How are Ontario’s Architecture Practices Adapting?
As Ontario’s response to COVID-19 evolves, and Stage 3 framework is deployed across the province, the OAA reached out to Architects, Intern Architects, and Licensed Technologists OAA on their experiences thus far and how their practice is planning for the immediate future. The anonymous survey was shared with members last month, intending to collect information and stimulate discussion about how each firm was responding to the pandemic’s effects. While the OAA continues to analyze the results, this preliminary look offers a snapshot of how the profession is adapting.
The anonymous 19-question survey was sent to OAA members via email on Monday, August 24 and kept open for responses until Sunday, August 30. It was intended to collect information and stimulate discussion about how Ontario practices were responding to the pandemic’s effects. In total, 401 participants completed the survey.
Over the next few weeks, the OAA will be releasing a comprehensive look at the survey results on the OAA Website, offering a downloadable booklet on the COVID-19 Updates section that looks deeper into the data and shares anonymous verbatim responses from the membership. There are also plans for a similar survey being issued in six to eight months to chart how the profession’s response has continued to evolve. For now, the following paragraphs summarize a few of the immediate takeaways from the survey.
Out of the 401 participants, the majority of the answers were provided by Architects (70%), followed by Intern Architects (27%), and Licensed Technologists OAA (3%)—this aligns with the current make-up of the OAA mailing list used. Approximately 79% of the respondents are working in practices of two or more people, while 15% are single practitioners.
The majority of responses (59%) came from practices located in the City of Toronto Electoral Boundaries. That same percentage represented people identifying as being from a city core, while 38% said they were in the outskirts, suburbs, or rural farmland/greenbelt. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 40% of people drove to the office, 32% took transit, and 15% walked.
Business and Financial Impacts
Of the respondents, 38% of practices were able to take advantage of government programs or loans to supplement staff salaries and maintain staff levels. Some practices were only able to access the loan and others were unable to qualify for any of the government programs. In some instances, firms laid off staff temporarily or reduced the pay.
For the practices, 34% experienced a loss of business, but 28% said no impact was felt and 15% cited having more work than usual. Based on the comments received, this question should have been more specific in terms of time frame. Many stated there was an initial drop of work, but that things picked back up.
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted how practices collaborate internally. On the whole, workload was similar, but there was a loss of efficiency; schedule delays are also encountered. Staff layoffs resulted in overtime as understaffed practices dealt with workload, notably healthcare projects.
Operations: At the Office and At Home
Working from home was deemed challenging for those who needed to balance family life and their job. At the time of the survey, more than 65% of firms were working partially or fully remotely, with only 19% of respondents back in the office. Over 65% of respondents also said they were consulted when it came to decisions about returning to the office.
Almost 75% of the participants changed their approach to conduct site visits by going off-peak hours, introducing additional personal protective equipment (PPE), and/or creating a specific protocol. Some commented they relied on virtual meetings whenever possible, but most mentioned the use of mask/face shield, hand washing, and social distancing.
As a result of the pandemic, 38% of people who responded anticipate that working remotely will become a permanent option for some staff or work colleagues (at least part of the time). More than 40% advised the practice would be more open to this the possibility than it would have before the pandemic. Some of the comments raised concerns about inefficiency and some members said they loved the fact that they didn’t have to commute anymore.
At the time of the survey, almost half of the practices responding had created a safety plan based on the government recommendations and had shared it with employees. About 20% were planning to do so while 14% had not put a safety plan together. (Over 15% answered “not applicable,” as they are most likely sole proprietors, retired, or unemployed.)
More than 43% of the respondents advised that the practice or place of work was providing financial support or transferring equipment from the office to employees working remotely (e.g. paying a portion of internet costs or long-distance charges, providing a monitor or other technology, etc), while a full one-third said no compensation was being offered for these sorts of expenses. The comments mentioned it was mostly computers and monitors that were being supplied when staff were working remotely.
Only 17% of survey participants had not applied any new safety measures to their office layouts at the time of the survey. Examples of actions that had been taken include:
- staggered seating (32%);
- staggered schedules (23%);
- one-way directional flow (18%);
- extended furniture partitions/sneeze guards (17%);
- handwashing station or hand gel stations at key areas in the office (43%);
- wearing a mask (44%);
- frequent disinfection (42%); and
- permanent renovation to the office or mechanical system (4%).
While 33% of the respondents advised that their practice put in place special accommodation for employees that need to use public transit, or have elderly parents or young children at home, another 31% said no such allowances were made. However, based on the comments left by respondents, a lot of people did not know at the time of the survey what to expect.
About 68% advised they believe COVID-19 will lead to long-term changes in the way architecture firms practise in Ontario, whereas only 14% didn’t believe there would be change. Some of the comments mentioned working remotely would become more commonplace, and that fewer in-person meetings and more flexibility in hours would also remain.
The last question of the survey asked about the greatest challenge the practice has faced to remain productive over the past four or five months. The 334 answers mostly focused on the challenges of working remotely—coordinating staff efforts, ensuring staff had the equipment they needed, issues with building departments, trying to design remotely, etc.