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    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.”

    www.maber.co.uk

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