DesignIntelligence recently spoke to Charlotte Sword (Partner, Head of Human Resources) and Laggi Diamandi (Associate Partner, Learning and Development Manager) of Foster + Partners about the state of global talent and how the firm is responding to change. This is Part 2 of the interview.


DI: What is your sense of the current state of the global talent market, in terms of availability of the type of talent that you need and the quality of people that you see coming through?

CS: I think we’ve seen, if we’re looking at talent coming into the UK, which is where our main design hub is, I think we’re seeing a slowdown. We’re not seeing the slowdown in terms of talent coming directly from the universities, which is where we do a lot of our recruitment, but experienced talent coming into the UK has definitely slowed. [It] causes some frustration and some issues because we see ourselves as a global business [in need of] a global talent base that reflects our client base. That’s an interesting one for us, and it’s still evolving.

Brexit may have huge implications or [it] may not. It [creates] more uncertainty, and I think people are warier of moving because of that uncertainty.

The other problem we have is talent based here in London may have visas—their indefinite leave to remain status—and they feel secure. When projects come over—because 85 percent of our projects are overseas and not based in London— we need those people to go and do a great job and see [those projects] be built. And we look at people not from their nationalities, but by who is the right person to deliver the project and realize the vision. Now, the restrictions on them coming back in London [makes it] more difficult.

I think we’ve seen differences with other countries around the world. The U.S. is another example. People are maybe not being so outwardly looking and welcoming, [but perhaps more] restrictive and insular. This is the Foster family, and our American colleagues have exactly the same status as our British colleagues as our French or our Spanish or Colombian colleagues. Wherever they come from, it’s Foster family. We need the ability to move the right people around the world for those particular roles, regardless of nationality. That’s a worry for us.

We have [very strongly] communicated internally that we do not intend to change our talent strategy, because that would definitely be wrong for our business.

We’ve recruited more into the local offices recently. But what we are now finding is those individuals want to come to London, or they want to go on a project somewhere else. They are always wanting to move around; that’s why they join us. I’m not finding that applications are down, but I am finding people want more reassurance that the organization is going to support them if they join us.

DI: What about the quality of people you have coming to you? Have you seen any change?

CS: No, I haven’t seen any change, really, I think mainly because Foster’s does recruit a lot at the junior level coming out of university. The talent strategy is we bring [people] in at [the beginning of their careers]. We tend to design again, design again, design again. It doesn’t matter how many times you do it, as long as it gets to the right answer. And sometimes that can frustrate people that haven’t grown up in that curious and challenging environment.

[In] architecture you’ve got quite a lot of graduates coming out. Getting really good, high-quality engineers out of the universities is trickier, because there aren’t as many of them.

DI: As you look at how the world is changing, and how Foster’s business will continue to evolve, what will change in the type of talent you look for? Will you be looking for different skills or disciplines, or perhaps different types of people?

CS: That’s really interesting, because we’ve actually [been doing quite a bit of thinking] on that at the moment. I’m chair of what they call the trailblazer group in London. We’re looking at how we change the educational system here so that we get students into the practice from a variety of different backgrounds. Because social mobility is a problem in this particular sector. [Architecture] tends to be an upper-middle class profession. You have to go through university for seven years, and you have to have money to do that. So, how do we encourage talents from other parts of the social sphere, from around the world?

That’s one project, which is progressing quite rapidly. We are hoping to launch something later this year on the apprenticeship side.

The other thing that we’re looking at is how technology is going to change the design world. Do we need different compositions of students or individuals that have computer design drawing skills? And maybe other people that are more conceptual? And then how do we bring in other technology?

We absolutely know that things will change, things will become faster, technology will enable us to do things more quickly. But we think we will still need people who can draw, who can really see what things are going to look like. We still think there’s going to be that human element.

Our debates are around how architecture affects the mood, how people work, their motivation and how they interact with their environment. There’s going to be that whole well-being space—how you bring people together. Where we’re starting to get to what you are talking about is the psychological connection between the environment, building and space with the individual. We’re starting to look at people who think differently in some of those different areas. It’s a really exciting time to be in this kind of design business.

LD: We’ve already started doing this in the way we diversify our workforce. We don’t just look for architects, engineers and support functions. [For example,] we have an anthropologist who works for us. You think, why do you need an anthropologist in an architectural design practice? Well, there are probably 250 reasons why you need one.

So, what does the future of talent look like? The future of talent [reflects] the needs of the client. We won’t try and pigeonhole architecture. What we will do is find the skillsets to create something unique and different. That’s part of our culture anyway, and that’s part of what we’ve been doing for a lot of our clients over the last fifty years.

CS: One of the things we talk about a lot here is what we call the orchestra. We are an architecture-led practice, but [you also have your] engineers. You have your sustainability people. You have your research people. You have your materials people. You have your model makers. You’ve got your filmmakers that are going to bring it to life, your artists who visualize it, all the way through to economists who are looking at the local environment.

If there’s something we feel that will add to our thought process and to the creative process, [we incorporate it]. So it’s an orchestra. And it’s how we play the song that paints the picture that brings [it all] into reality.

DI: What other elements of the talent picture are important to Foster + Partners?

LD: I think that we’re doing okay finding talent but retaining them is a challenge for our organization. Though the things that we do [are not simply] to keep talent, [we believe it is] important to look after our people and help them grow within their roles.

One example of that is we offer language courses. We [do so] for two reasons: first, 85 percent of our business is outside the UK, as Charlotte said. We sometimes bring in local people that speak the language, but sometimes we need to up-skill existing expertise within the office. [Second,] 65 percent of our practitioners in London are non-British. We want to support them, in terms of their self-esteem, their confidence. [We want them] to be able to speak and write and communicate more effectively using the English language—so we have English language programs [as well].

We also have life drawing and life painting classes every six weeks, because we want people to feel relaxed [and have] the opportunity to exercise some of their other skills. Everyone is welcome to attend those. We have onsite yoga three times a week, because we want people to be part of something. We have sailing clubs, we have ski clubs … you name it, we’ve got tons of social clubs.

It’s not just about the jobs that they do, [or] about giving them training and mentoring and leadership. We are creating a community.

CS: And I don’t think we’ve got it all right, yet, absolutely not. There’s still a lot of work that we can do. People here work very hard. And one of the other challenges I think we have is, how do we encourage diversity while valuing the individual? And that’s an interesting conundrum for me, because we’re very diverse from a nationality perspective. I think everyone is dealing with the gender issues at the moment. And then how we value all cultures. It’s very difficult.

You can start to see the political systems changing around the world, we can all see it. And things are coming back down to people wanting to go back into their safe zones and their own boxes. So how do we maintain that diversity while valuing individuals? [How do we] maintain that diversity in a world that is contracting in on itself? Personally, I think it’s really important because everybody has value. But I think it is a worry, and I think it’s happening all over the world. I don’t think it’s just the UK or the U.S. or maybe some other countries that we operate in. There [are certainly] some pretty big things happening out there at the moment.


Charlotte Sword is partner, global head of HR for Foster + Partners.
Laggi Diamandi is associate partner, learning and development manager for Foster + Partners.

Photo by Christian Perner of Unsplash