Three firm leaders share how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected business

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How are architects and architecture firms responding to the new economic landscape brought about by the novel coronavirus outbreak?

Though it’s only been a few weeks since local, state and federal governments began issuing stay-at-home and shelter-in-place orders in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s already changed how many architecture firms do business. Three firm leaders,—Carole Wedge, FAIA, CEO at Shepley Bulfinch; Ed Shriver, FAIA, founding principal of Strada; and Lara Presber, AIA, principal at Studio Presber— who we previously spoke with last November describe how they and their employees are continuing to design amid a rapidly fluctuating world.

Carole Wedge, FAIA: We went fully remote two weeks ago, but it feels like two months ago. The dynamics of what we were worrying about on Monday would totally change by the time we got to Tuesday.

We now have a daily operations call with all our department leaders, asking, “What are HR and IT and finance and marketing dealing with today?” We’re also having weekly town halls and inviting all employees; last time, about 180 of 200 employees participated, which shows you how hungry people are for information and reassurance. We are focused on keeping our people safe and as productive as possible.

Ed Shriver, FAIA: We’re in work-from-home mode. Fortunately, over the last two years, we’ve built the infrastructure to make this possible. Everyone has a laptop; all our files are accessible.

We’re also in wait-and-see mode. Will we see a return to normalcy after a few weeks, or is this another 2008? If it’s only a few weeks, I think most firms will be fine. I expect that our invoicing for this month is going to be half of what it would’ve normally been, maybe a quarter. Fortunately, it’s not going to kill us.

Lara Presber, AIA: There’s been a little bit of a panic. Our business is mostly tied to people signing leases, whether it’s retail or office. And a lot of that has gone on hold, which creates some anxiety. But on the flip side, other clients are optimistic about new construction because no one is occupying spaces. You can get right in there and be as loud as you like.

We’ve also been working from home one day a week for quite a while now, which comes in handy. We’re a small firm but we’ve done some really big projects; a few years ago, after delivering a quarter of an outlet mall and getting 20 stores open, we decided to take every Friday off for a whole summer, which morphed into work-from-home Fridays. As such, we have a lot of virtual measures in place; if I’m on-site and see a problem, I can open up the project in an app we use, issue a change, and assign it to whoever needs to see it. Myself and my three employees are all in constant communication; we are uniquely, and coincidentally, prepared for this sort of working style.

Was there a firmwide plan in place for a disruption at this level?

Wedge: In terms of planning, our head of IT said, “Well, we were ready for a big snowstorm.” But we never planned for anything this big, something that affects the whole world.

We’ve done a hard review of our cash flow, going through every line item that we can pause on for a while. Everything is up for negotiation; don’t be afraid to reach out and ask your consultants, landlords, banks, and collaborators for help in navigating this event. Companies are recognizing that it’s for their survival as well as ours; we’re all embedded with each other. And we want to focus on keeping people employed and with their health insurance.

Today, we are trying to understand what help the Senate bill will provide, if it truly applies to us, and how long it will be until that support is available. AIA and the local chapters are working together to provide the best information they can to guide firms’ decision-making in an environment that is both unprecedented and ever-changing.

Presber: Not necessarily, but clear communication from the outset has been key. Two of us are very busy, but our more junior staffer doesn’t have a ton to do. She’s there and she’s ready to jump in; I’ve tried to be as reassuring as possible. I told everyone not to worry; I run the business very conservatively, so we’ll be fine even if no work is coming in for a while. They have a job, even if they have nothing on their plates as the moment. I want them to know how much I value them.

In your opinion, what can firm leaders do now to smooth the path forward?

Shriver: We need to be thinking about what comes next. We need to figure out what’s possible and what’s probable, and plan accordingly. Our AIA leaders are doing a good job in making their voices heard nationally; I’m focused on what’s coming down the pike for my firm.

One thing I’m thinking about is how we communicate virtually. Some of us use one tool, someone else uses another; for us, at least, it hasn’t been standardized. After this is over, we’re going to have to sit down and review our technology choices and make sure what we’re using is firmwide and flexible. We’ll need to be more prepared.

Presber: I think a lot of it is attitude. If you’re freaking out because of what might happen, it will be very different for your business than if you focus on being nimble and reassuring. That goes for your clients as well; I’ve reached out to all of them and said, “We are here. It’s business as usual. Let us know if we can help, even if it’s something very out of the ordinary.”

The other thing I’ve discovered is: as a small business owner, at a certain point I started outsourcing tasks like HR to licensed individuals who knew what they were doing. And now, as things like stimulus packages come into the news and I feel out of my depth, I have those people coming to me and explaining, “This is how this will help your business.” I feel so lucky to have those sorts of relationships and be supported; hopefully all small firms with resources like those are taking advantage of them.

Wedge: Try to put everything in context; people will keep building buildings, there will be demand. It may be different, but it will be there – eventually. Firm leaders need to appreciate all the human dimensions to this crisis. People have family and friends who might become ill – and there will be fatalities that impact our firm’s communities. Grief feels like the next wave, and we will have to help each other through it.  

Image credits

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Sergey Nivens

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