Meet the “start-up” architecture practice that’s 35 years young

Successful businesses drive change, but the larger you get and the longer you have been around, the harder that becomes. Reaching its 35th birthday, expanding architectural practice Maber found a surprising solution – start again.

Too often, established traditional businesses see workers confined to delivering management’s instructions. By contrast, a start-up conjures up images of energy, investment, shared vision and democracy. That’s the feeling maber set out to recapture.

On the face of it, Maber doesn’t need to change. With five offices in the Midlands and London, the practice employs a growing workforce of 80 people and occupies a solid place in the AJ100 list of the country’s biggest architecture practices.

Yet the firm saw that it needed to evolve to get to the next level. That led to a management restructure in 2018, as Ian Harris was appointed Managing Director, leaving Mark Hobson to take on a strategic role as CEO.  Change at the top was accompanied by a determination to invigorate the business. That manifested itself as an idea to challenge its 35-year-old ways of working by instilling a start-up culture. It is a decision that is not only changing the way that people work but also their physical environment, with new agile working premises replacing one of the practice’s traditional office locations in January 2019.

Ian Harris takes up the story: “Lots of businesses want a more agile, more engaged, more productive, more profitable workplace. We asked ourselves what that would look like, and what we needed to do to get there. Like everyone else, we are chasing improvements in productivity, efficiency, quality and the experience of working with us.”

He highlights Maber’s strap-line ‘Great to work with, great to work for’ and says: “That may sound like a slogan but it is something we actually use to make decisions and measure ourselves against. The idea is to work in ways that improve our credibility with our clients and improve our relationships with each other, and the choice of the word ‘great’ is a commitment that we want to be the best at it.”

Maber’s journey covers eight areas of improvement.

  1. Agile Working Environment

Taking on a historic, quirky, former shopping arcade in Leicester city centre to replace its traditional offices in the professional district means not only more space but also an opportunity to think differently about the way people work.

Ian Harris explains: “We are a knowledge-based business, so it makes sense to treat our talent carefully. That means creating a workplace where people can take responsibility for their work and be well supported to tackle challenging projects.”

The new office is not just a one-off. Maber is using it as a cultural experiment. It will see a mix of spaces, with some formal areas and a wide range of informal areas, from stand-up meeting tables to a 3D printing area and a ‘family’ kitchen.

“We are moving away from allocated desks to a richer variety of spaces and working environments,” says Ian Harris. “The emphasis is on individuals and teams selecting the spaces that suit the task they are working on at any particular time.”

  1. Democracy in Innovation

Everyone at Maber is part of at least one of the practice’s 14 working groups that review ideas in key areas of the business including design quality, virtual reality and visualisation, BIM (Building Information Management) and sustainability.

Each group reports to Maber’s associates and directors’ forum with a summary of recommendations. Ian Harris calls it “the open and transparent engine room of the business”. As well as being democratic, the working groups give people the opportunity to get involved with subjects outside their normal working remit, accelerating the chance of new ideas breaking through.

  1. Supporting People

Giving administrative work to architects makes no sense, says Ian Harris. Over the past two years, Maber has brought a dedicated admin team into its Leicester and Derby offices. The impact has been so good that it is now being replicated in the practice’s HQ in Nottingham, the city where Maber was founded 35 years ago.

Ian Harris explains: “Our admin people take a bunch of tasks off the architects’ desks and do it better.” Maber also employs office administrators to look after the practice’s buildings and the people within them.

  1. Keeping it Together

Now that Maber has achieved a certain size as well as being distributed across several offices, it has to work to keep everyone connected. Slack is really useful, according to Ian Harris, and it is starting to connect not just Maber staff but its consultants and clients as well. Maber is using Trello for visual and collaborative project planning and management. The practice now has two dedicated IT professionals who have brought forward plans focused around collaborative working. Change is the new norm in the practice’s IT, as demonstrated by a recent move of its entire mail system to the cloud with barely a murmur.

“We have put a lot of thought into building communications systems that are a pleasure to use and are as open as possible,” says Ian Harris. “Agile working is now a technical reality, allowing us to work together on anything wherever we are.”

To ensure that the practice’s priorities are distributed across all of its locations, each of the five Maber offices has a champion in each of its key areas, including BIM, eco and interior design.

  1. Harnessing Technology

Maber is harnessing technology to drive change. It has implemented new finance and time-tracking systems, for example. Moving to the cloud is giving its people the opportunity to work from anywhere, and the practice is now discussing how to manage providing opportunities for working from home.

  1. Driving Creativity

Creativity is a watchword at Maber, as Ian Harris articulates: “We want a workplace where people are motivated to get engaged and expected to bring their best to work every day. We want great ideas and we want people to try things out, to learn and to try again. We want creativity, conscientiousness, collaboration and community. We want high-performing people to influence and inspire their colleagues to do even better.”

To drive ‘creative conversations’, everyone in the practice gets two days of time and £200 every year to do something creative away from their desk. People have used their creativity budget to make stained glass, arrange flowers, write poetry, 3D print, build in VR, learn blacksmithing, visit great buildings, attend festivals and carve stone among many other things.

“By sharing their experiences with the team, we hope to drive up the quality of creative discourse and ultimately our architecture,” says Ian Harris.

  1. Sharing a Vision

As the business grows over time, Maber has realised it needs to consider how to communicate across the generations.

Ian Harris explains: “Our Millennials are starting to think about taking on more influential roles in the business, so consciously considering cross-generational conversations is increasingly important. Labelling individuals is actively discouraged in the practice, but we need to recognise how misunderstanding might arise because of different priorities, expectations or emphases.”

It is a debate worth having, as Ian Harris points out: “To harness the best talent and build the strongest sustainable plan for growth, we need everyone to share a vision for the future.”

  1. Tools for Improvement

 As well as advances in technology and a changing culture, Maber is on a journey to refine its more traditional tools for improvement. These include the practice’s design review process, appraisals and performance management, training and knowledge sharing. It is using workshops and online platforms, and working with internal and external providers, to do that.

Ultimately, the most valuable advantage from becoming a start-up again may be the ability to see your business with fresh eyes. “We haven’t previously been very self-aware,” says Ian Harris, “but we are finding that having discussions about how we operate is making us challenge old habits and assumptions, which is both invigorating and exciting. Change is the new normal.”

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