This is the second of a two-part exploration of how today’s architecture practices must transform to survive. Part One (in the 1Q 2019 issue of DesignIntelligence Quarterly) touched on many of the external factors impacting the industry and the need for developing new organizational models.

Most companies today have discovered the importance of striking an equitable work-life integration, but many are still baffled on how to create a coherent, compelling culture when many employees work from home most days of the week. The traditional 9-to-5 workday shattered years ago and new, more dynamic models have begun to take root, some with more success than others. Saddled with crippling student loans, today’s graduates entering the work force no longer expect (or seem to want) a “job for life,” and they have little to no allegiance to organizations; they are wed to their craft. And, thanks to technology, they can practice that craft almost anywhere. It’s no wonder that telecommuting, hoteling and WeWork-type environments have proliferated over the last decade, redefining what we mean by “corporate culture.”

Mega-firms have made significant strides in breaking down traditional paradigms, though they need to push further to strengthen the profession’s attractiveness and relevance to the next generation, and that presents very real opportunities for the profession. Indeed, whether we point to the creeping malaise of our polarized political climate, the confusing codes of a multi-generational workplace or just the yawning disillusionment of debt-laden graduates entering the profession, employee engagement is at an all-time low, suggesting that employers are not doing what it takes to attract, engage and retain talent in today’s market.

The picture does not improve. “The rise in populist movements like those in the U.S., the U.K. and other regions is creating angst within organizations as they anticipate the potential for a decrease in free labor flow,” explains Ken Oehler, who ran the survey for Aon Hewitt. “Along with rapid advances in technology that are increasingly threatening job security, fewer employees are engaged and we expect this trend to continue.”1

Let’s not forget the issue of diversity, looming large over the industry and, thanks to recent media attention, finally getting the air time it deserves. The last two years have seen a clear- eyed examination of architecture’s male dominance and how fundamentally the industry needs to change. Yes, progress is being made but not fast enough and not in all the right places. Alison Arieff describes the issue perfectly in a recent article in the New York Times:

Women are underrepresented in architecture not just at the top of the field but at all levels of practice. In 2015 and 2016, only 31% of full- or part-time faculty members in architecture [schools] were women. Even as women have been gradually increasing their numbers, they’ve mostly done so at lower rungs of both academia and the profession. Not surprisingly, then, the percentage of women in architecture radically decreases as one moves up the ladder toward more senior positions and prestigious honors. Female mentors and role models are in scarce supply.4

If ever there is an opportunity for mega-firms to lead, surely diversity (gender, ethnicity, culture) and inclusivity is it, though this will likely take a systemic reshuffle of the industry and the entrenched hierarchy on which it relies. But, why is that so preposterous? What if we defined a practice not in terms of traditional hierarchies but as a dynamic organization whose leadership and practitioners reflect the communities in which they work; a collective of like-minded professionals working toward a shared goal; a flexible eco-system of talents focused on solving the world’s big, audacious challenges? Or even the small audacious challenges? To be sure, tomorrow’s employer of choice will need to embrace fluid organizational models that allow talent to move in and out of their orbits, driving the need for bendable structures, diverse but harmonized voices, and personalized, agile and holistic compensation schemes.

One significant hurdle to this is the trend that young designers are leaving the profession, or simply choosing not to enter the field of architecture. The data go up and down but the warning signs are there. The National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) reports that accredited U.S. schools have graduated an average of 6,152 students per year since 2009, but the number of graduates securing licensure is only 3,560. And the National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) reports that while the pool of new enrollments during the 2015–2016 school year grew by 4%, the number of graduates declined by 5%.5 This does not bode well.

Taking this idea to the next logical stage, tomorrow’s practice will also need a broader, more diverse talent base — not just Maslow’s Hammer of conventionally trained architects at different rungs of the experience ladder cranking out lines on a page. Already we see how data/analytics, industrial and organizational psychology, consumer behaviors, and demo- and psychographic research all contribute to the design process. Why are firms not teeming with these diverse pools of talent, working across disciplines, geographies and cultures?

Finally, no discussion of talent is complete without considering leadership, and this may be the most critical element for how the industry’s next generation of firms defines themselves. Running a large practice takes a certain type of professional, one with the acumen of a seasoned CEO but also one who deeply understands the industry and the quirks of the profession. While architecture has its share of luminaries and highly successful leaders, it is not quite an incubator of business genius. Indeed, the profession’s most visible names — its giants — tend to have attained their lofty status because of creative talent rather than their financial acumen (though the two traits are far from mutually exclusive).

Nonetheless, if we advocate for a new generation of architecture practice, we must also advocate for a new generation of leaders. Will that next wave come from within the industry, a hybrid of architecture and business, or will we manage to attract leaders from allied professions who can spark deeper change or a new direction? And, perhaps more importantly, is academia and the industry preparing them — either in education or practical experience — for the slings and arrows of an outrageous future?

How a leader drives, anticipates and manages change will likely be the currency of the profession’s future, and any CEO worth his or her salary will need to do more than win the hearts and minds of employees. It will take a passionate belief in the architect’s role in society, a vision of what the industry can do to improve or enrich that society, and an understanding of what it will take to get there.

We see this shift in other businesses. Organizations are no longer assessed solely on traditional metrics such as financial performance, or even the quality of their products or services. Rather, organizations are judged increasingly on the basis of their relationships with their employees, their customers and their communities, as well as their impact on society at large — transforming them from business enterprises into social enterprises.6

In his annual letter to CEOs, BlackRock chief executive Laurence Fink notes that people are increasingly “turning to the private sector and asking that companies respond to broader societal challenges” and demanding that organizations “serve a social purpose.”7 Fink goes on to state that shareholders, including BlackRock itself, now evaluate companies based on this broader standard. Offering context, Andrew Ross Sorkin suggests in the New York Times that Fink’s letter could be a “watershed moment on Wall Street” that raises questions about “the very nature of capitalism”8 and the role businesses must play in society.

If we consider the issues discussed above (diversity, employee engagement) and a few we have omitted in the interests of space (resiliency, climate change), the value of articulating a clear and compelling company mission — a social purpose — is essential. Corporate change takes more than a few work-sessions, company retreats and management-speak tropes. Rather it relies on a clear and demonstrable commitment to a shared purpose along with a self-awareness of a company’s aspirations and role in society. Anything less likely leads to failure.

“Rumors of my death …”
Architecture, and by extension architects, are not going away, but the profession is up against a series of cataclysmic forces that will drive deep and fundamental reprogramming in the years ahead. Indeed, demand is only rising, especially when it comes to the global need for improved infrastructure, the battle against climate change and the shifting goalposts of our social playing field. The challenge is to ensure that the profession (and its practitioners) positions itself to capitalize on the opportunities ahead. And that will take no small measure of change.


1 State of the Global Workplace, Gallup, Inc., 2017
2 “How Is Global Uncertainty Impacting Employee Engagement Levels?” Aon Hewitt, 2017
3 Aon Hewitt, “Global Uncertainty”
4 Arieff, Allison, “Where are all the Female Architects?” The New York Times, December 15, 2018.
5 National Council of Architectural Registration Board, 2018 Annual Report, Education, available online at
6 “The Rise of the Social Enterprise,” Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends, January 2018
7 Fink, Laurence, “Larry Fink’s annual letter to CEOs: A sense of purpose,” BlackRock, January 2018
8 Sorkin, Andrew Ross, “BlackRock’s message: Contribute to society, or risk losing our support,” New York Times, January 15, 2018.


Thom McKay has more than three decades of experience in the A/E/C industry and served as the Director of Global Marketing and Communications at CallisonRTKL. He currently consults with architecture practices, developing strategies for growth and new markets.