By Lauren Dundon, AIA, Associate at Semple Brown and Editorial Committee Member
It’s been a month, folks. In Colorado, we’ve had four weeks at home, and it feels like four months. Time passes strangely, and the hours and days jumble together as I repeat the twenty or so steps from home office to pantry and back. No point scratching hash marks on my desk to count off the days… I wouldn’t remember from breakfast to lunch whether I’d already made the notch. Must add to my Amazon cart: flip calendar, sharpie.
One month in, how are we faring? Will our jobs, or even our firms, outlast the quarantine? During the last week of March, we surveyed a small sample of Colorado firm leaders and emerging professionals about their perceptions, optimism and cash flow. While we’re all deeply concerned about the direct toll of the COVID-19 virus, we kept our questions business-related, and specific to the next few months within the architecture and design industry. We heard from about 65 respondents from firms of all sizes, mostly in the Denver metro area, and mostly architecture-specific practices. Disclaimer: Our poll was completely anonymous, entirely voluntary and admittedly non-scientific.
Revenue and Job Security
As shelter in place mandates continue, 85% of firm leaders expect a slowdown in revenue. Two thirds of the respondents have already seen projects go on hold. Hard-hit sectors and market uncertainty were the most commonly cited reasons. One-third of the respondents also projected that work-from-home inefficiencies—on the part of both clients and employees—would impact their billings.
In the immediate term, 67% of firm leaders anticipate sufficient revenues to maintain current staffing for the first month of the economic shutdown, although a few had begun to implement cuts. The most likely first cost-cutting measure cited was reduction of hours or pay (30%), followed by furloughs (18%), and then employee layoffs (11%). At the time of the poll, federal and state relief programs had been announced, but not officially rolled out, and 44% intended to apply for government programs or other types of loans.
The predictions were less optimistic for shelter-in-place orders stretching out for three or more months. Only 33% projected their revenues would cover expenses, and 70% expected that reductions in pay or hours could be needed. While 37% predicted possible furloughs and layoffs, 56% expected to apply for government relief or other loans.
Concern about job security among emerging professionals roughly followed a classic bell curve: 25% of respondents were not concerned, 57% reported moderate concern, while 18% reported very high stress and concern. Interestingly, these proportions were similar across all firm sizes and experience levels. Confidence in firm leadership’s ability to guide employees through these times followed a quieter curve, with 31% reporting very confident, 45% reporting pretty confident, and 24% reporting less confidence.
85% of firm leaders felt they had been transparent with employees about the financial health of the firm, while 11% indicated they were waiting for more information before issuing any mass communications. 78% responded that their staff had communicated some level of anxiety and concerns, either directly or through middle managers.
The numbers looked a little different among emerging professionals, though. 45% felt their firm leaders had been very communicative about the financial decision-making process and plans to move forward, 37% felt leadership had been fairly open, while 18% felt communication had been inadequate. Respondents reporting the least satisfaction with their leaders’ communication were mostly from firms of 21-50 employees, while employees of both larger and smaller firms reported more clarity from their communications. 80% indicated they would prefer once a week updates on the health of their firm.
Room for Optimism
Turns out we’re pretty good at staying upbeat. 76% of emerging professionals reported the general mood of their office as ranging from upbeat to very positive, 21% reported manageable anxiety, and only 3% reported very high stress levels across the office. 85% reported their leaders had been very receptive to changes in workflow and more flexible schedules, 15% reported moderate receptiveness, and no one reported complete inflexibility.
One month in, I still believe that work needs the place, but am also still immensely grateful for my health and this opportunity to stay productive from home. For every inconvenience there’s a bonus. Even as that invisible friction drags on my broadband connection and batters my efficiency, I’m feeling strangely triumphant over my improvised but clever new lighting setup for video calls. I appreciate all that our teams have accomplished at a distance, and I love hearing silver lining stories from other architects. How letting go of the work-at-work culture and embracing a more modern approach to working anywhere could lower the barriers that disproportionately impose roadblocks for minorities and drive women from the profession. How old—and young—dogs are learning new tricks with technology and resourcefulness. How we as a profession are using these trying circumstances to reassess our practices and create efficiencies in places that we may have overlooked before. Ultimately, while these times are unsteady and turbulent, there is one constant presence that keeps architects moving forward: the idea that we can make our communities better places to live when this is all over.