Architecture Career Guide: Rethinking Design Mentorship for the Remote Work Era

Mentorship and development across the architecture industry is suffering. What can architects do to support the next generation of designers?

Samantha Frew Samantha Frew

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The architecture industry flourishes when collective ideas are introduced and implemented. Considering multiple viewpoints, gathering contrasting opinions and collecting a broad range of data are now integral components of the design process. Cross-discipline and cross-industry alliances are essential in tackling societal problems and supporting commercial function. In short, collaborative design is key to the successful development of the world around us.

Prior to the pandemic, remote working in the design industry was already on the rise; however, the sudden, unexpected changes brought on by COVID-19 — which mandated work-from-home culture — had a monumental impact on our working environments that will be felt for years to come. Interestingly, since implementing WFH, companies have noted an increase in productivity. Additionally, a large percentage of individual workers have expressed an interest in fewer days, if any, working from an office environment in the future.

To support remote working, digital tools such as e-mail, cloud-based servers, adaptive video conferencing, virtual collaboration software and instant chat channels have been developed and improved significantly. These tools have supported remote working and have made the process of online collaboration far more accessible than it ever was before. Businesses are now considering, with the right tools and team members working particularly efficiently, is a physical office, with all its financial burdens, necessary?

Design and architecture practices benefit hugely from the input of younger generation workers within their workforce. Gen Z has began to graduate college and they are set to become the largest portion of employees in the workforce over the next two decades. The general perception of this younger generation is that, as group, they are more social engaged than their elders (including Millennials); they are characterized as technologically savvy and as having an intense, creative, entrepreneurial energy. These traits are well aligned with careers in architecture and design, which promise tangible ways of shaping (and improving) the world that they will inherit.

Bringing these new skillsets to the table, Gen Z has strong potential as an exciting new workforce in architecture firms. However, it may be that our shift into remote working may also hinder the future potential of architecture practices.

Slack European Headquarters by ODUS, Dublin, Ireland

Lack of in-person connection and mentorship is one of the most commonly referenced negatives when discussing the WFH model. A research study found that 41 percent of respondents admitted their career development had stalled during the pandemic and nine percent said the crisis has actually caused their careers to regress. Up to 50 percent of employees said mentorship from their manager had become more important to them during the pandemic, however more strikingly, 49 percent say they weren’t receiving nearly enough training, coaching or mentoring to support advancing their careers. When looked at, the findings make clear that mentorship and development across the architecture industry is suffering.

As a young person starting a career in architecture, much of the learning and development comes from observation, collaboration and questioning. That said, when working remotely, mentors are not easily accessible. Colleagues are not passing by a desk, offering advice or supporting queries; there is no natural exchange, so learning via osmosis is practically non-existent. Young people cannot model their professional behaviors on successful teammates because they primarily engage with them over online channels, often in groups. The typical transfer of information, private tutoring and the active encouragement to voice ideas is also removed. Working from home has meant that many of the vital nuances of working within an architecture practice are being missed — often to the detriment of the upcoming generations of architects.

SLACK London by ODUS, London, United Kingdom

What can be done? Firstly, senior staff members within a workplace should recognize that lack of mentorship is an issue when working from home. It is essential to understand that when someone is new to a career or a workplace, it can be daunting to seek out help or offer constructive criticism. New employees should be provided with an environment where they are encouraged to ask for feedback and exercise their voices. When a person’s opinion is appreciated, they are more likely to offer it freely in the future.

Secondly, comfortable relationships with new team members take longer to form in a primarily remote working environment. Open channels of communication, both individual and group, should be built to provide a space to become familiar with an individual’s strengths, weaknesses and preferred style of working. Only in this building of relationships can the most appropriate support and mentorship be provided successfully.

Thirdly, we need to be empathetic and to understand that the role of a mentor is to be present. By remembering all the help and support we needed in our first years, we will be better equipped to anticipate the needs of our younger colleagues.

When all restrictions on business management are lifted and workplaces determine how they plan to move forward, many firms will continue to work remotely — at least part of the time. Many professions will maintain the systems and practices they have been using temporarily, transforming them into permanent work solutions.

Ultimately, this is a positive; the wellness benefits of providing people the freedom to live where and how they want is incomparable and many simply will not go back to how it was before. Yet, architecture that is the product of collaboration is often superior and the input of young minds is essential to formulate innovative ideas. It is important to identify and nurture opportunities to mentor the next generation of designers in the best ways we can, not only for the benefit of architectural business but for the benefit of the built world.

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