To demonstrate financial dedication to staff, firms are coming up with novel twists to pay and benefits. Some degree of health insurance subsidy and 401K contributions are now commonplace. Employee stock options and profit-sharing are gaining popularity because a sense of ownership motivates employees to work harder toward profitability. Fully funded health insurance has a higher value, as do options for dental, vision, and life insurance. Roy, having observed much staff discontent with rigid benefit offerings, advises his clients to exercise more flexibility. Employees with working spouses may not need health insurance, for instance. Entry-level staff may have no interest in life insurance but prefer a higher salary to help pay off student loans. “Why not have a buffet of benefit options?” Roy suggests. “People could pick what they want and really be happy because they picked it. Maybe firms could offer the option of switching packages every year as family situations change. A lot of turnover wouldn’t happen if firms had better options.”

Another opportunity for flexibility is in employee work hours. The 360-employee architecture firm Anshen+Allen has 9-hour workdays, with alternating Fridays off. For employees like mothers of young children, the firm offers flexible work schedules, telecommuting options, and less-than-full-time work. Roy points out that firms sensitive to flexible scheduling are more likely to attract and keep talented women of child-bearing age. Not only are they benefiting from this labor pool, they’re also enhancing internal diversity. Anshen+Allen (A+A) has clearly learned this lesson. The firm’s staff is 34 percent female, including 25 percent of upper management. This success contrasts starkly with the AIA’s female membership of only 13 percent. In part as recognition for family-friendly policies, A+A recently won an award that honored it as one of the profession’s most worker-friendly firms.

Creating culture

In showing employees they’re valued, firms further enhance their corporate culture, demonstrating what the firm stands for and why staff should be proud to work there. “Culture,” of course, is different for every firm. Timothy Haahs and Associates focuses explicitly on “doing well by doing good” and fostering a family-friendly atmosphere. Haahs himself developed a service approach to life after surviving a life-threatening illness. Haahs applies his good will to his projects and staff, and they respond by serving others, donating time and money to local charities. He supports staff education, both internal and external, subsidizes day care, and trains young architects in leadership in a “pathway to principal” program. As a result, the employees feel good about themselves and their employer, and turnover is low.

Perkins+Will has long held annual retreats to promote firm cohesiveness, but this year there was a twist. The four-day event was in New Orleans, where staff donated their time and energy to recovery planning, design charrettes, tree planting, and house construction. Staff participant Leigh Christy concluded: “Everyone in attendance declared this a personally rewarding and uncomfortably eye-opening event. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about society and the built environment.” The firm’s social responsibility is also reflected in their participation in “1%,” a program of Public Architecture, which connects nonprofit organizations in need of design assistance with architecture and design firms willing to work pro bono.

Some firms offer free trips to staff as a reward for special service. California-based HMC takes the idea further and invites all staff, including nonprofessionals, to compete for travel grants as a means to define firm culture. Principal Kevin V. O’Brien, AIA, LEED, explains the idea’s genesis: “There are a lot of people in our firm who collaborate to make things happen. So we tried to think about how to improve the culture without having it be all about architecture all the time. It’s great to go someplace and be inspired by an experience that can influence your work.” One of this year’s two winners is visiting an Italian preschool to study a program that emphasizes the physical environment as a place to enhance learning, creativity, and community interaction. The other award winner will photograph “Things That Disappear” at Glacier National Park, at Yankee Stadium, and in Cuba. Both travelers are required to present their findings to the entire firm. They are subsidized with a travel stipend and an extra week of paid vacation. O’Brien reports the enthusiasm for the competition was so inspiring that several entrants decided to go on their proposed trip despite not receiving the award. HMC invites its clients to serve as jurors. Public relations was not the motivation, O’Brien says, but he learned that “if you can demonstrate that you care about the people who are working with you, of course that’s going to be important to clients.”

SmithGroup defines its firm culture, in part, by its commitment to sustainability. Its Philip Merrill Environmental Center in Annapolis, Maryland, received LEED’s first Platinum designation, and since then the firm has worked on more than 60 projects that have received or are expecting LEED status. As more architects become LEED practitioners, firms that don’t actively pursue sustainability may find it difficult to retain skilled staff.

A strong firm culture depends on diverse staff working together. To this end, Gensler commissioned a study reported in Strategies for the Inter-Generational Workplace. The authors examined characteristics and motivations of several age groups. Older architects tend to be more hierarchical and technology-averse, while younger workers are more collaborative and techno-savvy. Gensler responds by providing flexible settings so each individual can seek out the work space that makes them most productive. The study notes that “learning and interaction among different people is really the best way to bridge the technology gap. By making older workers more comfortable with asking for assistance, by encouraging younger workers to share their expertise, and by facilitating that important sense of shared purpose and value, the technology barrier can be reduced.”

What does it take to make your staff happy? There are as many answers as there are firms. Once a firm understands what makes their staff “tick,” there are unlimited ways to create a supportive, appropriate culture. One firm has a house on a tropical island available to high achievers; another has a skateboard luge in the lunchroom. Firms hold parties, picnics, and holiday events for staff children. They subsidize fitness programs, tuition for higher education, pro bono work, and in-house sports teams. According to Justin Roy, even small gestures can go far to cement staff loyalty. He recommends that every firm conduct an annual confidential survey to assess staff morale and to generate ideas for improving it. There may be some expense involved, but how will it compare to the expense of a high staff turnover?