About the organisation
Foster + Partners is a global studio for sustainable architecture, urbanism, and design, founded by Norman Foster in 1967. Since then, he, and the team around him, have established an international practice with a worldwide reputation. With offices across the globe, we work as a single studio that is both ethnically and culturally diverse. The practice currently employs around 1,400 people, speaking over 70 different languages.
What challenges were you trying to address?
Late last year, we received reports regarding a new virus spreading throughout Wuhan. We have several ongoing projects in Wuhan and immediately imposed travel restrictions in December until we had a better understanding of the situation. Unfortunately, matters only got worse through December and January with continuing reports that required careful planning and coordination with our offices in China and Hong Kong.
In January 2020, WHO increased the threat level to a Global Health Emergency, following which we asked our people in China to work from home and closed our Hong Kong offices.
The learnings from the developing health crisis in China enabled us to upscale our response to our headquarters in London. However, with over 1,000 people spread across seven buildings, London was going be our biggest logistical challenge.
Aside from the obvious health challenge posed by the virus to our people, our biggest commercial challenge was how to maintain continuity of service and high levels of design excellence for our clients.
We started to look towards our disaster recovery plans, which did not fully anticipate an unprecedented situation such as this. We began by looking more closely at:
- Our staff’s concerns, anxieties and how we engage with them
- Creating a ‘virtual Foster + Partners community’
- Looking at how we can coordinate our emergency response across a multitude of geographies.
What was your solution?
The first step was the formation of an Emergency Committee—made up of the managing partner and senior representatives from the IT, finance, HR, and construction safety teams—to make quick decisions and give directions on homeworking, technology, cleaning regimes, PPE distribution, guidelines, and policy development. The committee took into consideration the various office locations and individualised the approach, taking the lead from local government/state advice.
The primary concern was to create a collective approach that was underpinned by the theme of ‘we are all in this together’. We listened to the concerns of our people (expats and locals) and acted accordingly. We engaged with our insurance providers and within 24 hours and set up a 24/7 virtual GP service, which dealt with any concerns our people may have.
For our clients, through video conferencing and using virtual collaborative platforms, we were able to co-ordinate design teams around the world. Having the correct technology solutions not only allowed our people to design effectively, but to also enabled virtual design reviews. In addition, learning tools, tips and courses were posted on the company intranet and the learning and development portal to encourage productivity while working remotely.
This has certainly been a challenging time for organisations across the globe, dealing with massive amounts of change in a short span of time. I am humbled and encouraged by the agility and rapid innovative solutions implemented by our talented team as we look optimistically towards a post-COVID-19 future.— Charlotte Sword, Senior Partner, Global Head of HR, Foster + Partners
How did you roll out your approach?
Our company intranet was an effective employee resource centre that aided practice-wide communication. Our approach included:
- A daily missive from our managing partner which highlighted the latest developments and summarised our company response to the situation that was changing daily
- Encouraging line managers to increase communication and support with their teams
- A global e-medical system allowing 24/7 access to medical advice – up and running within 24 hours
- Work equipment delivery to homes by our in-house facilities team to enable remote working
- Comprehensive IT support strategy widely communicated and supported with factsheets and telephone helpdesks
- The transformation of a learning and development programme to virtual platform with the delivery of lectures and mentoring
- Access to counselling, mindfulness, yoga, fitness, sleep tips and Employee Assistance Programme
- A tip of the day was introduced to continue to drive traffic to the intranet
- Motivational speakers were sourced to enhance community participation
- Surveys were developed to understand how our people were coping and how they felt about a future return to the office environment
- Support for parents and carers by introducing a twice weekly ‘Learning for Children’ initiative that includes drawing, activities, book readings and knowledge sharing, which has been expanded to become a public programme.
What have the results been?
In order to measure effectiveness a survey was sent out to all staff, which had a 90% response rate. Staff said that they have adapted well and have seen an increase in communication with their job captains, with 83% reporting daily contact. Over 80% of our people reported that they were highly effective and productive whilst working from home. To maintain the sense of community, teams were encouraged to have regular ‘virtual socials’.
We also maintained our online suite of motivational talks and created a weekly newsletter called Focus + Possibilities. From an HR perspective we have moved all our wellbeing and learning initiatives online while maintaining the high level of communication with our people, which was paramount.
There are several lessons that we have learnt during the pandemic and new elements in the way we work that we would want to continue post-lockdown. As a practice it is important that we are able to recreate those ‘water cooler ‘moments as well as maintain conditions for creativity and focus to thrive.
Having all of our people in remote locations has worked well but may not be sustainable in the long term. As we see more and more easing of the lockdown globally, we will reassess the way we work and take elements of what we have learnt over the last three months with us into the future. We are in the process of developing a framework for an agile working policy that will be the basis of our approach in a post-COVID-19 world.
What advice would you give to other organisations, in the same or similar industry as yours?
Err on the side of over-communication with your staff and always follow it up in writing. Be mindful of their personal circumstances and the stresses they are under – be empathic. Also, work collaboratively with your staff and ask for feedback and respond where you can.