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It’s been a very busy past few months and as I sit at my desk this Sunday afternoon, I am going through all the things I have been focusing my efforts on … most of which I can’t talk about for one reason or another. One thing that has been on my mind a lot recently is firm culture and creating a culture of appreciation. This is not unique to my office but I would imagine that most architectural firms across the country are working through the same issue – at least I hope they are. I have a group of people that I frequently correspond with and we have all been talking about the pandemic and subsequent period of time in which we were all working from home. Probably half of the people in my group are still in the 50/50 home/office zone while the balance is back to full-time in the office. This division leads to a split or our viewpoint on which methodology is better but one thing that we all agree on is that things are still not back to what they were two years ago.
As part of the leadership responsibilities I have in the office, I am part of a group of people who are tasked with the retention and recruitment of our employees – cleverly titled “R + R” (at least in my head). and we meet weekly to discuss all things “employee” … present and future … and we talk a lot about how we can enrich their work experience, how we can provide for outside interests, and how we can make them feel appreciated. Given how busy the firm has been for the last several months, combined with the difficulties finding those elusive 5+ year experienced individuals, people are working a lot of hours and it’s hard to get people to feel appreciated when you keep asking them to work overtime hours, but we are trying. There are some programs that we have put in place, or that we are working to put in place, that should address some of our concerns but getting these programs realized and in place will probably take longer than anyone would like.
Some of the ideas we have been working through are below and I would be interested in hearing your thoughts – even your suggestions – about what you are doing at your own offices.
This is an idea that did not take a lot of selling when I proposed it to the group for recent consideration. The concept is pretty straightforward – you want to go travel somewhere and see and learn something, the firm will help support that into reality. We are thinking that we will provide up to 4 grants a year, with the initial grant amount in the range of $2,500 … and you get one week of time off to take your trip. While we think this could support a lot of self-interests, the only ask the firm would make in return is that the traveling individual present their study to the office during one of our monthly employee meetings. Sketches, drawings, photos – some historical context maybe – essentially WHY you decided to take this trip and what you learned as a result.
Easy-peasy … I’d like to study some carpentry techniques that you find in the temples in Japan, maybe I’ll submit for a grant.
We put this plan in place at the beginning of the year and it has been a little slow to take off (probably a result of how busy everyone has been). The firm has always paid for affiliate organization memberships for people who have reached the level of “Associate” in the office, but we’ve recently made a change to support community involvement. We removed the requirement of “associate” this past January and now anyone can join ANY organization they wish and the firm will reimburse the cost of that membership. The only requirement that is in place is that you have to participate in the organization by being on a committee and volunteering to contribute in a meaningful way.
I’ve benefitted greatly over the years from my involvement in the AIA and hope that others in my office will follow suit.
Secret Thank You’s
This one was just proposed and agreed upon but is only now starting to manifest itself in reality. While it is important to publicly thank people for their efforts, we also wanted to privately thank people with a gesture of appreciation. We wanted to get beyond the “photo opp” moments and just do something for people that let them know that we a) know who they are as individuals based upon the token of appreciation provided, and b) provide the gift in a way that does not shine any light back on the firm. For example, if the firm wanted to thank me for writing blog posts every weekend instead of doing something fun, I might come home one evening to find a gift basket at my front door with a nice bottle of whiskey, some bitters, a handful of oranges, maybe even some nice lowball cocktail glasses … because they know that this is something that I enjoy. Someone else might get a day off to take their kid to a baseball game, or maybe we’ve arranged a date night and pre-covered the expenses for a young married employee (or an old one for that matter…).
I will say to those of you that are thinking “Why not just give them money?” and you know what, normally I might think this was a reasonable thing to do … but I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. I know with absolute certainty that if I gave an employee that has been killing themselves for the past several months an envelope with $1,000 in cash, it turns into a way of measuring that person’s value rather than simply letting that person know they matter to us. The response to my getting a basket of cocktail fixings tells me that they are thinking of me and that I matter, a wad of cash might make me think “I work for overtime for months and all that’s worth is [__fill in amount – it doesn’t really matter_] ?!?
we know you are busy … but how about some additional time off?
Additional Time Off
Ahhh … you knew this one would have to rear its head, didn’t you?? To be frank, we have not spent much time discussing this as an option for consideration. It kind of happens already if a group has been working really hard to make a deadline, they might be told to take the rest of the week off, but it is inconsistently applied and it is possible that there could be negative repercussions should this approach be taken. When the entire office is busy – like it currently is – and you tell someone that they can take some time off, it will most likely increase the work burden on someone else. Obviously, if you can set the deadline schedule in such a way as to accommodate this sort of behavior, the question then becomes – “Why didn’t you set the schedule appropriately in the first place?” which is more times than not an unfair question because so many things change over the course of a project and nobody thinks you will be scrambling to hit your deadlines in the beginning.
Trying to let people know they matter is an ongoing endeavor and one that I think we had a better handle on before the pandemic. What everyone in my correspondence group will acknowledge is that trying to get things back to normal is impossible – too much has changed and the status quo is in the process of being redefined. We all want people to come to work and be happy, feel like they matter – like their presence has improved the day of the people they engage with, but I’m not sure getting things back to pre-pandemic status will accomplish that objective anymore. There is no new normal established yet because it seems like everyone is still trying to get things back to where they were rather than look to see where they should be.
I definitely don’t have the answers but I am spending a lot of my free time thinking about what I can do to move things along. If you have an idea or something that is working at your own firm, please share it with me and the others.