Second Annual Great Places to Work

Katie Sosnowchik

A concerned leadership. A familial and casual atmosphere. The opportunity to balance work and personal life. Meaningful and challenging work. Again and again and again, these are the descript



Because what we do for a living—and where and with whom and for whom we do it—is so critical, we decided once again to take a closer look at what makes a firm in our industry a great place to work. This report was culled from the responses received from dozens of firms and employees who participated in a comprehensive survey that took both an objective and subjective look at management strategies. We believe that their responses underscore some of the more effective approaches to cultivating dedicated employees. Our process was definitely not scientific; much weight was given to "report cards" that employees submitted anonymously regarding their own personal experiences with the firm, its leadership, its culture, its treatment of employees and its role within the industry and the community. What follows is a summary of what exactly employees think a great place to work should be like, together with brief profiles and reviews of the benefits packages and management programs offered by a handful of firms who scored highest in all of the most significant factors.

The Best and the Worst

In the not-so-very-distant past when the economy was booming, it was becoming common to hear about some unusual perks to recruit and retain talent: impressive signing bonuses, dry cleaning pickup, stock options, concierge services, fitness training, paid
vacation travel, free car rentals. Times have changed. Flexible hours and four-day work weeks now top the list of employees' preferred perks, along with open door management styles, exposure to complex and interesting project work and comprehensive benefits packages. But what seems to satisfy individuals the most in their jobs are the colleagues with whom they work. When asked, "What do you like best about working for your firm?" the overwhelming response was very simply stated: "The people."

The ability to work hard—and sometimes play hard—with co-workers ranked high among professionals no matter what size firm they worked for: small, medium, large and giant. Feedback indicated that the opportunities to learn more about co-workers generally tended to foster teams that respected one another's talents and skills, thus contributing to a climate that wasn't overrun by political maneuvering (although certainly some politics still exists nearly everywhere). Those firms with a more familial atmosphere also tended to be the ones where leadership was described as "fair" and "honest" and where people tended to believe their contributions were appreciated. This kind of culture especially seems to be important during a time of economic hardships, where salary increases and bonuses are not as frequent or as impressive as in years past.

Not every firm is perfect, however, and certain management policies and practices held particular concern. At the top of that list was management's leadership skills—a concern some employees willingly voiced, but seemed equally understandable of; in most cases, their immediate supervisors are trained design practitioners who are more interested in—and comfortable with—practicing their professional skills rather than management responsibilities. Another concern was the disconnect that can frequently occur between firm goals and day-to-day activities, especially at large and giant firms with multiple offices.

"There is not enough connection between top level goals and day-to-day efforts," noted one associate at a large firm. "Communication especially could be better relative to our other offices—what they are doing and letting them know what we do."

Most "complaints" about work, though, were often directed not toward the company, but rather toward the field itself. Explained one project manager: "The drawbacks are not particular to this firm, but more to the profession. Working within budgets can be stressful and frustrating. Managing clients and consultants can grow tiresome. If I had one critical comment about my firm, it is that we are all such perfectionists and high-achievers that we get frustrated by less-than-excellent service from consultants and professionals that we work with. The high standards that we each independently hold in the office somehow raises our expectations for how everyone outside of our firm should perform. Sounds strange, I know."

The Question of Leadership Skills
The survey question, "How would you describe the leadership skills of your firm's senior management?" generated lengthy responses across the board as respondents seemed eager to share what worked and what didn't. Best leadership practices included constant communication, a willingness for honest dialogue and a formal mentoring program, which oftentimes requires managers to walk a fine line between helping out without taking over.

Management should be there when needed or when questions arise, but not so involved that designers don't have a sense of having their own wings, said one project manager. If a project issue comes up that someone can't solve on their own, he added, management should be there to guide the designer through the appropriate steps for resolution—in other words, they should teach by example.

Many other respondents agreed. "The best project architects and managers that I have worked with have a strong sense of building knowledge and are willing to teach the younger staff as they go along," noted one architect.

Another frequently-cited quality of a strong leadership is the ability to make tough decisions when needed. "The best leaders make me feel taller and more capable after I leave the room," explained one project manager. "Senior management is usually supportive, reservedly candid, and deliberate in taking action. They will take difficult action, but after a long review period."

Another respondent appreciated that her feedback was solicited when tough decisions were being made.

"Two years ago the market was extremely tight, and the firm was really struggling to stay on its feet," recalled the project manager. "Rather than let employees go, senior management approached the team and asked our comfort level with everyone cutting back pay/hours temporarily so that we could all still remain on-board. We agreed, it only lasted a month, and then we were back to full speed! I think that most firms would have cut out an individual rather than consult with the group to let us have a say in our fate."

Additionally, respondents said they admired leaders who were able to put egos aside and be honest about their own shortcomings and abilities as managers, thus creating a leadership structure that worked best for the firm in the long-run.

For example, an intern architect at one firm described how its three partners each had very distinct gifts, and so they divided management responsibilities accordingly. One partner is very good at managing job efficiency and has a vigorous work ethic, another is an outstanding designer and is approachable and accessible to the entire staff. The third is remarkable at client relations and marketing. Because each partner is responsible for a
different aspect of the firm, their roles are clearly defined.

Lastly, respondents said they appreciate leaders who are approachable. Explained one associate, "I love being able to 'shoot the breeze' with the leadership team. I have never felt intimidated by them, allowing me to be honest with them through my observations of their management styles and really telling them how the staff feels about certain issues. They really value feedback from all staff."

The Integrity Factor
Hand-in-hand with the importance of leadership skills came the issue of a firm's integrity when dealing with employees. Does the firm deal with its employees in a credible and trustworthy manner? Are all employees treated fairly and impartially? Does management express tangible support for employees' concerns? These issues can serve as a make-or-break factor to some employees because it's the proof they seek that leadership truly trusts and appreciates their employees.

So how do firms demonstrate their integrity factor? Most often it's via regularly scheduled office meetings attended by one or more principals to discuss
concerns, complaints or suggestions regarding either firm practices or project-related issues.

"Every quarter we have staff meetings to restate and verify that we are striving to be the best we can be in all areas that we value as core values," noted one intern architect. "The senior leadership team hands out surveys to check the pulse of the employees. They check our morale, communication between employees, and other areas vital to being a successful firm."

In most cases, these firm-wide meetings are supplemented with weekly team or studio meetings as well, so that communication between employees and management remains constant. Other methods include yearly surveys and annual retreats that explore both business and design issues. Even something as seemingly minor as a suggestion box can demonstrate tangible support for learning more about what employees are thinking.

Employees also lauded those firms that solicit their opinions on issues that impact the company as a whole. For example, when one firm was evaluating its insurance program it decided to create a task force of employees with different family needs to participate in a group decision that would be best for everyone. The task force concept worked so well that it was used again when a decision was needed about the firm's reimbursable policies.

Financial transparency is another highly valued policy. For example, one firm gives employees access to servers, financial information and client information that many firms would keep confidential. "They do this to promote more efficient work flow and
motivation to improve the company," explained one associate. "Management knows the risk that they are taking and chooses to continue to do this for the
positive return."

Lastly, employees rate a firm's integrity by how well and how often they review employee performance. "Firms need to manage employees in a trustworthy manner, never giving them a false feeling of security," said one associate. "If something is wrong with an employee's performance, management must let the employee know."

The bottom line is that successful firms have learned that what they give to employees in terms of trust and respect often is paid back to the firm multifold. These are the firms that foster the most loyal and dedicated employees. In fact, those respondents who scored their firms highest in the integrity factor were also the ones most likely to describe their firms as "family."

"Integrity is an integral part of our success," noted one respondent. "When I recently lost an employee to a sudden tragic accident resulting in his death, I experienced an amazingly warm embrace from the firm's senior management and from all the people in general. The support system the firm extended to my staff and me was phenomenal. The sensitivity the office extended toward my people and me was touching, and much appreciated. We work with a very caring group of people. Credibility and trust are instilled from the top down and throughout the organization."

Staying Connected to the Mission
Even companies that have great leaders who demonstrate high levels of trust for their employees can find their firms at risk if another part of the "great places to work" equation is missing: staying connected to the firm's core values and mission. Without this buy-in on the part of all employees, a firm may find itself floundering and unable to define its direction.

Many respondents commented that it's easier to stay focused on the firm's mission and values when they have had a chance to help create them. "The point of emphasis here is that our vision is shared by all employees because we create the vision," explained one project manager. "It isn't something that is handed to us by senior management—we have a vital impact on the direction of the firm and what we hope to accomplish each year."

Equally critical is the need to continually keep the mission and value statements in front of employees continually. Staff meetings need to address company goals and values, showing how they are or are not being met. At one firm, a partner dedicates a portion of each monthly staff meeting to discussing specific ways staff can impact the firm's mission.

Other firms have found it helpful to periodically re-visit the vision/mission statements, thus enhancing employees liklihood to embrace it on a daily basis as a means to accomplish goals. "This enables you to stay grounded . . . to stay centered and focused," explained a firm associate. "It makes you understand why you are here. You develop an individual performance plan that ties into your departmental business plan, which also ties to our organizational plan of accomplishments—if everybody rows in the same direction at the same time, there is nothing that we cannot accomplish. The synergy is awesome."

Finally, recommends one senior associate, "To be connected you have to have buy-in. An individual's buy-in will be stronger when they are part of the outcome. Management invites staff to be involved in the reassessment and then redefining of our mission and vision on a regular basis."

Work/Life Balance
An old adage says that, "No one has ever died wishing they had worked one more day." That statement reflects an increasing desire for more time to enjoy personal pursuits — whether hobbies or family obligations—and as a result is finding its way increasingly into the list of perks being offered to employees in the A & D field. Nearly all firms who
participated this year offer flex time (surprisingly, many firms also have implemented official four-day work weeks) and/or telecommuting options. And to prove that they are not just paying lip service to the need to balance work and personal life, many have created virtual work environments, providing employees with the technological tools and assistance they need to do their best work whenever and wherever they want—or need—to do it.

"The firm is very sensitive to personal issues, and as long as we maintain our professional responsibilities, we have a lot of freedom for our personal lives. Our principal tells us 'We work to live, we do not live to work'," commented one project manager.

"Management realizes that today's technology can assist in ensuring employees' freedom and, at the same time, meet business needs," added a design principal at an interior design firm. "Management purchased wireless portable laptops and new direct connect cell phones for all the employees. They also set up each employee at home with an office."

Part of this change is, of course, the fact that firm partners and principals themselves are placing more importance on their own personal lives. A number of respondents noted that there is a new pervading philosophy guiding senior management: happy at home means happy at work.

Making a Difference
Of course, while all of the above plays significantly into an employee's satisfaction with their own particular firm, the project work also must be both challenging and meaningful. At the end of the day, practitioners want to feel that their skills and talents are being utilized to improve their clients' personal well-being or professional success.

"In the long-term, our firm has focused on markets that may not be the most glamorous and expensive, but have a profound effect on people's lives during the formative years and times in their lives when they are physically/mentally fragile," explained one senior design associate. She is especially mindful of the vast number of people her firm's work in these two markets—Healthcare and K-12 Education—has impacted.

Indeed, it is the mantra that design adds value that makes the challenge of deadline pressures, demanding clients and sometimes impossible budgets worthwhile.

"I think that we are demonstrating the phenomenal power of design, one project at a time. I truly believe that our firm has helped our clients to sell their products better, improve employee satisfaction in the workplace, and increase productivity simply through designing well," said one project manager. Another agreed: "I like what our clients are trying to do for the world. I want to support them by giving them the environment in which to do that best." And yet another commented: "We stand firmly in our belief that quality and premium service to the client, and creating life improvements through a built environment, are meaningful ways to contribute to society."

In the end, though, says another, it all comes back to where we began—with people.

"Relationships are very important, whether it is employee relationships, relationships with contractors and clients or with outside service groups. We have done great projects with nice architecture and design elements, but at the end it is about the relationships that you have created during the process."