Monday, December 31, 2012

Use of Contingent Workers

A firm, during the recession, laid off most of its staff and hired many of its former employees as contingent workers, having them work hourly on projects without paying benefits, providing office space, or having any long-term commitment to them. While that gave these workers the freedom to work on their own projects, it also increased their employment insecurity.

What is the utility of an employer having contingent workers instead of fulltime employees? The answer to that question has become especially relevant in today’s economy, where some observers estimate that as much as half of the workforce could be self-employed in twenty years time.

Clearly, digital and telecommunications technology has enabled a contingent workforce to be more productive, whether working in an office or at home, next door or halfway around the world. At the same time, the globalization of the economy has pushed employers to reduce the number of fulltime employees in order to adapt to the unpredictability of global demand and to adjust to the downward pressure on prices and wages because of global competition.

Hiring workers just to do particular tasks or work on specific projects with no long-term employment obligation, however, has its drawbacks as well. It can negatively affect the quality of the work, the speed with which things get done, the continuity of co-worker relationships, and even the mutual trust that makes teamwork possible. What may seem smart from an economic point of view can become anything but that from an employer or employee perspective.

The various definitions of “utility” highlight this dilemma. Most commonly equated with usefulness, utility also refers to someone who can serve as a substitute for someone else – a utility player on a baseball team, for example – or to something that is useful but of poor quality – a utility building, for instance. So, while the widespread use of a contingent workforce has usefulness, the quality of the work by these substitute employees may never equal that of those who they replaced.

In ethics, utility entails doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. And as such, the utility of using contingent workers may rest upon the consequences of doing so for the largest number of clients or consumers. If an office produces mostly commodity work, repeating relatively standard projects over and over again, then a contingent workforce might make sense. Even if the workers themselves might prefer full employment, a strictly utilitarian calculus would weigh the number of employees affected against the number of people benefiting from the lower costs of the end product as a result of lower production costs.

If, however, a firm does mostly custom work for clients, consumers, or communities of various sorts, then quality will likely trump price in delivering the greatest good. In such cases – which constitute the largest percentage of the work that architects and designers do – contingent workers may not be worth their lower cost. What an office may gain in terms of lower wages or healthcare benefits, it can more than lose with lower quality of work and lower productivity among its workers.

The other major definition of utility has to do with businesses that perform a public service subject to special governmental regulation – an electric utility, for example. While architecture and design offices are not official utilities, they do perform a public service regulated by such things as building or zoning codes. As such, they need to focus on the public’s best interest, which almost certainly does not include the overuse of contingent workers, whose unstable employment situation also makes them a public burden.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

An Introduction to Ethics

I have been absent for several months from this blog, completing a book manuscript on ethics, which includes most of the posts here. Now that the manuscript has gone into the publisher, I want to resume posting here, including parts of the work that I wrote over the summer than hasn't yet appeared here. The following is a short introduction to the manuscript - and to the role of ethics in architecture.

Architects have ethical as well as professional responsibilities to protect the health, safety, and welfare of others. Those ethical obligations get addressed to a certain extent in the AIA’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct, although that document, which has gone through several iterations since its promulgation in 1909, largely focuses on business ethics: our obligations to clients, colleagues, the profession, the environment, and the general public.

Protecting the public’s health, safety, and welfare, which provides the primary justification for the licensure of architects, has ethical implications that go beyond those of running a business to encompass the design, construction, and operation of buildings. Health relates to the well being of people as both individuals and groups, and it parallels the attention paid in virtue ethics to the development of character traits that that promote well being of each person and society. Indeed, leading a virtuous life can promote both physical and mental health.

Safety involves the related goal of having physical security and freedom from danger. While architects cannot protect people from every danger, building and zoning codes do guard against most physical hazards and the design process does help practitioners anticipate possible risks during the design and detailing of a project. The architect’s attention to public safety and assessment of the possible consequences of every design decision grounds the profession in utilitarianism, with its ethic of seeking the greatest good for the greatest number.

Of all the architect’s responsibilities, welfare remains a less well defined. Not to be confused with the system of governmental support for unemployed people, the welfare obligations of architects does share with those governmental programs the goal of helping people thrive and prosper. The areas of ethics most closely related to that goal are social contract ethics, which addresses the agreements that individuals enter into as members of a society, and duty ethics, which argues that we should treat others as we would want to be treated were we in their situation.

The architect’s responsibilities for the health, safety, and welfare of others makes the practice of architecture inherently ethical, in a profession that encounters ethical dilemmas almost continuously in the course of designing and constructing buildings. Understanding the basic systems and principles of ethics can help architects resolve those dilemmas by helping practitioners determine what is the right thing to do in a particular situation. A good grasp of ethics also enables practitioners to have greater success in meeting the needs and expectations of communities, clients, co-workers, consultants, contractors, and the whole range of people involved in and affected by architecture.  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

When There Is No More Fee

An architectural firm designed a project according to program and budget of an institutional client. The client, though, had a hard time raising all of the funds needed for the project and so asked the firm either to redesign the project to reduce its size or help fundraise for the project to reach the original budget, all without any extra fee to cover the time involved.

Professionals have a duty to serve their clients and to help them achieve their goals within the quantitative, qualitative, and financial constraints of a project. And with that duty comes another one: letting clients know that they must often chose between two of those three constraints. Unless a client has the rare gift of modesty with ample means, most projects have to sacrifice the quantity of some things, reduce the quality of some features, or increase the amount of money in the budget. In design, as in life, we can rarely have it all, and the sooner that conversation takes place in a project, the better it goes.

If it doesn’t occur or if the client doesn’t listen when it does, situations like the one here can happen. Architects can design a building according to the quantitative and qualitative requirements and the financial capacity of the client, but if the funding for a project doesn’t come in as expected, something must give. Either the project gets redesigned to reduce costs or the participants in the project must raise the money needed to complete it as initially conceived.

Of course, at this point, the fees to do this extra work often don’t exist, given the deficit the client already faces. So professionals have to make a decision: put the project on hold until the client can raise more money to build it as designed or help the client either do that fundraising or reduce the expense of the building to fit within the money available. That decision demands weighing two types of duty: to others and to ourselves. Professionals have a duty to their clients, but they also have a responsibility to their colleagues, co-workers, and ultimately to their businesses. It does no good for a practitioner to go out of business donating too much time to help other’s business.

The firm in this example might decide to keep working on the project without pay if the client seems likely to raise more money in the future and recompense the office for its extra work, or if the effort seems likely to lead to future work from that client or others. Some projects become “loss leaders,” generating new projects that can more than compensate for the earlier loss. And some clients have connections and reputations that can make their recommendations to future clients especially valuable.   
The dutiful decision also may turn on the nature of the client’s business. If a business has plenty of financial capacity and yet asks a firm to do work for free, the donation of time can quickly become a form of exploitation by the client, and the professional must say no. We all have a duty to stop exploitation, whether of ourselves or of others. But if, as in this case, the client is a non-profit without the money to move forward, the donation of services and the offering of help to raise money for the project become ways of giving back to a community and of paying forward the help others have given us. We all have a duty as citizens, and donating time and money in such cases always pays personal dividends.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fulfilling an Obligation

An architectural firm prepared a master plan for a suburban civic center and yet struggled with the city and its selected contractor in completing the city hall on schedule and with the desired quality of construction. The city, with the same contractor, wants the firm to design the buildings in the second phase of the master plan, but the firm, having lost money on the first phase, wonders if it should do so.

Do we have an obligation to finish what we started? It depends. Duty ethics would have us do our duty and fulfill our obligations regardless of the inconvenience or possible negative consequences in doing so. But does that extend beyond our contractual duties? Do we really have to follow through on something over which we have choice, with no requirement to carry it forward and especially when we have had a previous bad experience?

The architects here had reasons for wanting to do the second phase of the work: to see their master plan for the civic center completed as they envisioned, to complement the existing city hall with compatible buildings, and to continue the relationship that they had developed with the city. The firm, though, also had reasons to walk away. The city had decided on the contractor – a politically well-connected company – without giving the architects a say in the matter, and while the building had come in on budget, making that happen had led the architects to spend far more time on the project than what their fee had covered.

The firm might want to do the next phase of the work in order to recoup its losses on the first part of the project, although it also risked the possibility that this client and contractor represented a financial black hole for the firm, in which only further losses could follow those already endured. Clearly the duty to follow through on what one has started must get weighed against the duty to look after the financial health of the operation. And contrary to the tendency in ethics to seeing duty as an absolute, the reality of practice requires that we balance our duty to our clients with the our duty to our employees and partners, bringing to situations like this virtues such as the prudence to know when to say no and the courage to stand up to the contrary expectations of others.

A situation like this also raises a virtue rarely thought of as such: the virtue of creativity in seeking out a way to accomplish seemingly contradictory goals. How might this firm ensure the proper completion of its master plan while insulating itself from further losses? One option might involve charging more to do the second phase of the work, based on the firm’s knowledge of what the first phase actually cost them, and letting the client decide if it wants to pay those fees. That option allows the firm to remain open to continuing to do the work, while ensuring that it won’t expose itself to another loss if the client decides not agree to the higher price for services.

Another option might involve playing more of a consulting role, enabling the city to hire another architect to do the work, but within the guidelines and oversight established by the master plan. That maintains the relationship, ensures compliance with the master plan, and protects the first firm from financial exposure. One of the paradoxes of duty ethics is that our greatest duty is to ourselves, for without that, we will not be around to do our duty to others. 

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Deceptive Job Searches

In the world of academic job searches, especially for well-known faculty and experienced administrators, there remain more posts than people, which in turn can lead some to engage in job searches without any intention of taking the position if offered. There is nothing illegal about this, but is it ethical?

Colleges and universities go to considerable expense in searching for people to fill their leadership positions. This may odd in locations where unemployment remains relatively high and in fields like architecture and design, which have felt the impact of recessions more than some other disciplines. Economists might say of such a situation that it simply reflects supply and demand. In parts of the economy where the supply of people outstrips the demand, unemployment will stay high and compensation low. And where demand outstrips supply, as often happens in the area of academic leadership, the opposite occurs.

Even in high-demand parts of the job market, however, it remains relatively rare for people to go through the effort of pursuing a position, especially when that involves traveling and often-grueling two-day interview processes during the search for academic leaders, without intending to take the job if offered. What accounts for the surprising frequency of this? To outsiders, such insincere job applicants can seem selfish, as if they go through this process to stoke their egos rather than to seek new employment. And to critics of the cost of higher education, it certainly represents a waste of time and money on the part of both the institutions seeking new leadership and those whose existing leaders engage in such deceptive job searches.

This seems especially true when the process leads to a failed search. A lot of time and money gets spent on all sides only to have the best candidates decline the job offers, leaving the institution to start over again. Of course, no employer wants a reluctant leader, someone who really doesn’t want the position or who feels forced to take it out of a sense of obligation because of the effort taken by the institution to fill the post. But why, then, do prospective academic leaders start the process to begin with?

The economic reasons remain clear. In many institutions, the salaries of the faculty and staff often increase slowly. And so often the only way to beat the system – particularly among those who have a national reputation, a track record of effective leadership, or a demonstrated ability to attract research dollars – involves getting job offers from other places, which can trigger a “retention” pay raise if the current employer wants to keep a valued employee from leaving. This also involves risk, of course. An institution might not make a retention offer, at which point the people who engage in such deceptive practices might find themselves either having to take a position they don’t really want or to stay with their existing employer who didn’t care to retain them and so doesn’t really want them all that much either.

Ethics has long argued that deception or a lack of honesty in dealing with others doesn’t pay. In the case of academics deceptively seeking jobs in order to get retention offers, however, that doesn’t seem true. It clearly pays for at some, given the number of academic leaders who have successfully secured job offers and had salary increases or received other perks from their existing employers as a result. But word gets out if done too often, and eventually such deception no longer works. The job offers and the retention packages stop coming when neither side believes a person’s sincerity.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Property Wrongs

A glass-roofed museum, with a roof-top sunscreen that blocks out all but the even northern light into the galleries, had a condominium tower built to its north with reflective glass that bounced light directly into the galleries, threatening to damage the artwork within. The museum wants the developer to alter the exterior of the tower to prevent the reflections, while the developer claims he has city approval to complete the tower as designed.

Property law upholds our property rights, while also recognizing that one owner does not have the right to damage the property of another. We typically deal with such conflicts through zoning regulations and the approval processes surrounding them, pre-empting the possibility of one property owner’s paradise becoming a neighbor’s problem. No law or regulation, however, can anticipate every possible conflict, and in such cases, ethics can offer one path to a resolution.

In the case of this new tower shining unwanted sunlight into a museum, no one did so with malice in mind. Indeed, the proximity of the museum made the tower’s location particularly appealing to the developer and presumably, the buyers of the condominiums inside. As so often happens, though, our desire for proximity to what we most value can end up damaging it in the process.

We have seen this with suburbia, in which the desire to live close to nature has largely destroyed the natural environment that drew us to the suburbs in the first place. This tower seems like a high-end version of the same paradox. The very act of wanting to overlook the museum and its adjacent sculpture garden brings with it the very reflections that threaten to burn the garden’s plants and fade the museum’s art. Yes, we can have, as Shakespeare said, “too much of a good thing.”

Like the law, ethics acknowledges precedent. The museum preceded the tower and so the onus remains with the architect and developer of the tower to fix the reflectance problem they have caused. The latter’s claim that city approvals give him to right to build the tower as designed remains, if not dishonest, at least disingenuous. The government’s approval to carry a fire arm does not give us the right to shoot an innocent bystander, any more than the government’s approval of a building gives its developer the right to damage a neighbor’s property.

The disingenuous aspect of blaming the government comes at a time when it seems popular to blame the government for almost everything, and then using that as an excuse to starve the government of the funds it needs to do its job, thus giving more cause for blame. No doubt at least some of the wealthy individuals involved in the construction and purchase of the expensive condominiums overlooking the museum have participated in the anti-government rhetoric of right-wing politics. To then blame the government for not doing more to prevent the reflectance problem seems like the height of hypocrisy.

If anything, the lack of reflectance on the part of the developer equals the excess of it on the part of his building’s exterior. Antagonizing the museum and its many patrons lacks both utility and virtue, damaging the public perception of the project to the point where fixing the window problem pales in comparison to the cost of fixing the tower’s reputation and thus its marketability. The tower might have met the letter of the zoning code, but it so violates the social contract embedded in zoning of not harming the property of neighbors, that no one would win such a case in the court of public opinion.