During 2020 and 2021, the nature of work has changed for the design industry. Most architecture, engineering, interior design, and landscape architecture firms that we advise have adapted effectively. The question being raised has been, “When this is all over, will we get back to normal?” We can now confidently reply: “No! It will be replaced by another model of normal.”
What do we forecast for the design professions in 2022? We see five trends:
Trend 1: Hybrid Work is the New Normal
By having to work from home rather than in a co-located office, the design professions have redefined what it means to work. This is true not just for the design professions but for virtually all ‘knowledge workers.’
The impact on design firms has been great. Projects have moved forward, and firms have continued to be managed—even with ‘remote’ communication via video. While it hasn’t been perfect, workers have gotten used to it. As our research in July and August 2021 with 1,335 professionals and 50 AEC firms uncovered, most staff expect an arrangement where they can work from home for part of each week.
A by-product of working remotely has been ‘diaspora;’ many firms now have employees scattered in multiple locations. How do design firms with a dispersed staff explain their culture, which in the past may have emphasized cohesion, collaboration, and a sense of affiliation?
Another unexpected result is that some design firms are downsizing the square footage of their offices in recognition of this new reality.
Trend 2: Employers’ Support for Employees’ Well Being
Across all industries, there has been pressure on employees’ mental health and wellness. Individuals suffering from stress and mental illness are seldom strong enough to heal themselves. And yet, the need to sustain one’s health is at the forefront.
We see that major employers in the design professions are rethinking their policies and programs to emphasize and support the wellness and mental health of their staff.
In this rethinking, the components of employee or job satisfaction involve not only the opportunity for professional development but also personal well-being and a sense of affiliation with valued colleagues. Employers must consider the whole person in their HR reviews, mentoring, and direction.
Trend 3: Intensive Focus on Design to Moderate the Impacts of Climate Change
Even though there has been an effort for many years to design for energy and water efficiency – the LEED program originated in 1994, and the Architecture 2030 Challenge was framed in 2006 – the impacts of climate change on our world have been so blatant in 2020 and 2021 than no one can ignore it.
Design professionals recognize that buildings account for 40% of greenhouse gas emissions and that there are clear ways to reduce that impact through responsible design. While one could argue that the ‘sustainability’ movement has become mainstream in the AEC sector, it hasn’t gone far enough. We note that there will be a more frequent expectation by owners for net-zero energy and living buildings.
Trend 4: Good Firms will Continue to Thrive and Grow
Most design firms have shown remarkable resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic – and their clients have supported them by sustaining long-term relationships and project commitments. In early 2020, participants in our annual design firm conference said they couldn’t imagine being successful with some of their people working remotely – but all were forced to work that way just a few weeks later. Our “New Realities” studies showed that virtual design teams could be highly effective, at least in the short term.
In fact, many design firms achieved record revenues and profitability in 2020 and 2021. Most are hiring, sometimes without meeting key recruits in person. There is intense competition for talent, and young design professionals may be less tethered to their current positions after 20 months of remote work. The best firms and the best people will continue to prosper in 2022.
Trend 5: Firms will Need to Define their Purpose and Align their Practices To It
To attract and retain staff in this environment, design firms will need to be working in accordance with a purpose that makes a difference in the world. As talented people re-evaluate what they want their professional lives to be in the future, studies are showing that most employees want to work for companies that espouse a noble social or moral purpose.
Increasingly, we are also seeing owners who hire design firms looking to match the values and purpose of these firms to their own values and mission. Firms that don’t clearly align with the owners’ values and mission will not be selected.
Another important factor that has brought the essential need for a corporate purpose into focus has been the social unrest in 2020-2021. These events have accentuated the need to redress the social injustices of our nation. For many design firms, the articulation of a purpose is being updated to include a change in culture and policies that have perpetuated these injustices. We see some leading design firms addressing not only the diversity, equity, and inclusion in their hiring, nurturing, and promoting people but also taking a ‘corporate’ stance and action to correct previous wrongs in their communities.
Conclusions & Recommendations
The world is experiencing great change, and we believe it can ultimately be for the better. The design professions are experiencing great change in reaction to the pandemic, an increasingly urgent environmental challenge, and demands for social justice in our communities. The opportunity for transformative design has never been greater.
We recommend that leaders of design firms move from a reactive approach to a more deliberate one in 2022, where they can ‘own’ our most complex problems and address them with the creative power of the design professions.
Mark Cameron, Hon. AIA, and Clark Davis, FAIA, LEED AP are Principal Consultants at Cameron MacAllister Group. If you are interested in learning how Mark can help your firm, contact him directly at 415-990-7883 or via email. If you are interested in learning how Clark can help your firm, contact him directly at 636-448-9227 or via email.