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Meet the “start-up” architecture practice that’s 35 years young

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

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

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

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 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

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.”