our Canadian readers to see.)

Zoning requirements: Firms are reconfiguring their offices according to the type of work being done or type of environment being encouraged—like internal zoning requirements. Some of these include: Zone 1 (private offices with closed doors with “do not disturb” on them) for those “I’m here to get away from my mother-in-law who is staying with us because she sold her house for $1.2 million, and I need peace and quiet to concentrate, so leave me alone” professionals. Zone 2 (open-door offices) for the “Hey, let’s engage like it’s 2019; I’m here to work, but I’m also up for a lot of discussion about Succession and Adele’s new album” set. Zone 3 (conference rooms, open spaces) for the “Let’s get into a semi-circle around this white board and charrette this thing already” gang. Zone 4 (boardroom) for the execs who need to fly in from various locations for a one-and-a half-day meeting that every single one of them knows could take place on Zoom just as efficiently.

Don’t turn your back on the camera: Firms are gradually realizing that “collaboration” between teams that are on premises (or “on prem” as your tech vendor likes to call them) and folks who are remote requires a different approach. Far too often the on prem teams collectively turn their backs on the camera to huddle, leaving the remote brain trust out of the loop. Epic fail in terms of facilitating actual collaboration and engendering a “one-team” dynamic.

When geography is NOT destiny: Stunningly, there are firms in the same city doing the same type of work (architecture, structural engineering, etc.) operating with completely different workplace approaches. It’s not unusual to find one firm with 60% of its employees back in the office in the same city, where across the Bay (there’s a hint) its competitor is still 90% remote. Makes for interesting choices for employees who are considering which work model fits best with their families’ circumstances.

What does this all mean? If you are in the market for talent (and who isn’t?), one of your key offerings is your workplace model. In the past you pretty much had the same model as your competitor for that talent. Today, your workplace offering is unique. It’s a huge opportunity for you to strengthen your bond with your existing employees and encourage new employees to join you. Use it well.


This article originally appeared on Morrissey Goodale’s websiteMorrissey Goodale is a CFE Media content partner.

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