COVID-19 Restrictions Impact Practice Confidence and Workload

In November 2020, the RIBA Future Workload Index returned a balance figure of 0, meaning as many practices expect workload to increase as those who expect it to decrease. It’s the lowest figure since June and a fall from last months’ +9. 

Confidence about future work strengthened among large and medium-sized practices (to +25), whilst smaller practices have returned negative predictions for the first time since June at -5.

Private housing continues to be the only sector within which workloads are expected to rise over the coming months, posting a balance figure of +12 in November (equal to October). The nascent recovery we have seen in the commercial sector over the last three months to October has come to an end, falling from -12 in October to -19 in November. The community sector posted a balance figure of -13, down slightly from -11 the previous month. The public sector again slipped back marginally this month, from a balance of -6, in October to -7 in November.

Concerns about future practice viability are growing. Nine per cent of practices expect falling profits to threaten practice viability, a three per cent increase on last month’s figure of 6%.  In London, that figure now stands at 15%.

London remains the least positive region across a range of key indicators: future work predictions, future staffing levels, assessment of future practice viability and personal underemployment. The balance figure for London has been negative since March. November saw pessimism grow further, with London returning a balance figure of -7, down from -1 the previous month.

The Midlands & East Anglia have slipped further into negative territory too this month, dropping 15 points to -22 in November. The South of England remains positive about future work, posting a balance of +9.

Wales & the West retains its position as the most positive area, with a balance figure of +15, although this is down from last month’s figure of +25. The region has been in positive territory for six months. The North of England continues to be positive about future workloads, posing a balance figure of +7 in November.

In terms of staffing:

  • Remaining the same as last month, the RIBA Future Trends Staffing Index returned a figure of +1 in November.
  • The anticipated demand for temporary staff has slipped back, with the Temporary Staffing Index falling to -1 in November, after posting a +4 balance figure in October.
  • 81% of practices overall expect permanent staffing levels to remain consistent (the same figure as October).
  • 7% expect to see a decrease in the number of permanent staff over the next three months (down from 9% in October).
  • 8% expect permanent staffing levels to increase (down from 10% in October)
  • Medium sized practices are those most likely to need more permanent staff.
  • In London, the balance figure for permanent staff is -7 (up from -8 in October), with 7% of practices expecting to be employing fewer staff in the next three months (although less than the 15% of practices in October). 
  • There is some marked regional variation – in the Midlands & East Anglia are anticipating a falling number of permanent staff, whilst demand for architects outside those regions is set to grow
  • Personal underemployment rose slightly, up from 20% in October to 22% in November.  That figure is within the range of levels we were seeing immediately before the pandemic.
  • Staffing is at 95% of what it was 12 months ago (down from 97% last month).  Workloads are at 86% of those in November 2019. Overall, 4% have been made redundant since the start of the pandemic (up from 3% in November), though 13% are working fewer hours (down from 19% in November).

RIBA Head of Economic Research and Analysis, Adrian Malleson, said: “Our November Future trends survey results come after another month of fast-paced change in the UK – first a second lockdown and then the confirmation of effective vaccines, giving hopes that an endgame to the pandemic might unfold.  However, as we move through December and into January, the RIBA anticipates that Brexit will have a long-term material and potentially highly damaging effect on the architects’ market, particularly if no deal is reached.

“Overall, the future workload index has edged back down to zero, though there continues to be a mixed picture for architects depending on their region and sector. Pessimism has increased in London where practices are more concerned about future viability, profitability and workload than anywhere else in the country.

“For projects outside the housing sector, there are reports of clients facing challenges in securing financing, and so delays in project progression. Increasing Covid-19 restrictions have made on-site working either significantly more difficult or not possible and there are also early indications of challenges in getting materials on-site. We continue to be on hand, providing support and resources to our members as they navigate these challenging times.”