Four Key Strategies to Survive the Coronavirus Shutdown

In the past three weeks, I’ve had the honor of being interviewed on several podcasts
about my book Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm . All of the hosts have asked
the same fundamental question: What is your advice for architects and other design
professionals in the face of the Coronavirus pandemic? My answer is always the same:
You can survive—and emerge stronger than ever—if you follow four key strategies for
emerging from the Covid-19 shutdown.

I learned how to face and overcome many different kinds of challenges—and not a few crises—during my 50-year career as an architect at HOK, where I began as a junior designer and rose to become the CEO and Chairman.  I’d like to share some of my strategies here to help you meet today’s challenge:

  1. Focus on clients, not just projects.  The first thing I would do during this crisis is reach out to my clients on a personal level.  “How is your family?  How is your business? Are you surviving this shutdown?  How may I/we help you during this time?”  Your interest in helping should be genuine.  Here are some valid ways you may be able to help while also eking out a bit more work for your firm:
  • No doubt, many clients will say they have decided to stop work on your project. How to respond?  “I understand… But I’d like to suggest that it would be better if we finished our current phase before stopping. That way, everything is well documented, you don’t lose any work you’ve already paid for, and you can restart the project cleanly after the crisis is over.”
  • Other clients will tell you they must freeze large design projects they had planned.  Ask them if instead of designing their new building right now, your team can do the architectural programming for the project.  For those who don’t know, programming is when architects conduct research to help clients define the scope of work needed and make sound early decisions about their planned project.  With your help, the client can be poised to move forward quickly when the emergency has passed.
  • Some clients will tell you they are consolidating, perhaps transitioning into a smaller, more efficient working space.  Ask them if you and your firm can help them with consolidation planning.  Yes, they will have to pay you for your help, but it will be worth it if you can help them avoid costly mistakes. 
  1. Develop a three-month financial strategy.  Crises never last forever, and this one is no different.  I suggest you develop a three month financial strategy to get your business to the other side of this crunch.  Even if the emergency lasts longer than three months, you will be well prepared to develop a new one or two month strategy, if needed.  The point is to break the task into smaller, more manageable chunks.  Some steps you might take to survive:
  • See how many of your clients will pay you for work already performed, and persuade as many as you can to have you continue the work at the current level.  
  • During this time, you may well need to supplement income from clients with cash. if you have been a prudent leader, you will have working capital saved up.  If not, your options are narrower but still possible: borrow from a bank or an investor.
  • Remember, everyone else is feeling the squeeze, too. It is perfectly acceptable to ask your landlord to defer some or all of your rent for a few months.  Your vendors and consultants will probably also be willing to wait a bit longer to be fully paid, especially if you lay out a schedule for full payment.
  • Your biggest cost is people, and you need to have enough cash to pay them for at least 90 days.  Of course, you can furlough or dismiss them, but I do not advise this. You will need good, trained people once this crisis is over.    
  1. Stay connected with your people.  Communicate with your team in every way possible: phone, email, virtual meetings and more.  Be honest about what you and your firm face.  If a major client stops work, let your people know this, and what steps you’re taking to continue the relationship with that client.  
  • Provide regular updates—at least weekly.  In particular, share good news as it happens.  No positive information is too small. Perhaps a client has paid a bill or re-engaged your firm for part of a project.
  • Let your people know that you are committed to them and that you are a team. If you are sincere and honest, they will follow you through this crisis.  If shared sacrifice, like a temporary pay cut is needed, clear communication will be even more essential. Explain that once the crisis is over, you will all work together as a team to restore everyone’s full pay—and that your own paycheck will be the last one made whole.
  1. Perfect your virtual working skills/systems.  This crisis has resulted in most of us being sequestered at home.  If you are to serve your clients well, your people must be able to work at home as virtual teams.  Hopefully, your firm has already experimented with people working from home. If not, your employees are getting a crash course in remote work now.

Learning to work efficiently from a distance will pay off in a big way after the crisis is over. People who know how to work remotely on teams become more valuable employees since they can work from anywhere.  You may find a future in which your employees are not all in the same city, but are scattered around the country or even the world.  Other valuable employees may need to work part time due to family considerations.  Virtual work can be a solution for this too.  

In short, offering a work-from-home option can help you attract and retain the very best talent, because you are not limited by geography.  I believe our future will consist of much more virtual work, so take advantage of this opportunity to perfect your firm’s distance working skills and systems.
PATRICK MACLEAMY, FAIA, worked his way up from junior designer to CEO of HOK, a global architecture firm, where he worked for 50 years.  He is best known in the design industry as the creator of the “MacLeamy Curve,” which advocates front-loading effort during the design process to catch errors early.  Today, MacLeamy is chairman of buildingSMART International.  His book, Designing a World-Class Architecture Firm came out March 30th.  It’s about the history of HOK and lessons learned from it that can help other architects and creative services professionals grow bigger —or better.