The business of business from the top is changing. The pace of that change for everyone who has directly suffered from the Great Recession is admittedly glacial, though some continue to argue that the Great Recession hasn’t done “too much” harm to the building and design industries.
They recount personal anecdotes about acquaintances and friends as “proof,” though critical thinkers know anecdotes prove nothing. What’s more, they never tell you that those people own their own businesses. They aren’t discussing the masses of unemployed people who worked for them. If you want to understand an issue and discuss it intelligently and meaningfully, you need to be specific about sectors, demographics, and statistics. Conflation denotes a slipshod carelessness, and if there is one thing that this economy has taught us, those qualities in both thought and action do not pay off.
And for those who are familiar with the multiple Occupy movements around the world, it’s clear that political discourses on economic and social issues have been fundamentally changed so that original Occupy issues such as corporate tax loopholes, greed, and more equitable taxation of the wealthy have been joined by such issues as immigration, access to education, and even debt relief to fundamentally shift politicians’ rhetoric, if not their mindsets.
It is fitting, then, that the job security of corporate bosses has been eroding, though slowly, over the past two years, two years again after the Great Recession began. Not only do they have less time to prove they can do their jobs before they are given the heave-ho, which means turnover is higher, but they are now more vulnerable to activist boards who do not hesitate to demand decisive action. Many large firms demand that their boards are populated by outsiders and are no longer chaired by the CEO. Proxy battles routinely make the finance pages of Google and Yahoo and they really do send the various indexes reeling.
Politicians have also taken note, for example when Congress passed a law—admittedly symbolic more than anything—that gives shareholders a non-binding vote on CEO pay. Britain is considering a similar law that is actually binding. What’s more satisfying is that this kind of accountability has actually improved corporate performance, according to academic studies.
Architecture firm leadership is not structured in quite the same way as these multinational corporations, it’s true. Those that are multi-office, if not multi-national, tend not to have boards, and they often aren’t traded on the market. And it’s true that poor leadership across most industries is often still rewarded.
But, things are changing, at least in some firms. For one, there is the realization that employees are people, not just “workers” or “laborers”—dehumanizing terms that make it easier to exploit people.
In real terms, some firms have begun honoring overtime for salaried people with comp time (if you don’t know what that is, it means that you actually take the equivalent amount of overtime you worked on another day). Yes, some firms are actually honoring that notion of compensatory time rather than just giving it lip service. Increasing vacation time, and separating it from sick time is another area that has witnessed some change. There was a time when it was normal to have employees collect these two personal time- off periods separately and simultaneously, but during the past decade or so, many firms have truncated both into a single, set amount of time off. Of course, you see the problem, right? The total amount of time one earned was less than when sick and vacation time accumulation were separate. Many firms have gone back to this former model. And as is always clear, happy employees make better, more effective, employees.
Finally, and this is a big one, top leadership has, at least in some firms that have greatly suffered over the past few years, become more human itself. Perhaps the accountability part is a factor, perhaps not. But the firms that are rebuilding themselves from the ashes have taken note: top leadership needs to be accessible, not abusive, able to listen, not just bark orders, and finally, it needs to be flexible rather than rigid.
It’s true that this worldwide recession, whose effects are still being painfully experienced by many, many people, is not over. Why not? Over a decade of deregulation combined with rampant corporate greed cannot be solved overnight, no matter how much conservatives want to blame their current leaders. But hopefully, what we are seeing at the top of large corporations, and larger architectural firms, will be a trend that will continue and implement a widespread culture of corporate change.
Sherin Wing, Ph.D., is a social historian who writes on architecture, urbanism, racism, the economy, and epistemology (how we know what we know by researching and examining the agendas inherent in our sources of information) to name a few issues and topics. She is dedicated to exploring issues in ...