A RIBA chartered practice that told staff to go into the office each day despite the covid-19 pandemic and national lockdown has conceded that they will now be allowed to work from home, after Building Design highlighted employees’ concerns.
On Architecture, a practice with studios in London and Kent, had told staff to continue working in its offices and open the windows, despite the prime minister instructing people to work from home unless it is “unreasonable” to do so. This is widely understood to apply only to key workers and those with jobs in manufacturing or on construction sites.
This morning Building Design revealed the firm, which insisted it was acting reasonably and in compliance with government guidelines, had warned staff in November who refused to come in that they must either use annual leave, take unpaid leave or face disciplinary action.
Now the practice has told its approximately 40 staff that it will “do [its] best to accommodate and be as flexible as [it] can”.
An email sent to the practice’s entire workforce this afternoon reassured staff that they can now work remotely.
It said: “We will be actively encouraging homeworking wherever possible during this latest lockdown period, in agreement with line managers and directors.
“The management of your workload should be discussed with your line manager and we would ask that you let you line manager know when you intend to be working at home and working in the office.”
It is understood that a number of the practice’s staff, represented by union UVW-SAW (United Voices of the World – Section of Architectural Workers), refused to return to their offices in London and Canterbury this morning over covid-19 safety concerns.
The union issued a statement saying: “UVW-SAW demands that all architectural employers immediately cease compelling workers to travel and work in unsafe offices – directly contravening recent government instruction to work from home in all reasonable circumstances.”
The RIBA said it had been in touch with the practice after Building Design highlighted the issue, and president Alan Jones stressed that chartered practices have a responsibility “to provide their colleagues and employees with a fair, safe and equitable working environment”.
Staff told Building Design they felt they had been put in an impossible position.
One, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I don’t feel safe in the office and I haven’t felt safe since returning to the office in the summer.”
Staff from both offices said that while they were seated more than 2m from the person next to them they were within a metre of the person facing them. There were no screens between desks, they added.
In a new statement sent to Building Design this afternoon (printed in full below) On Architecture said it would now operate a seven-day working week with staff allowed to work from home or from the office.
It said: “Following the prime minister’s announcement of the latest lockdown, On Architecture’s directors arranged a staff consultation to discuss the new situation and decide how the organisation will follow the latest covid-19 safety guidance.
“Following the consultation, the firm, with offices in Canterbury and Clerkenwell, will now offer staff the opportunity to do their core working hours between 6am and 9pm, seven days a week, in line with staff requests. The hours can be split between their home and office dependent upon the needs of their specific projects and in line with staff requests.”
Building Design understands directors were concerned about a drop in productivity when staff worked from home but also that there were practical issues involving computers, software licences and other contractual matters.
In a series of emails seen by Building Design, the practice had previouly told staff they were required to come into the office both during the November lockdown and when Boris Johnson announced the latest national lockdown on 4 January, although it permitted home-working in certain circumstances.
An email from 5 January said: “We appreciate that, at certain points, there may be extenuating circumstances where homeworking may be accommodated for a short period of time, eg cases of self-isolation or isolating prior to being a birth partner.
“Please be reassured that we are maintaining a covid-secure workplace. There are appropriate health and safety measures in place, and we are grateful for your cooperation with these.”
Building Design’s story sparked an uproar on social media, with former RIBA president Angela Brady asking the RIBA to step in. Angela Dapper, a partner at Grimshaw and RIBA London councillor, was one of several people who tweeted it was “unacceptable”.
This is not acceptable at any time – but particularly in a pandemic when people are very anxious – not to mention being blatantly in opposition to govt advice. It’s appalling treatment of their staff – no wonder their staff forwarded this to BD.
— Angela Dapper (@angela_dapper) January 8, 2021
Former RIBA councillor Tzena James wrote to Building Design advising staff who found themselves in such situations to refer their cases to the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct Professional Standards Department.
However Clare McCormack, a director of small Harrogate practice Studio Mac, said as construction businesses architects should be allowed to stay open, adding that it was difficult to supervise junior staff remotely.
She said: “The construction industry is permitted to remain open and that if construction sites remain open, then by default, architects, engineers and project managers must also be available to both service the jobs and produce the work for those jobs. It would be ridiculous and wholly unrealistic to suggest otherwise.”
The latest government guidance says: “From 6 January, a national lockdown applies in all of England. You can only leave home for work purposes where it is unreasonable for you to do your job from home.”
In November this guidance was that ”anyone who can work from home, should do so.”
On Architecture’s new statement
Building on the experience of the last year, Kent-based On Architecture is to now operate seven day a week to support its clients and ensure the maximum flexibility of working and wellbeing of its 40 staff.
Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the latest lockdown, On Architecture’s directors arranged a staff consultation to discuss the new situation and decide how the organisation will follow the latest covid-19 safety guidance.
Following the consultation, the firm, with offices in Canterbury and Clerkenwell, will now offer staff the opportunity to do their core working hours between 6am and 9pm, seven days a week, in line with staff requests. The hours can be split between their home and office dependent upon the needs of their specific projects and in line with staff requests
Like many businesses On Architecture has taken independent expert advice and put in place a comprehensive range of measures to ensure it complies with Government guidelines. As a result it has managed to keep its offices open to support the construction industry.
Unlike many in its industry, On Architecture has not had to make any of its team redundant during the pandemic, with only a small number of staff placed on furlough all of whom have now returned to work.
David Weir, Director of On Architecture, added: “Since the first lockdown back in March last year, we have worked closely with our staff to offer a flexible and protective working environment.
“However, for many people working from home is not practical due to individual circumstances, such as the working environment and issues of health and safety, data protection and information technology.
“The technical nature of our work for the construction industry, which can require access to large scale printers and scanners, means it is often not practical to work on a project at a kitchen table on a laptop. As a result we need to be as flexible as possible and balance working from home while providing a covid-safe open office.”
After working with staff on a case-by-case basis with anyone with underlying health issues or specific pressures, such as childcare and home schooling, travel to work times, and challenge of home working, the business is now changing how it operates.
Luke Harrison, Director of On Architecture, said: “By extending our opening hours we will be able to reduce even further the number of people in our offices at any one time. This will improve our covid security while maintaining the quality of our customer service and design.”
Since emerging from the first lockdown, both the firm’s studios have seen an increased level of demand for their design and technical support as an integral part of the construction industry supply chain.
Luke Harrison added: “We are doing everything we can to protect our team’s health and safety – as well as their collective mental wellbeing – while remaining flexible and focused on how we continue to provide high quality design and technical architectural support for the industry.
“We also recognise our contractual and ISO quality assurance obligations and the need to maintain industry standards. This has required us to keep our offices partially open in line with national guidelines, with homeworking where possible.”
The proposed changes are for the period of the pandemic and the firm is confident this will lead to long-term improved productivity and wellbeing.