For a few months now, I have been having the same two conversations on repeat. The first is with architecture firm owners, some new to the business and some with decades of experience—and all trying to understand how they can innovate in the current climate. The second conversation is with individuals who, if they have not been recently furloughed or laid off, are concerned about the state of the industry and wondering if they should look to another profession altogether.
I have come to realize that these two conversations are essentially the same one, covering the same topics but at different scales. Both explore the value or expertise that a firm or individual is able to deliver; firm culture or individual motivation and passion; how to expand a client base or professional network, or update a personal website or résumé; and how to pivot from architecture to another field.
Though the circumstances driving conversations of this nature are dire, these discussions do compel us to stretch beyond our comfort zone and re-examine whether our current approach to practice or to one’s career is the best. This dialogue should happen regularly, regardless of the economy, with firm leaders or with our peers in order to raise the profession of architecture collectively.
Here are five themes and considerations for what all firms and architects should be doing now.
1. Clean Up Your Act
You should be critically aware of what you have put out there in the world. What do you do when someone recommends a name or company? You likely run a quick online search, review their website, social media profiles, and whatever else appears in the first few pages of results. I personally examine not only a firm’s page, news, and social activity, but also what the individual firm leaders are doing and putting out in the public.
Top-of-mind issues today include justice, health, and politics. I am not suggesting that you have no opinion, but if you take a critical viewpoint and make it public, be aware of whom you may be turning on and off by your messaging. If you are OK with potentially losing work or employment opportunities from those who may not support your position, then that choice is yours to make.
2. Walk Your Own Talk
Be true to the message that you’re putting out into the world. I have seen firms misbehaving, for example, by emphasizing their WELL accreditation or health care expertise while simultaneously not prioritizing the health of their own employees. I have also seen firms releasing statements around social justice but not adopting internal policies that align with their public messaging.
Every company looking to hire should also be ready to explain how they are managing during the current pandemic. Interviewees should expect to be asked the same question in return so the firm can learn what type of individual might be joining its team.
3. Acknowledge Predecessors
When looking to expand your services or jump to another industry, you should approach it from a point of humility. In most instances, you will encounter others who are already offering those same services or have more expertise in that area than you have.
As recently as five years ago, an architecture graduate with some UX (user experience) design knowledge could jump into the tech industry; today, that same graduate is competing against individuals with formal training. Architects do possess unique problem-solving abilities, but the translation of those skills to other professions is not always understood by anyone outside the field. If you are looking to transition into a tech company, it wouldn’t hurt to join a boot camp or build a portfolio entirely focused on the area that you are looking to transition to, rather than focusing on where you have been.
4. Speak Your Future Clients’ or Boss’s Language
In order to expand your services to reach new or old clients or to extend into an entirely different sector, you must adopt their lexicon to demonstrate your capability in their arena. You can do this through touch-base interviews for people you already know or through informational interviews for those you don’t. The best interviews involve you spending less time speaking and most of your time listening. Ideally, you will take what you learn to identify a meaningful way to follow up or to help redirect your own career path.
5. Don’t Talk Yourself Out of Trying
All too often, architects freeze up and overthink things before a decision exists to be made: What if I oversell my firm and then am not able to deliver? Is now the time to leave a job for a new opportunity, particularly when my employer has been good to me? What if I get through the interview process and discover that this is not what I want to do?
In every “what if?” situation, you will always be able to say “no.” Don’t let the what ifs stop you from seeing what’s out there.
Conversations about expanding practice areas or switching professions can be isolating and lonely for design practitioners—I know that from personal experience. Many architects hold fast to the traditional, linear models of practice and career paths. But I can also say from personal experience that those who are willing to step off that path should know that they are not alone. The best thing you can do during a downturn is figure out how you or your firm can create value so that the next one will be less painful.