The attraction of opening an office abroad hardly needs explaining – a base in another location allows you to take advantage of new opportunities and offer existing clients face-to-face relationships. Spreading yourself across territories also offers greater insurance in a time of increased economic and political upheaval.


The attraction of opening an office abroad hardly needs explaining – a base in another location allows you to take advantage of new opportunities and offer existing clients face-to-face relationships. Spreading yourself across territories also offers greater insurance in a time of increased economic and political upheaval.

In the UK for example – mired in uncertainty since the vote to leave the EU – the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) reported in September that workload predictions were at their lowest point since July 2016. Meanwhile, the country’s Architects Registration Board reported a spike in British architects registering to work overseas – 77 per cent higher in the first third of 2019 than the entire annual total for 2018. Maintaining access to key markets isn’t the only advantage, with design firms increasingly concerned about how worsening attitudes towards immigration will impact their talent pipelines. Both the RIBA and the American Institute of Architects have in recent years spoken out strongly against the way that restrictive immigration policies proposed in their respective countries could damage native firms’ competitiveness.

Satellite offices do pose challenges as well as opportunities, however. ‘With a satellite office, you lose the immediacy of a presence under one roof and therefore control over your product,’ says Nick Dunn, principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF), which has seven offices outside of the US – Berlin and Singapore being recent additions.

He runs through the practical considerations of opening an overseas office – including local licensing, certification for staff, international money transfers, taxation, visas, cultural fit and regulatory variance. ‘For example, in China letting a worker go is not as easy as it is in the US, so you have to be confident that the individuals you’re hiring are for the long haul.’


According to Nick Dunn, principal at Kohn Pedersen Fox, the nature of an overseas office is dictated by its purpose. So when his team landed a big airport project in Singapore, they took up residence at 18 Robinson, a building they designed in the same city.

For KPF, the decision is often triggered by a combination of chance and strategy. ‘We were doing quite a bit of work in Singapore remotely from Hong Kong, for instance, but then we landed a big airport project there and had the opportunity to take a floor in a building we designed.’ And the nature of an overseas office, he says, is dictated by its purpose. ‘Will it service a single project? Is it part of a bigger family of satellites? Make sure its profile is clear.’

In terms of the priorities, Dunn says, ‘it's project support first and pursuing new business second’. The latter does, however, influence KPF’s choice of senior management. ‘You want a person who’s capable with clients, as well as having office management and architectural skills.’ The heads of new offices tend to already be embedded in the company culture. ‘We want an office to have gravitas and for clients to feel they are getting the KPF service, so we would start it with someone who has been at KPF for five to ten years, who understands the way we think. You have to build the office hierarchically – you can’t just put five juniors in a workspace.’

Some staff members in new offices are internal transfers – existing employees who want to go back to their countries of origin – but the majority are hired on the ground, to help the firm get a grip on the local context and avoid the administrative difficulties of relocation. Dunn believes the success of its international offices relies on treating them as more than simply divisions devoted to specific tasks – such as generating conceptual designs in New York and using the Shanghai office as cheap labour to get drawings done – and more as project teams that can operate independently.

But the lines of communication do remain open. ‘We have regular video conferences, as well as annual retreats in New York for our principals. It’s a lot of work to maintain a common ethos 10,000 miles away.’ Fostering a common culture is also about quality of life. ‘I don’t want the staff in one country to feel like second-class employees, so we may have to augment benefits that are the norm in a particular country so they’re comparable to those in the US or London.’

Opening an Overseas Office
Five Key Tactics

Get the right mix

Internal transfers from existing offices will help maintain the company ethos, especially at an executive level, but local hires are key to ensuring an understanding of contexts and codes.

Build a clear profile

Understanding what purpose an office serves is central to making it a success. Will it be focused on one particular group of projects or area of expertise? Is its aim to maintain existing client relationships or to generate new business?

Maintain standards

While different countries have different working cultures, it’s important – especially in an industry with such intensive office hours as architecture and design – that performance expectations are consistent across the company.

Foster independence

Satellite offices tend to be most successful when allowed to develop their autonomy, instead of simply providing a particular set of services to HQ. Think of the relationship as a fluid network of interdependence rather than as ‘spokes in a wheel’.

Retreat to advance

Once the preserve of big multinationals, the concept of the ‘company retreat’ is of increasing importance to many creative SMEs with staff spread across locations. Investing in facetime for senior management will ensure that the company maintains a clear business focus and identity.

kpf.com

This How To was originally featured in Frame 132. Get your copy here.