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“People want meaning in their work”: The architecture of employee ownership with Make and Meld

Employee ownership comes in many different forms and there is certainly no one size to fit all. It’s a growing trend, especially in design firms overseas, so Timothy Alouani-Roby spoke to some of those blazing the trail in Australia.

“People want meaning in their work”: The architecture of employee ownership with Make and Meld

80 Charlotte Street, Make Architects, photograph by Jack Hobhouse.

This article originally featured in Indesign Magazine Issue #89, The Magnetic Workplace. Buy your copy here!

We have grown accustomed to the idea that the workplace is changing. Architects, of course, concern themselves with creating the spaces in which work takes place, fully cognisant of contemporary demands for flexibility, hybridity and collaboration. They are taught that the built environment shapes behaviour. What, then, of the structures underlying the work of the designers themselves? If the tangible office is changing, shouldn’t we also ask what the corollary might be for designing the organisational infrastructure of a creative practice?

For those listening closely, there are tremors afoot that might just herald a new wave of experimentation – namely, the concept of employee ownership. Already in the UK, more than one in five of the largest architecture practices is operating with some form of employee ownership model, while other international precedents include Zaha Hadid Architects.

In Australia, meanwhile, the trend is very much in its early stages. At the cutting edge of the debate is Make, an architecture firm with studios in London and Sydney and which, uniquely, has been employee-owned since its inception. Asia Pacific director, Simon Lincoln, poses the question fundamentally: “How do we get businesses thinking about business differently?”

Capella Sydney, Make Architects, photograph by Tim Kaye.

So, what exactly is employee ownership? There are many different models ranging from owning company shares to employee ownership trusts in which the trust becomes the sole or majority shareholder, while governmental regulations and tax incentives vary. Meld Studios recently became the first Australian-headquartered business to transition. Janna DeVylder, co-founder, principal and director, explains: “You don’t become employee-owned overnight. The cultural work can start now whilst the technical, legal and financial infrastructure can be managed over time.” 

With the focus on culture, the question turns to why employee ownership might be beneficial, for both employees and employers. The first point to be made is simply about care: “One of things it means to me is ownership, on many levels – it instils an attitude of ownership in which you have far more invested. You feel valued and part of something,” says Lincoln. By having a direct stake in the work, an employee will be more incentivised to buy in and commit.

“People want meaning in their work – I think they are no longer willing to be in places where they feel like cogs in a wheel. We’ve almost industrialised knowledge work to the point of thinking people are just machines – but we’re not; we’re humans,” says DeVylder.

Related: The changing face of design work

80 Charlotte Street, London by Make Architects, photograph by Jack Hobhouse.

Meaningful work means higher levels of staff retention. The traditional owner, meanwhile, is invited to consider a different concept of legacy, one which places longevity and custodianship above ego. The life of a practice is no longer reliant on an individual – crucially, that is also likely to make succession planning significantly less troublesome for small and medium sized practices. As Lincoln points out, it creates stability and a culture of caring for the practice over time: “You don’t buy in and you don’t get paid out when you leave so, by virtue of being employed, you are a partner.” 

Staff buy-in, meaningful work, stability: these would appeal to almost any business, but what should be especially interesting to architects and designers are the advantages specific to the creative workplace. The nature of design work is such that collaboration, social responsibility and staff empowerment are inherently desirable dynamics. “If we’re allowed to do our jobs as designers – empowered to think and have ideas through ownership, inclusivity and collaboration – then we’re going to do great architecture with great clients and we’re going to make money,” says Lincoln. “What’s the value of employing a graduate if you don’t think their ideas are any good?”

DeVylder makes a similar point: “It’s not actually scary to let people have a say. It’s about unlocking their potential. Just imagine the creativity and innovation we could get in architecture and design if we took some of the fear out of work.” 

Capella Sydney, Make Architects, photograph by Tim Kaye.

At the core of employee ownership in architecture and design are some decidedly uncontroversial assumptions: creative work is more successful when truly collaborative; fear inhibits innovative thinking; motivated people are better workers. Instead of a zero-sum game of competition between individuals in a workplace, wouldn’t designers benefit from a structure that provides mutual incentives to help each other and succeed as a team? In fact, isn’t this just the organisational equivalent of the mixed, collaborative and open office space advocated by today’s leading designers? Perhaps the more architects walk the walk, the better they’ll talk. 

Finally, a word of reassurance and realism. There is no rulebook on how fast or deep the change needs to be, nor is all hierarchy abolished. At Make, for instance, a project still has someone who reports to the client and redistribution of profits is done on a percentage basis. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this absence of individualised bonuses can actually create a stronger force for driving performance: “Ownership is about accountability as well. If someone in the team isn’t pulling their weight, the wider team won’t accept it,” notes Lincoln. 

As the repercussions of COVID-19 continue to play out in workplace design, spare a thought for how we might (re-)design the workplaces of those who design the workplace. A spectre is haunting those very workplaces – the spectre of employee ownership. 

Make Architects

Meld Studios

Employee Ownership Australia

Indesign #89 ‘The Magnetic Workplace’ — find out more here.

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