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Disruption junction

How to steer design firms toward a smart, bold practice transformation

DJ Inclinación Teschner Gabrielle

Inclinación, acrylic ink on cotton, 46cm x 56cm, 2019

Gabrielle Teschner

Social pressure is mounting for architecture firms today to attain a balanced workforce or perish. The most successful design firms strive for sustainability and embrace such concepts as embodied energy, reclaimed materials, and reuse waste systems. Innovative industry leaders adhere to the redefinition of design excellence. Now firms face similar pressures to apply the standards they set for sustainability to staff and staffing decisions.

The cities we live and work in are diverse. Clients embrace equity, diversity, and inclusion. Pressure from external forces to morph from the traditional white, male-dominated work environment to one that provides equal opportunities across race, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and physical ability is strong and getting stronger. But we should not diversity-wash for the optics. And waiting for equality to just “happen”—as we have for decades—is no longer an option.

So how do we get from where we are—the toughest hiring market in 20 years—to where architecture firms should be going: 75 percent women–, 50 percent minority–owned by 2030? Diversity for diversity’s sake will not cut it. The same is true of measuring only what your firm will lose without strong diverse leadership. Companies get there by action—making immediate changes to leadership models, pipeline efforts, and the ability to take risks.

The first step is to change leadership’s mindset. Firms need more women and minorities in ownership ranks so that retention and satisfaction rates increase. Make the argument for gender parity, and link it to design excellence and firm sustainability. Set goals and demand accountability now, in order to get there by 2030.

Most architecture firms work within a strict ownership model—the baby boomer hierarchical approach. Decisions, and recruitment is among them, come from on high, as do direction and goal setting. Such top-down command may not fully tap into the resources of an entire firm. Instead of this model, consider turning to shared entrepreneurship.

This new structure encourages transparency, boosts collaboration, and allows key staff to make important decisions. If a firm already has a staff that is equitable and inclusive, such an approach will naturally sustain a balanced workforce as a priority. This model is also key when it comes to advancing women and minorities into leadership roles. For years I’ve recommended putting a 25-year-old on design firm boards. Now I recommend a 25-year-old woman or minority.

In 2019, more women are enrolled in architectural programs, and there are more women graduates than ever before. The pipeline is strong and getting stronger, a shift from the 1990s and 2000s. Over the next decade, the numbers for minority architects will show similar progress, for both nonwhite domestic citizens as well as immigrants. White-student enrollment continues to decline—2017 was its lowest point ever, reports the National Architectural Accrediting Board—while the fastest-growing category was for nonresident aliens. Expect these trends to continue.

Firms must embrace a sense of urgency. Bolster the pipeline with focused scholarships and co-op placements. Other development tools might be community outreach and association involvement that is consistent and sincere. Lead, don’t follow.

Even if your staff is diverse and you encourage different perspectives and ways of thinking, look toward leadership. A firm made up of 50 percent women and 50 percent men does not mean the female staffers will enjoy the same influence or the men around them will consider them equal.

The goal is to impart skills that harness the productivity, creativity, and innovation of nonhomogeneous groups. Fast-track the following:

  • Focus on commonalities: The entire team needs to meet client needs, for example.
  • Reward preferred behavior: Professionals able to negotiate within the culture are of value.
  • Encourage self-monitoring: Teams know when they are not working and talking. The lesson needs to be how to get through those challenges together.
  • Remember accountability for all.

In the years ahead, architecture firms must be flexible. Old solutions will not apply. People will be uncomfortable. Change comes fast, and embracing new and better ways is the key to move ahead.

Offering women and minorities a base from which to excel will work in the firm’s favor. Use your goal setting to recruit more candidates, and offer more than your competition. Move the needle forward toward a sustainable future.

Some ideas to consider: Expect technically accomplished employees, but be sure to emphasize nontraditional yet important qualities such as collaboration and interpersonal skills; offer additional bonuses for the recruitment of women and minorities, and incentives for those who can become future leaders; and recruit globally.

Since it was introduced in 1990, the H-1B visa program has been a way for foreign-born workers to get their green cards to live and work permanently in the U.S. The number of H-1B visas dropped from 2007–2009 because of the recession but bounced back by 2015. Applications dipped again in 2018, reports the Pew Foundation, due in part to Trump administration policies. This will likely be a short-term lull, as architectural firms will see more opportunities for global recruitment efforts.

The design industry is shifting, and how firms respond to the changing tides will determine their future agility. To achieve smart practice transformation, leadership has to act boldly, revamp company culture, and offer more to recruits, charting a diverse, equitable, and sustainable course in the process.

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