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What happens when architecture professionals find out that they don’t like to be architects? For those of who are fresh out of design school and only just starting your careers, you may be thinking that this won’t ever apply to you. But it happens more often than you realise, and even among those who are mid-way through their careers.

The question is, if you find yourself in such a situation what do you do next?


Why So Many Architects Are So Unhappy

Though every person’s story is unique, there is a common theme among the dissatisfied, disgruntled, disenfranchised architecture professionals I’ve spoken to. It usually goes something like this:

Passionate young architecture graduates fresh out of university are focused on the creative design side of architecture. But when they get a job, they are greeted with a rather “unpleasant” surprise. All these young architects seem to be doing is sitting in the office, learning to manage projects and pushing paperwork. If the candidates took the time to master modelling and design software, such as Revit and AutoCAD, then they find themselves sitting in front of a computer all day cranking out “standardised” designs or making modifications on someone else’s work. There is also the constant pressure, particularly at larger firms, to do more and work harder with less, for less.

These young candidates may have started their first real jobs full of enthusiasm, but then realise quite quickly that they don’t enjoy the work one bit. They may push their feelings aside, thinking the problem is just that they are new. If the firm they work for is well-known, then there is even more incentive to ignore what they are feeling. After all, it took a lot of time, energy, and money to get to this place.

Eventually, they may be moved to change firms, but the same feeling of discontent follows them around. Finally, it gets too much for them to handle, and they begin to consider what to do next.

If the candidate is young, then there are many options for what to do next. If the architect is a bit older (and there are plenty of mid-career architects out there who managed to plough through their positions for several years), then they really have to be strategic.


So, What Do You Do Now?

If you have been following me for a while, then you know that I’m a big fan of those who actively take their career development in their own hands. Part of this means seeking out the career opportunities that already surround you. Many disenfranchised architecture professionals are still interested in the field, and if they’ve been around for a while (5+ years), they’ve already built up connections and learned about the industry from the inside. This is all extremely valuable going forward.

If you fit this description, then the very first thing for you to do is to rethink your career goals. Remind yourself of why you got into the field in the first place. Then, see what areas would match those ideals.

You basically have two options:

  1. Look for Something Directly in the Field. If you still want to tap into your creativity, then specialise. Take interior design, for example. Being an architect means you will have plenty of transferable skills when it comes to interior design. Interior designers deal much more with the end user, and will typically specialise in specific areas. This means they are able to maximise their impact on a given project. They also work closely with architects.

On the other hand, if you are looking for a break from design side, but don’t want to give up on the field, then there are plenty of professional architecture jobs for non-architects and designers. This process can start by looking at the options within your current firm. How do you feel about research and design, marketing, or project management?

  1. Go a Bit Outside of the Field. Completing a degree in architecture and getting the necessary licenses and training can be a long and arduous process. But what happens if you decide 5 to 10 years out that you actually don’t want to be around architects at all? Here are some related careers that will allow you to transfer your skills and background:
  •      Landscape Architecture. Design outdoor landscapes that include elements, such as infrastructure, public areas, agriculture, and natural resources.
  •      Restoration Architecture. Focus on the conservation and restoration of historical buildings and other artifacts.
  •      Industrial Design. Design products and objects that are to be manufactured through techniques of mass production
  •      Furniture Design. Create innovative furniture designs for all kinds of spaces, uses, and materials.
  •      Graphic Design. Design images and graphics to be used in a wide variety of mediums.
  •      Video Game Design. Constructing the virtual architecture of a video game.
  •      Architecture photography. Capture a space’s composition, colour, environment and experience through a lens.

Bottom line: if you’re an architect and you have come to hate what you do, it’s not the end of the road (nor your career), and you certainly aren’t alone. With a little creativity and an open mind, this situation could turn into a stepping stone to something much more fulfilling.

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One of the most crucial factors to moving a firm forward is the level of passion, enthusiasm, and loyalty that exists among its employees (and by “employees,” I mean entry level staff all the way up to its senior leadership). Most firms, of course, dream of building a team of super staff who willingly put in long hours, come up with creative solutions, and generally go above and beyond their job descriptions.

But bringing this dream to fruition, however, means that those at the top need to start taking a good look at what is happening on the other side of the fence. On that side are the employees and promising candidates themselves who dream of an employer that values their time and efforts and that allows them to make a noticeable impact- both within the firm and outside of it.

While each employee will obviously come in with his or her own work ethic and personal level of enthusiasm, the onus of bringing these two sides together is really on the firm.

Why Employee Engagement Matters

A lack of employee engagement can be a leading cause of poor work quality, low morale, and difficulties in customer relations, ultimately resulting in missed business opportunities. In fact, there is a large body of research and numerous case studies out there that directly tie employee satisfaction and engagement to company performance.

This means if you can sell your employees on the firm’s future and the importance of their role in it, there are numerous advantages. Your employees are more likely to generate their own ideas, contribute with enthusiasm, and keep slogging away even when the road ahead is rocky. They also have a greater sense overall of fellowship and cohesiveness. All of this will help to ensure that your projects are successfully acquired, planned, and executed; that your clients walk away satisfied with your work; and that your firm is on top of the emerging trends in the industry.

Leave the Lip Service at the Door

So how can you foster real employee engagement in your firm? For starters, leave all the lip service at the door.

Firms are notorious for talking about things like employee satisfaction, engagement, and leadership development, while there’s little in practice to back up their words. The harsh truth is that the mere concept of “employee engagement” can easily be abused by firms that seek to strengthen the commitment of their employees without giving them anything in return.

Of course, this attitude on the part of firms just won’t work in the long run.

Only when employees have a clear understanding of the firm’s goals and mission, a strong sense of how their roles contribute to the larger goals of the firm, and knowledge of the areas where they need to be performing better… only then can they really take pride in the importance of their work and do the best possible job on every project.

A Change in Perspective

Many times when I ask the senior leaders at a firm to describe their firm’s mission, I am fed a series of memorised talking points that revolve around their strategy for achieving future growth and improved productivity. In other words, they are all to happy to tell me where there are going. Yet, when I try to get them to tell me who they are, my prodding is met with silence.

A lot of good can be achieved if firms would focus a bit less on where they are going versus who they are. Once there is a sense of what a firm stands for, senior leaders can begin the process of implanting these values into their key business decisions and ultimately into their daily operations. Every decision and every action then becomes a branded representation of the firm as a whole, creating a distinct culture that will attract suitable employees as well as clients and business partners.

A rather automatic consequence of operating with this attitude, is that the senior leaders at a firm will start to look at their employees differently. Instead of expendable assets that help them to achieve their goals, their employees will evolve into a hard-to-replace reflection of their core beliefs. These firms will then be more likely to invest in direct, personalised forms of culture building and leadership development, such as mentoring, effective employee evaluation and feedback programs, and even increased face-to-face contact between entry and mid level staff with those at the top. All of these things can generate a high level of trust, loyalty, and commitment among employees.

In closing….When firms want to increase their employee engagement, they typically consider their benefits package: how much money they are offering, what titles to give out, and who should be brought into their ownership program. They are working backwards. Once a firm figures out what they stand for as well as how their employees want to be shown that they are valued and make an impact, they can then go about fitting these concepts into the system. Armed with this knowledge, they can design a benefits package that truly and naturally elicits the engagement they are looking for.

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You have finally landed your dream job in a well-regarded firm. The position matches your skills and career goals perfectly. It even pays well. Yet, you dread showing up to work.

There is a whole lot of advice out there aimed at helping up-and-coming candidates land the job of their dreams. But what do you do when the reality doesn’t match up to the dream?

In practice, most jobs are far from perfect. Every position in a firm comes with it’s ups and downs, its own set of opportunities, challenges, and personality conflicts. Fantasies can quickly give way to the responsibilities, workload, corporate culture, or career projections that you may not have been expecting. Or, perhaps the expectations more or less match up, but you start the job and quickly find out that you just don’t like the work/projects/culture.

Of course there is nothing wrong with having career goals or even an ideal job in mind. Just don’t be lulled into thinking that once you obtain this position, you will necessarily have a clear career path ahead of you.


Waking Up From the Dream

So what do you do when you have already achieved the job of your dreams and it falls flat- especially if you made major sacrifices to pursue it? How do you re-set your career?

You basically have three options:

  1. Cut your losses- Move on to another firm
  2. Grin and bear it- Try to make it work with your current job
  3. Dig for gold- Seek out internal, high-potential opportunities that are suited to your strengths

Obviously, there is no one right way, nor one-size-fits all solution. But before you can take action, you need to figure out where the real issues lie. Are you frustrated by the firm’s leadership who does not seem to recognise your potential, or do you feel that your work is not challenging enough? Perhaps you do not like where the firm is heading. Trying to pinpoint where things are going off will help you to identify which actions to take going forward.

In the end, you may come to the conclusion that you didn’t do enough research on the firm during the interview process, or maybe your career goals were not realistic, or perhaps you will uncover new strengths and passions you didn’t know you had.


Creating a Career of Your Dreams

When you start focusing on personal development and playing up your strengths instead of trying to follow the defined path that someone else decided for you, your whole concept of career development changes.

It’s what Whitney Johnson refers to as “an era of accelerating disruption” where opportunity, new skill mastery, innovation, and personal growth fuel productivity and happiness and give the person a real competitive advantage. According the Johnson, you alone have the power to create the career of your dreams by taking the right risks, enhancing your distinctive strengths, embracing limitations and failure, and even having the foresight and courage to step back in your career path in order to grow.

In the end you have the freedom to look for the most promising internal and external opportunities. Maybe there is a better fit for you somewhere else in the firm or perhaps you are applying for the wrong position in the first place. The point is though a nightmare job may leave you feeling like you want to shut your eyes and run away, you really need to be doing the opposite.

Keep your eyes open. There are opportunities all around you. You just need to have the courage and the insight to see them.


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Some smaller architecture studios that I’ve dealt with feel that they are at a deep disadvantage when it comes to bringing in new clients or recruiting talented candidates. Bigger firms, they argue, just have more name recognition, better resources, and better benefits to offer their employees. While that may be technically true, problems with marketing and recruiting often go hand-in-hand, and they often have little to do with things like access to resources.

The real issue over here is one of messaging. If you have difficulty explaining why your firm is best suited for a particular project, other than “we’re great, hire us,” then chances are you’ll have an equally difficult time explaining to potential candidates why they should come and work for you, other than “we’re great, work for us.” Many bigger architecture firms in particular still don’t seem to understand that they cannot rely on their reputations alone to communicate critical messages about their areas of expertise, the quality of their work, their culture and ethics. Previous projects won’t always speak for themselves and word of mouth will only get a firm so far.

This prevalent attitude creates a big opening for smaller studios to make some serious in-roads in the market, since good marketing isn’t just about press releases, paid advertisements, or slick copy writing. The way a firm promotes itself is closely tied to a whole bunch of intangibles, such as its culture, mission, and values. The benefit to being a smaller operation is that the architects who run these studios as well as their employees are generally more invested and connected to the business and more naturally express the culture and values guiding their work.

Smaller architecture firms also typically have small budgets to match. While this can be a challenge, in certain respects it’s a blessing because it puts more pressure on principals and their employees to get their name out to potential clients as well as talented candidates in a clear, compelling, and focused way.

Where Smaller Studios Have a Leg Up in Marketing

That said, there are several strategies that successful smaller architecture firms typically do better to make themselves stand out from the pack of their bigger competitors. Here are five of the most influential ones:

  1. They know who they are. The architects and supporting staff at smaller firms tend to be more in touch with the things that make their operation different, such as what they distinctively have to offer clients and employees, what they stand for, and what they hope to accomplish with their work. In other words, they know what they are good at.
  2. They are good at telling their story. Smaller firms tend to have more personal stories behind them, and that tale about who they are and where they come from affects how they do business. This becomes an important part of their brand that gives the studio a distinct culture and vibe.
  3. They form strategic alliances. One of the biggest trends affecting the architecture industry today is that a growing number of clients prefer one-stop-shopping rather than having to work with several contractors to get a project done. This saves the client time, money, and energy. The most successful small architecture firms are deliberately partnering up with other, compatible companies in order to offer their clients a boutique of complementary services.
  4. They get involved in community outreach. Community outreach can take on many different forms. Exhibitions, lectures, articles and research for design publications, pro-bono work, and even participating in strategic competitions, can all help to get a firm’s name out there.
  5. They dare to specialise. Being a generalist isn’t a real marketing strategy- especially for a smaller firm. Instead, it’s a subconscious a fear of making a commitment. Doing everything for everyone may seem like a good marketing strategy, but by not targeting a particular market segment not only is messaging unclear, it confuses potential clients and leaves them wondering what the firm is truly an expert at.

Successful small firms actively target the clients that make the most sense for them and turn away the ones who don’t. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they never, ever accept work outside of their targeted market segments, they just don’t put precious resources into pursuing these kinds of projects in the first place.

Bottom line, the architecture industry today is broad and deep enough to accommodate architecture studios of all sizes and flavors. How successful a firm is often has little to do with how many employees or offices it supports. Instead of just trying to beat their bigger competitors at their own game, smaller firms should be busy re-writing the rules to their advantage.

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No matter where you are in your career, one of the most valuable assets you can have is a mentor to turn to who has faced comparable challenges, overcome obstacles, and achieved some level of success in his or her life that you aspire to achieve.
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