When the UK’s largest practice speaks out so candidly about the damage Brexit could cause to its business, major alarm bells should be ringing for the entire industry.
Foster + Partners, which has topped the AJ100 rankings for the seventh year running, is clear: if Brexit does not go well and hiring and retaining talent from overseas becomes too difficult as a consequence, the company would look at moving its 1,100-strong headquarters operation outside the UK. Managing partner Matthew Streets says: ‘We don’t want to leave London; but we, like any business in our position, would have to consider it. If Brexit means we can’t attract world-class talent, then we will have to move to somewhere where we can.’
This is no idle threat. Fewer than a quarter of the architects based at its huge Battersea head office are UK nationals. Half are from EU countries. The business, Streets says, depends on attracting the world’s brightest architects to maintain its position as ‘world leader’.
‘Bluntly, the government needs to give us some more clarity on residency, immigration and on the framework for professional services,’ he says. He also reveals that the practice has been lobbying government behind the scenes on Brexit.
Meanwhile in terms of fee income and development, the ambiguities surrounding Brexit sit within a wider picture of an international market in flux – changes which are having a bearing on workloads and where Foster + Partners is focusing its business.
‘The international outlook is mixed,’ says Streets. ‘Although growth is solid, there’s masses of uncertainty. The advantage of being a global practice is that some markets go up while others go down. Overall, we are pleased with how things are going and we are on a steady course.’
He admits that, with 85 per cent of its current workload coming from international markets, it sees most of its future order book coming from overseas rather than at home.
As well as a raft of work for Apple in cities including Chicago, Dubai and Melbourne, the company has an increasing number of projects in China, such as a conjoined pair of towers in Shenzhen for drone manufacturer DJI.
But there will be no ‘growth for growth’s sake’, says Streets. The firm’s current head count he views as a ‘stable’ size. Even so, the number of ARB-qualified architects employed at Foster + Partners in the UK has dropped by 30 since last year, down from 383 to 353. Meanwhile, interdisciplinary giant BDP has closed in. The staffing gap between the top and second-ranking AJ100 firms has more than halved in the past 12 months to just 45 architects. Retaining the best people and investing in its current workforce remains Foster + Partners’ ‘number one priority’. That, Streets says, covers everything from ‘creating an environment that is a good place to work, giving people the right tools and training, to effectively communicating with them’.
The company is also candid about its gender imbalance: ‘Our 10.5 per cent gender pay gap is because we don’t have enough women in senior positions,’ says Streets, adding: ‘We are absolutely aware of that and are absolutely determined to improve on it.’
Streets has held more than 25 sessions with groups in the practice regarding the gender pay gap issue. He says: ‘The question is: why aren’t there enough women in top positions? All the research says that diverse boards and diverse teams tend to produce better business results. Therefore it is in everybody’s interests to do it.’
Wise words, from a practice that seems increasingly enlightened and keen to do right by its staff – wherever they are from.