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Fringe Benefits

By Natalie Bauer

Cynics beware: It’s not just about the money.

Design firm leaders who attract the best talent know it’s about what comes after the paycheck.

“The firms that are the most enlightened are taking the attitude that employees are not commodity-based, that [their staff] are providing an overall value to the firm,” says Margo Jones, FIIDA, Professor of Interior Design at the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she coordinates the internship program for the School of Building Arts. “So they strive to create an atmosphere that recognizes that.”

Whether it’s a pool table in the company break room, a great benefits package or a formal mentoring program, some firms understand the long-term benefits of dismissing the 9-to-5, nose-to-the-grindstone mentality. “It’s more than what you pay them,” says Janet Pogue, Principal, Managing Director of Gensler’s Denver office. “It’s got to be something a little grander. There have got to be other intrinsic things that make people want to be there other than the money.”

A Cultural Affair

At the heart of a top-quality working experience sits a corporate culture that employees strongly buy into and strive to maintain. When employees feel invested in the firm, they perform better. Thompson, Ventulett, Stainback & Associates (TVS) has taken this idea to the extreme. Since 1979, the Atlanta-based firm has been entirely employee-owned. Originally established to drive improvements in the company’s culture, operations and financial performance, the stock ownership plan “engenders a deep sense of ownership and openness as it relates to the business decisions of the company,” says Creel McCormack, Vice President, Marketing and Communications. Last year, TVS was named among the 10 most admired design firms by Contract Magazine.

Taking that concept a step further, reputable firms try to root their mission in their physical foundations. St. Paul, Minn.-based BWBR Architects’ open-door policy is represented literally in its nearly door-free environment. With few exceptions, the firm’s 110 employees occupy an open floor plan that makes way for loads of natural light and easy interaction. “That creates an environment [in which] you’re able to learn very quickly from each other,” says Don Thomas, CID, Principal at BWBR, which was named a great place to work in Minnesota by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. “If the people around you are working hard, you’re inspired to do likewise.”

Another simple yet distinctive mark of a great design firm is how it conducts its internal communication. Firms most commonly named among the best employ open, honest and straightforward techniques that don’t keep their employees in the dark. In fact, many firm leaders say they actually enhance company loyalty by promptly reporting bad news to employees. Mancini Duffy, a New York firm that suffered — physically, emotionally and financially — after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, has not tried to feign the truth. “It’s been a struggle, but it has been constant communication with the staff to let them know that they’re financially secure,” says Dina Frank, IIDA, AIA, President of both Mancini Duffy and the IIDA New York Chapter. “Yesterday, for example, we did an hour-long presentation to our entire New York office and later repeated it in our D.C. office, where we essentially outlined our business plans to them for ’04, and we reminded them of the missions and the goals and the values of the firm. These are things that constantly need to be communicated.”

Sharing the Wealth

Probably most valuable to employees is a firm’s client base. While large firms such as Gensler and St. Louis, Mo.-based Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum Inc. (HOK) ably offer their employees a wide variety of projects to build diverse portfolios, small firms can offer similar experience with a bit of ingenuity.

Taking the small-but-mighty mentality to the table, Vocon Design, a 35-member firm in Cleveland touts its ability to form strategic partnerships with larger design firms that can wield their resource muscle. Knowing Vocon can tackle an array of projects no matter the size or scale tends to appeal to designers who prefer to work on a big project in a small firm. “We’re giving them the ability to have those opportunities,” says Principal Paul M. Voinovich. “They know the projects we’re going to be getting in the future are going to be exciting, and they know they’re going to have a significant role in the work.” Vocon has been named one of the 99 best places to work in Northeast Ohio for two out of the last three years.

Small to mid-size firms also offer employees the satisfaction of knowing they’ve contributed significantly. When St. Louis-based Arcturis enlists a new client, everybody knows. “For every new project, we ring this bell, and everybody comes running,” says President and CEO Patricia Whitaker, IIDA. “We think it’s important to share that moment when it happens. That’s one way of inspiring loyalty. They know that they had a part in helping us get what we got.”

Stay in School

A diversified client base offers an array of advantages, especially to young staffers who don’t want to get pigeonholed into one specific design genre. While on-the-job training is an invaluable experience, don’t confuse that experience with wisdom. “It’s a fine line between how much information you want to give them and how much you want them to figure out on their own,” says Deb Trautman, head of human resources at Arcturis, which has been named for the past two years one of the best places to work in St. Louis by the St. Louis Business Journal.

Classroom learning is so valuable that firms such as Gensler, HOK and Hammel Green and Abrahamson Inc. (HGA) even operate their own “universities.” Senior firm leaders typically run courses, which cover a variety of topics such as code compliance or risk management, and staffers can attend around 40 hours of programming per year. “It creates a wonderful dialogue,” says Sandy Parsley, Human Resources Director of Minneapolis-based HGA. Leadership seminars are especially popular, as firm visionaries want to ensure their legacy lives on in the future success of the firm.

And as most designers will tell you, they are not necessarily the slickest deal-makers. Teaching the technical surely is important, but encouraging designers — as well as other employees — to spread their wings into various parts of the business enhances operational awareness. At TVS, for example, designers rotate yearly on one of seven committees that strategize how to improve the operation. The marketing committee, for example, aims to raise awareness of publicity initiatives and help improve communications. Twenty employees across the various studios meet monthly to strategize on different market segments.

Ask and Receive

With 1,600 employees in 25 cities, Gensler would struggle to keep up with staff needs if not for a system tracking course utilization to chart companywide professional development. The system works well to align the company’s strategic aims with its individual employees’ needs or professional aspirations.

However, no piece of software can ascertain an individual’s desire with accuracy. Firms that separate themselves from the crowd are those that respond positively to employees’ development requests. “Interiors can be volatile from the standpoint of staffing because most projects have quick starts and stops,” Pogue says, adding that staffing at Gensler is done on a monthly and weekly basis. “So we step back every month, look at our strategic staffing to assign core team members, aligning our staff’s wishes and career goals with upcoming or pending opportunities. Weekly staffing is agile and fluid, balancing the workloads to make sure that changing project scopes and deadlines are met. It’s more rewarding because then people are staying longer and they’re committed.”

Commitment also derives from strong mentoring relationships, whether through formal programming or via natural development, to boost the firm’s retention rate and reputation. Vocon Design, which recruits interns from nearby Kent State University, sees great long-term value in developing strong relationships with its young apprentices. “Since 1987, a typical employee started with us after college, and now they’re in their late 20s or early 30s and have been with us for eight to 10 years,” Voinovich says.

Some attentive firms are creating flexible schedules for their loyal employees who want to balance work and life. “It’s definitely one of the issues that’s come up over the past few years,” says Terry Anderson, AIA, Principal at BWBR Architects. “We’re into our second baby boom generation in the office. There was a lot of concern how that would impact careers and reducing schedules and trying to work through all those issues in raising a young family. We take it seriously, and we’ll do whatever we can to support [our staff].”

In the end, employees and employers alike attribute just one simple characteristic to making a firm great: people. Beyond all the benefits programs, the tuition reimbursement plans, the weekly seminars, the lunches on the boss, it comes down to loving what you do with whom you do it. “You bloom doing what you want to be doing,” Pogue says. “Art Gensler has always said his success is that he surrounded himself with great talent and people who he deemed even better than himself. And that’s how firms grow to be great. Provide the opportunities and remove the obstacles. That’s how individuals can really shine."

Just For Kicks

Deadlines and creativity never have been comfortable bedfellows. Many firms recognize the need to let off steam. Here are a few ideas:

First Fridays. Vocon Design Principal Paul M. Voinovich sounds more like he’s describing a scene from the movie “Animal House” than a design studio when he talks about the Cleveland firm’s monthly pastime. “At three o’clock we say we’re done, close the office and start up the happy hour,” he says. “Each month we have a different theme, like the toga party we had one time. … We keep it fresh that way. I want everyone to look forward to going to work.”

Survivor. Just like the TV show, Hammel Green and Abrahamson Inc. designers get rewarded nicely for enduring harder times. The Minneapolis-based firm treats employees to movie tickets and free lunches when the going gets tough. “It’s just to say, ‘Thanks for hanging in there,’” says Sandy Parsley, Human Resources Director, “so people can see that they’re appreciated.”

Secret Santa. Employees at BWBR Architects, St. Paul, Minn., use the holiday season for more than potluck dinners and cheesy decorations. The firm’s 110 employees take it as a time to get to know each other better.

Each staff member draws a name of a colleague for whom they create a personalized gift. Principal Don Thomas, CID, is one of the firm’s six “resources,” who can learn an employee’s likes and dislikes, to give helpful gift-giving tips for stumped staffers. At the holiday party, colleagues perform skits or write poems or notes to signify the gift’s significance.

It’s a great introduction for some of the firm’s younger members. “And after a couple of years, you really get to know people,” says Terry Anderson, AIA, Principal.

Return to Sender

Gensler, for one, has the resources to match almost any employee’s need. With its practice areas spanning from education to transportation and its global network, Gensler designers really can work on any type of project in almost any location in the world. “If somebody ever gets bored or wants to spread their wings a little bit more, it seems like there’s always that opportunity internally,” says Janet Pogue, Principal, Managing Director of the Denver office.

But some are looking for greener grass. “Sometimes they quit and go to work somewhere, but fast forward two years down the road, they say, ‘I want to be back at Gensler,’” Pogue says. “If they’re a great talent, we want them back.”

Referred to as “boomerang employees,” the ricocheting designers receive an actual Australian boomerang marked with the date they left and the date when they returned. “They come back really wanting to be at Gensler,” Pogue says. “And oftentimes they come back with increased or new skill sets.”

Gensler, which has received numerous awards for motivating and retaining employees, currently employs 193 boomerangs, approximately 13 percent of the firm’s staff. Pogue says the program symbolizes the strong loyalty pulsing through the firm, and the boomerang, which employees hang in their offices, is a visible sign of a designer’s newfound commitment.