After my recent interview with Gensler’s Director Harry Ibbs on Leveraging Technological Advancements to Bring Workers Back to Office I decided to cover the topic of a post-covid practice workplace culture from a completely different angle. In search of a more intimate approach, I looked into AL_A, a RIBA 2009 Stirling Prize-winning studio founded by Amanda Levete with directors Ho-Yin Ng, Alice Dietsch and Maximiliano Arrocet. The diversity of the leadership team and their 30+ person workforce brings a richness of thinking and possibility that’s played out in their culture, practice and through their designs.
I am somehow touched by the atmosphere they share in their office and to better understand the effort they invested in the curatorship of their inclusive workplace, I interviewed AL_A’s Head of Operations: Martha Darling, who is an experienced practitioner delivering business acumen across organizational operations. Martha’s expertise lies in understanding the requirements of a business in order to balance creative vision with business objectives. Through effective planning of multiple workstreams, efficient running of lean and effective teams and successful streamlining and implementation of new structures and processes, she manages rapidly shifting business demands in line with creative goals.
After working in an open plan warehouse for over 20 years, the office has had a reset. In March 2021, AL_A moved into a beautiful Georgian townhouse in Bloomsbury, re-imagining the office as a family home. It is emblematic of the studio’s curiosity and adaptability, signaling a new way of working. In their projects they design for a future where we can live better together and live better with nature. The team wanted to reflect this in the way they work too. The decision to make this change was fuelled in part by the pandemic and the effects this had on their working culture.
At AL_A, they take their shoes off at the door. As does everyone who visits their office. It is a metaphor for leaving behind preconceptions and an expression of their relaxed and collaborative working culture. On every project, they come together as a team of equals.
“We always begin our projects with a conversation, not a sketch. Conversations with each other, our partners and collaborators help us to develop a narrative that is then played out through the architecture, at both the macro and micro scales, reflecting our intuitive and strategic way of thinking. This spirit of collaboration is integral to our working life, making it a supportive, social and fun place to be.” says Martha.
This was something they worked hard to maintain throughout the pandemic, and which was aided by the radical transformations that occurred across all areas of working life – most notably in the areas of connectivity and communication. Great technological advancements, and new emerging tools, enabled them all to seamlessly transition into working from home.
“Each of us established our own rhythm of working to suit our personality and circumstance – it brought a new balance to our lives and gave us more control over our working day. But at the same time, we were all craving human interaction that cannot be replicated in a virtual environment, and which we find essential to our creative process.” Martha ads.
At their new John Street office, in London they wanted to create an operational environment which took advantage of these changes, increasing efficiency and productivity, but simultaneously allowing them to reclaim the culture they have carefully cultivated over the years. What I find especially intriguing is that they have used sociological data analysis derived from the pandemic and advancements in technological hardware and software to curate an innovative place of work in a ‘home-like’ setting. One that has the comfort of home, but the dynamism and social vibrancy of the workplace.
Completing the move in early 2021, AL_A welcomed their colleagues into the new space from Spring, as UK government guidance was relaxed and it became safer to return. Implementing these new technologies whilst taking careful precautions, they are trialing a flexible working schedule with a minimum of 3 days working in the office. They took the opportunity of the move also to undertake a total overhaul of their IT hardware, which has facilitated a hot-desking work setup with each colleague equipped with a portable tablet that they can plug into a workstation both at the office and at home.
The majority of their team have relished the opportunity to physically return and this has steadily increased seeing 92% of the team working from the townhouse at least 4 days per week, with many people including directors working from the office every day.
To support their culture AL_A has recently relaunched their talks program, where they invite partners and collaborators to come into the townhouse and share their expertise in their magnificent ‘ballroom’. They also have in-person Pilates classes twice a week to promote health and wellbeing. In these uncertain times, the office continues to evolve, but even as priorities shift there is one constant at AL_A – the importance of culture and collaboration.
Martha Darling is one of the keynote speakers of Disrupt Symposium, a 5-day virtual event dedicated solely to the topic of Business of Architecture. The purpose of Disrupt is to help practice owners and entrepreneurs in Architecture kick start their businesses and build them on confidence, knowledge and tenacity. Martha will speak about:
Other topics covered include business strategy, business development, client acquisition, financial management, sales, marketing, communications, branding, social media, public relations, the business of expertise, expert positioning, publishing online and in print, leadership, team building, recruitment, retention, and leaving a legacy behind.
AL_A will be joined and supported on the big stage by C-level executives and leaders of major business departments from UnStudio, SOM, OMA-AMO, Snohetta, Safdie Architects, Zaha Hadid Architects, Perkins & Will, Gensler, ARUP and more.