Business strategies that you can put to work now
There is no time for a preamble here: You need to get moving right now, if not to stem the financial bleeding of March and April, then to ensure a soft landing down the line. Here are four successive ways you can strategically push through this recession, and it all starts with a telephone.
Leverage your relationships
Client insights are useful to architecture firms seeking to differentiate themselves in a competitive market, but one thing is universal: Relationships are the engines for acquiring work, according to two 2016 AIA client insight reports. Repeat clients account for 71 percent of all architectural billings. Firms with a commercial focus have the greatest number of repeat clients, at 75 percent, while firms with an institutional focus see 71 percent of their billings come from repeat clients. Eighty-three percent of office, education, and health care clients reported that their prior experiences with architecture firms ranked higher than any other selection criteria including value, cost, and reputation.
So, make a list of past and current clients and start prioritizing them in your outreach.
Make the call or start the video
And it is a call or a video, not an email or a text. You know the work you’ve performed and the spaces you’ve created for your clients, and you might even have post-occupancy data to drive a conversation. In preparing to approach past (and even current) clients about future work, assume the role of their advocate and partner. You are not selling them a widget or a wysiwyg. You are approaching them as a known quantity and a respected colleague who is uniquely positioned to address what’s next for their company, organization, school, or home.
Once you have their attention, ask questions about their fears and hopes, and listen intently. Just like you, they have responsibilities related to their business, so start from a shared set of common anxieties about microclimate contagions bioremediation, spatial politics, or even just unforeseen changes that will alter life as we know it in the office, at school, or at home.
Have some key observations ready about how other clients of the same size, industry, and location might be thinking about those anxieties. Gather information about local ordinances related to construction activity or options related to available financing. Share what you know from other architects in other cities and states where businesses have begun to answer the “what’s next” question and reopen to workers, customers, and their own clients.
Share short-term change management tactics
The first thing you’ll want to do is familiarize yourself with OSHA’s guidance on preparing workplaces for COVID-19, which builds off CDC guidance from March and makes several interim measures semi-permanent: prevention, behavioral and cultural changes, and engineering and administrative controls that all aim to maintain productivity and increase safety. Specific building types (and clients) will have additional circumstances and demands not covered by OSHA guidelines. On May 6, AIA published a Re-Occupancy and Assessment Tool to help you approach your clients with a transparent and clear checklist of tactics for reopening.
If your client is a school superintendent, what will it take to reopen schools in September? If your client is a tool and die maker, how soon after the local stay-at-home order is lifted will workers return to the line? In either case (and in all cases, most likely), clients will appreciate a thoughtful assessment of how interior space can be reconfigured to maintain adequate distancing among students, workers, patients, and colleagues.
Your client might need to break their lease and downsize in the next 45 days if they are in an office or retail environment (or, conversely they might want to double the square footage to support distancing guidelines). If they own their building, they might need to phase in teleconferencing and flexible remote working arrangements immediately. Your client’s 200-unit apartment building might need to phase in a new filtration system floor-by-floor or wing-by-wing.
One thing is certain, however: Clients will want to implement visible, convenient, and pervasive personal hygiene solutions that include hand-sanitizer stations and, for many, beyond. That could mean plexi-barriers or provisional stations to don protective clothing or masks. As discussed above, your clients will have the same anxieties you do about confinement and the efficacy of preventative measures. Remember, you’re their partner, which sometimes means being their therapist, too. By creating a sense of confidence in your short-term strategies, you will earn more than their business. You’ll continue to earn their trust.
Suggest long-term change management strategies
Time is relative, but never more so than today. Emotional turbulence and ennui compete with sadness and sorrow for some, and nearly everyone is dealing with disquieting new rituals involving masks, gloves, and isolation. Some workplaces never closed during this pandemic, while others have been shuttered for more than two months. Ask yourself: Has this period since late-February felt like a “short” time or a “long” time? If your answer is both/and, you can see why it will be a struggle to make that future distinction for your clients.
Just as with short-term tactics, long-term strategies present an opportunity for architects to return to their clients as a trusted advisor and, hopefully, trusted partner in the months and years ahead. Consider the long-term effects of COVID-19 on building design and building codes, and do some legwork on behalf of your client ahead of the call.
Density is on the docket now and forevermore. If you reduce density, you must displace individuals. If you increase density, you must take extraordinary measures to protect individuals. Depending on the client, either one of these ideas could mean a welcomed change or a crippling set of costs. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing aren’t historically associated with white-hot creative impulses. But as you contemplate improved ventilation systems, creative solutions to MEP might be just the kind of value insights that your clients want and need.
Materiality, hardware, and the “software” of furnishings promise to be important areas for innovation. As an architect, you might see this as an opportunity to expand your industrial design and furniture design capabilities. If not, you will certainly find these to be vital areas for research on antimicrobial properties, durability, and flexibility. Given that furniture, by and large, constitutes a depreciating asset in the long term and a capital expense in the short term, the prospect of refurbishing an entire school or office or library might seed a difficult conversation. Be prepared to discuss cost and value. Research some clever solutions. Again, demonstrate your value as a trusted partner who has the long-term interests and viability of your client’s enterprise in mind.
This is part of a series of articles commissioned by the AIA COVID-19 Business Task Force in May 2020 to help architects. Learn more about why architects matter in a post-pandemic world and construction-ready projects you can plan for later.