Feature: Flexible friends

Hiring freelancers is common for some design practices; for others, it’s a no-go. Kay Hill looks at today’s ideal staffing practices, how – and where – to find good designers, and if freelancers are really ‘mercenaries’ by trade

by Kay Hill
November 2017

Finding the right balance between salaried and temporary workers is a relatively new dilemma for design practices – but one which is likely to become more common in the near future.

The idea of staying in the same job for 50 years and then collecting a gold watch as you leave is about as relevant to young designers as travelling to work by steam train. According to life insurance firm LV, the average UK worker changes employer every five years. Many eschew salaried roles altogether, in favour of self-employment or short-term contracts.

Since the downturn in 2008, the number of self-employed people has increased from 3.8 million to 4.6 million (Office for National Statistics). The number of professional people working as freelancers has increased by a massive 77%, according to Kingston University’s ‘Exploring the UK Freelance Workforce’ 2016 report.

Using freelance, agency, or casual staff makes things easier for companies during turbulent times. They only pay for the hours they need and, in many cases, avoid paying sick days, holiday or maternity leave. Despite the ease of employment, there are mixed feelings about the trend. Stacey Sibley, creative director at Alexander James Interior Design, is adamant: “We are committed to only employing full-time designers, because the nature of our business means we have ever-changing deadlines and commitments to our clients. Each of our designers manages more than one job, all at different stages in the process, which wouldn’t work on a part time or freelance basis.”

Designer Mary Barber Fray has stuck to salaried staff in the past. But with her main staff member having just departed on a third maternity leave, she is beginning to reconsider. “I have always employed people,” Barber Fray says. “But it is so much hassle, with sick leave and maternity leave, when you are a small business – you rely on that person. I’m beginning to think that it is easier and more flexible to employ freelancers.”

Lighting designer Paul Nulty is cautious. While he has a pool of four freelancers for bottlenecks, he only uses them for support work and keeps them away from clients. “Temporary staff can be fairly mercenary. They will come in at 9am and leave at 5.30pm on the dot, and they don’t feel ownership of a project,” he warns. “I prefer the consistency of employed staff and I believe in investing in training – and you don’t want to do that with a freelancer.”

As the word “freelance” was originally an 18th century term for a mercenary, it’s perhaps not surprising their loyalty might be questioned.

Ross Grindley is the director of Haus, a recruitment agency for design careers. “Some people like to do contract work when they are in between big jobs, or if they want to try out different sectors of the business,” he says. But he feels that for some people, working on contract is a matter of necessity rather than choice. “Contract working offers more flexibility and a bit more money,” he says. “But if you had an office full of contract people and someone else offered them full-time jobs with a pension and holiday pay, you’d soon have an empty office.”

Some companies prefer to take on salaried staff and simply dispense with them when times get tough. Foster + Partners, for example. The firm revealed, through its accounts, that it spent £2.1 million on just under 100 redundancies in the last financial year, but now plans to hire again. Similarly, in July, Atkins announced it was axing 92 staff from its building design practice, only to recruit 350 new graduates and apprentices in September.

Paul Nulty says, “I don’t believe in being scared to hire people. Permanent staff are more profitable and you have more consistency. However, if you are ruthless, it doesn’t cost much to then lay people off if they have only been with you a couple of years, so it’s relatively easy to downsize if you have to. At the beginning of the year we had to go along the redundancy route and lose four people. It was the toughest thing I have had to do as a boss, but it wasn’t down-sizing, it was right-sizing.”

“I think it’s shameful that salaried architects are that dispensable,” protests John Kellet of KR.eativ Architects. “That a practice the size of Foster’s cannot endure a small downturn of less than one year and retain staff is astonishing short-termism. Ideally, an architect should work all the way through a project; clients hate it if there are different staff at every meeting. Practices should put money aside to see them through the troughs, rather than firing people and having to start from scratch in a few months’ time.”

“It is a tricky dance for a design-led practice, as we need to have the work there to support the amount of mouths to feed,” say architects Lionel Real de Azúa, Ciarán O’Brien, and Lucas Che Tizard, co-founders of Red Deer. “We budget our time and money to ensure we’re not left in the lurch – looking ahead and being strategic is really important in architecture. The key is to engage with workloads in such a fashion that needing someone at short notice is rare. We programme projects internally, so they are resourced properly with accurate timescales using Gantt software. Of course there can be pinch points, but we do what we can to ensure they are the exception rather than the norm.”

“The most common reason for taking on contract workers is to cover maternity leave,” says Ross Grindley at Haus, “and sometimes architects take people on when they are tendering for a big project. Then, if they don’t get awarded the project, they let them go. Also, workers with a particular skill like Revik or 3D walkthroughs are frequently taken on short-term to support senior staff who don’t use that software.”

Firms find short-term staff in a variety of ways, but seldom through adverts. According to Grindley: “Firms don’t have time to advertise for contract staff. It’s easier to go to agencies, where we have people immediately available.” That claim is borne out by job search results. At the time of press, Haus was advertising 185 permanent jobs in architecture and interior design, compared to just 23 contract jobs. At the same time, on, 901 of the 1039 vacancies including the word “architect” were permanent.

Interior designer Shalini Misra notes: “Using agencies is the quickest way to find someone on short notice, as they have a vast database of designers. We also get in touch with freelancers we have enjoyed working with before.” Paul Nulty, on the other hand, feels: “I would never try to find a designer through an agency – they should be coming to me directly with their own CVs.” The Red Deer trio believe: “A practice our size is a delicate ecosystem culturally, so we must be sure we’re hiring people who not only can do the work, but who will fit with us, too. We use a company called Workio, which provides data to screen candidates as part of our recruitment process to ensure they are a good fit.”

Those who use freelancers tend to prefer they work in-house, although for different reasons. “I’m not a believer in remote working,” says Paul Nulty. “I’d rather see what someone is doing. I find that using freelancers is more successful if you manage them very closely.” “We tend to prefer freelancers to work in-house, as the studio is a creative environment and we like everyone to get involved with brain-storm sessions and group discussions,” counters Shalini Misra. “Freelancers can provide valuable design input with fresh eyes.”

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