Designing the Design Firm – For A New Normal

As the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, many design firms were in the process of streamlining their leadership roles and governance practices. Firms were building capacity to support significant growth, preparing for generational leadership and ownership changes, and reducing bureaucracy to speed up decision-making and action.

One of our A/E firm clients compared his firm’s current governance process to “swimming in peanut butter.” Another client wanted to increase leadership bandwidth in her firm, which has been limited by a small number of singular leadership roles. A third client challenged our team to “blow up” the firm’s complex organizational structure and propose something simpler and more effective.

This kind of change is hard in any organization. We get comfortable with our roles, responsibilities, relationships, and rewards. People naturally resist giving up any of these things and working in new ways, however logical the case may be for change. “Silos” can develop around office locations, market sectors, or staff disciplines.  A number of firms we’ve advised have created one-firm initiatives to promote collaboration across these boundaries.

The disruptions of COVID-19 may actually have positive effects on the long-term evolution of design firms. Today’s remote-work mode makes location and other organizational divisions much less relevant. Team members who work virtually can be in the same city or on different continents. Apart from their time zones, their creative collaboration is the same.  I’ve always argued that one of a leader’s duties is to break down silos in his/her organization, and now the pandemic has done much of that for us.

In Cameron MacAllister Group’s June 2020 study about the human impacts of the pandemic and resulting economic downturn, 90% of participating firms found that their transitions to remote work went well or very well.  Based on this experience, 80% of these design firms have adopted more positive views of remote work for the long term.  Despite the loss of in-person studio collaboration, 70% of the firms indicated that their staff productivity was unchanged or had increased with remote work.

This suggests that the “new normal” can be different:  seamless networks of talent which can bring the best team members together for every assignment, without the traditional constraints of “group” or location.  At the same time, flexible work arrangements can be possible for our people.

As we design our firms for the future, we can think more freely than we have in the past. As firms consider restructure or reorganization, we recommend focusing first on clients and projects – the fundamental business units for any design firm – and on the talented professionals, we need to recruit, develop, and support. Leadership structure and governance practices can often be simplified, more clearly identifying responsibilities for building strong client relationships, completing successful projects, and nurturing the firm’s platform of talent and resources.

With this done, the new normal also needs to include greater transparency and personal accountability than most design firms have exhibited in the past. This is essential to keeping colleagues connected in a flatter, more distributed organization.  We’ve found that people want to understand how decisions get made and things get done – governance – and know who’s responsible for what.  Leaders will be expected to be great communicators about firm vision, strategies, and performance.

The current challenges of COVID-19, the resulting economic downturn, and societal issues are difficult and unprecedented. Leaders who can make time to work on their firms, as well as in them, will not only survive but will create a new normal that’s resilient and adaptive to future change.


Clark Davis, FAIA, LEED AP is a Principal Consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group. He leads services in strategy, leadership development, and organizational change. If you are interested in learning how Clark can help your firm, contact him directly at 636-448-9227 or via email.