How to recruit and onboard Part 1 and Part 2 architectural assistants remotely

Written by: Helen Castle
Published on: 10 Mar 2021

Remote working has proved a significant barrier to practices recruiting junior staff during the pandemic. How can you effectively interview, induct and support Part 1 and Part 2 assistants when you are out of the office? Senior leaders at Foster + Partners, PLP Architecture, Apt and Richard Parr Associates describe how during COVID-19 they have developed new online selection and onboarding processes.

Recruiting and onboarding remotely

The continued investment in a future generation of architects during the pandemic has made remote recruitment and onboarding a necessity. Photo: Vadym Pastukh/Shutterstock.

Junior staff thrive off the collaboration and camaraderie that a lively studio offers: the ability to reach over a desk and ask a question, to be in earshot of incidental conversations about a range of projects and to participate in easy socialising – shared lunches and drinks on a Friday night. There is no doubt that during the lockdown, less established team members, often living in cramped temporary accommodation, have been the hardest hit –both in terms of wellbeing and quality of work experience. For many practices, though, not engaging Part 1 staff and leaving an entire year’s cohort adrift because of the challenges it poses is not an option. Finding creative ways to support and develop staff online is vital. As Charlotte Sword, Global Head of Human Resources and Senior Partner at Foster + Partners, expresses: ‘We need to protect the future.’

Since March 2020, Foster + Partners have recruited nearly 200 junior staff, including an intake of 40 Part 1s. For a 1500-strong global organisation that ‘grows its own people’ and ‘only recruits senior staff externally in exceptional circumstances’, putting the brakes on recruitment was not a consideration.

PLP Architecture, which in most years takes on 3-4 paid interns, in November 2020 recruited 15 junior positions on three-month fixed-term contracts with 3-D skills to help support business development, realising pitches and competition entries. This proved a lifeline for many architectural assistants, who were being let go from other practices or seeking hard to come by work experience at the beginning of their careers. Sonal Rathod, Head of Human Resources at PLP, explains that these team members are being given the same software training and CPD opportunities as staff and the goal is to offer them permanent positions on projects where work firms up.

Over the last 12 months, Apt has grown its staff from 34 to 46 – 8 out of the 12 new recruits are junior roles. They have also boldly launched a new initiative to sponsor a Part 1 apprentice, advertising for the position on RIBA Jobs in February 2021. Jason Geen, Studio Leader and Board member at Apt, explains that as an Employee Ownership Trust (EOT), it was important that the practice asked itself the question ‘How to make a change?’ and took action. The desire to open up a more inclusive route into practice is part of ‘the core DNA of the business’. The intention is to benefit individuals who cannot support themselves through 7 years of education without taking on a ‘crippling level of debt’.

Ben Lamb, a Director at Richard Parr Associates, a 20-person practice with studios in London and Gloucestershire, has recently recruited a Part 1 student to work on placement with the founding director on early concept design stages to help meet growing client demand for their residential work.

Attracting and selecting talent

At Foster + Partners, recruitment is a constant and leviathan process. The attraction of talent is multifaceted: the HR team posts adverts on their own careers website and on job boards, such as RIBA Jobs, and through the press and universities; they also receive referrals through alumni groups and through their work with the Stephen Lawrence Trust; and achieve outreach through their staff, who speak and teach in schools and universities internationally.

The result of all this activity is almost 30,000 applications a year. In order to sort this vast number of applicants effectively and identify the best candidates, they have a dedicated talent team in HR, which includes two qualified architects. They have designed their own candidate management system to filter particular skills, such as languages and overseas licences. A separate talent management system enables them to upload promising portfolios for the attention of relevant studios, who undertake the final cut of candidates for interview.

Apt’s transfer to an employee ownership model in 2018, which transformed them into a design-focused collective, has shifted ownership of recruitment into the teams themselves. Talent spotter groups made up of Part 3s and project architects sift and shortlist from submitted cvs and portfolios. This often requires tough decision-making as it becomes necessary to select down from 200 applicants to 10 interviewees and ultimately just one or two candidates.

Their commitment to recruit a Level 6 apprentice for the degree apprenticeship course at London South Bank University (LSBU), though, has required working in an entirely different way to reach A’ level students. Supported by LSBU, the Sutton Trust and RIBA, the staff have undertaken a programme of online presentations to students in local sixth forms. With a couple of weeks to go until the final deadline, they are pleased to have received over 20 applications to date.

Interviewing and reviewing portfolios online

With the transfer of interviews online, practices have been diligent in ensuring that they give candidates the best experience possible. This inevitably requires more pre-prep work for recruiters.

At PLP, the HR manager organises pre-interview sessions to talk individuals through the process, so they are comfortable about sharing their screen and showing their work. Sonal explains it’s about ‘reassurance’ and ‘avoiding panic if there are technical difficulties’. Sample interview questions are also sent out to candidates in advance and they are encouraged to narrow down their portfolio ‘to a snapshot to show online’.

Likewise at Apt, shortlisted applicants are briefed on the format in advance and are asked to select just a few projects to talk through at interview stage, highlighting what gets them enthused. Rather than ‘being seduced by graphics and CGIs’, Geen explains that Apt is keen to ‘be touched by the intellect behind the project. What did and didn’t go well, and how it manifests itself in the thinking of the next project.’

At Richard Parr Associates, Ben Lamb also sets up an informal 20-minute Zoom chat with candidates before introducing them to founding director Richard Parr for a final interview. The aim of this exploratory conversation is ‘about the interviewee, what inspires them’ giving them the opportunity to talk through their portfolio and any previous work experience, establishing whether their approach and interests are a good fit with the studio’s.

Inducting and onboarding remotely

Foster + Partners has developed a virtual onboarding system for new recruits. The aim of the two-day induction is total immersion in studio culture, fully imparting the practice’s values and behaviours. It covers everything from the partnership’s history to its virtual filing system, health and safety and the project management ethos.

Once transferred to their team, the new recruit is allocated a buddy to provide peer-to-peer support. Buddies, who have participated in a training programme, are there to be warm and friendly and open, responding to questions via the chat box and calls, while checking in for regular virtual coffees.

New team members are also supported by the technical design function that ensure that they are brought up to speed on REVIT and Rhino. They are also provided with a variety of resources, like bots on REVIT.

In the most recent pulse survey 96% of staff reported having daily catch ups with their managers, in addition to team meetings.

Exercise is encouraged with lunchtime sessions of Pilates, yoga and walks. This is complemented by a rich extracurricular programme that would rival any university, spanning motivational talks and lectures by subject matter experts on fine art, architecture, engineering and building materials.

The orientation process and strong culture of Foster + Partners inevitably results in tight friendship groups among younger staff, who often opt to live together in shared houses.

Apt follows a similar model of induction and support. A two-day induction programme is led by the practice manager, who talks new staff members through the practice handbook and arranges training with other Apt staff on the CAD system and an introduction to the model shop. In preparation of a return to physical working, they are even given instructions for using the expresso coffee maker.

This is followed by the allocation of a mentor in their team - a Part 3 graduate working on the same project as them, who attends the same meeting calls and catch ups. Peer-to-peer support is provided by way of a Part 1 breakout group, who join on a call for 15 minutes every day. Jason likens it to the virtual equivalent of ‘a water cooler chat’. In addition to participating in regular team catch ups, there is a monthly practice catch up, which welcomes new members and keeps staff up to date on what’s happening on projects and across the business.

An intrinsic part of Apt’s culture is the clubs. Part of the new joiners’ induction is their selection of a club – in the spirit of a university freshers’ week. The clubs have 3–4 members and provide time away from the CAD screen. They range from the model shop club, which is involved in deciding what the best new purchases might be for the workshop, to an events team, which organises social activities and events.

In a practice where every staff member gets a share in the business, for Apt it is all about upfront investment in individuals.

Flexible return

With the vaccine rollout coming through and the government’s road map in place, practices are all considering how and when they are going to get back to the physical workplace.

Jason at Apt emphasises that they are keen ‘to be on the front foot with the return to work. They are currently undertaking a creative rethink of the office environment. Staff are asking for the senior team to consider more flexible working, so that they might work from home for part of the week, and when they need to be more focused working on a technical phase of a project. The studio is likely to re-emerge as a touchdown space for creativity and sharing as we exit lockdown.’

Ben describes how Richard Parr’s appetite for real life interactions and his commitment to nurturing an emerging generation of architects is culminating in a plan to open a new ‘People’s Space’ in Notting Hill. A multifaceted studio and gallery, it will offer the opportunity for staff to collaborate and interact with wider design culture. It will accommodate work placements, charity events, sketching parties, presentations and screenings. The practice currently have one Part 1 student enrolled on the Part 2 course at the London School of Architecture – potentially two in September. Ben states: ‘We actively encourage this part-time work/university route for Part 2s. As a business, we are willing to invest both time and financially in ensuring it works for young architects.’

Hand-drawn sketch by Richard Parr

Hand-drawn sketch by Richard Parr for the ‘People’s Space’: the practice’s new London studio, opening in Notting Hill in the summer of 2021. A highly interactive space, it will accommodate cultural events, as well as opportunities for onboarding architects in the making.

Charlotte stresses that despite all the efforts put into mitigating the impact of remote working for junior staff at Foster + Partners, it doesn’t go far enough and compare to the benefits of the physical environment: ‘People want to get back. Staff want to sit next to experienced people, we can’t fully replicate what they get in the physical studio in the virtual world.’ However, the practice is immensely proud of the work that they have done during the pandemic to recruit a fresh intake, while developing a new cohort of registered architects. Through their close collaboration with RIBA Northwest, they helped to support 40 colleagues obtain their Part 3 in 2020.

With thanks to Charlotte Sword at Foster + Partners, Sonal Rathod at PLP Architects, Jason Geen at Apt and Ben Lamb at Richard Parr Associates, who gave up their time to be interviewed in late February and early March 2021.

Helen Castle is Publishing Director at RIBA.