Keeping Architects Happy: 7 Tips for Employee Retention

by Taz Loomans
- Jan 25 2016 - 6 min read
Hacker House architecture tour employee retention
Hacker architects on a team-building tour of the firm's finished projects, here at the "Hacker House" built by founding principal Thom Hacker and wife Margaret in the mid ’70s. Courtesy Hacker.

About half of all National Architectural Accrediting Board (NAAB) graduates quit before they reach licensure, according to Clive Knights, director of the School of Architecture at Portland State University. Employee retention is a major thorn in the side of the architecture profession.

According to the Equity by Design: Knowledge, Discussion, Action! report—a survey of almost 2,300 men and women conducted by AIA San Francisco’s Equity by Design (EQxD) committee, which focuses on issues that impact women in architecture—about a third of people who enter the profession leave it before reaching the four-year mark.

EQxD founding chair Rosa Sheng, who originally named the committee The Missing 32% Project, attributes much of that attrition to “choke points” for women in their careers.

But whether employee turnover is based on gender, it’s expensive. Factoring in loss of productivity and knowledge, as well as costs for employee training, recruiters, and interviewing, Inc. estimates turnover can cost a company as much as 150 percent of annual salary.

architecture firm charette employee retention
A team charrette to map out project solutions. Courtesy Hacker.

And preventing turnover helps maintain a firm’s quality of work. “We thrive in an environment where our staff understands our culture, asks the right questions, and thinks strategically,” says Charles Dorn, principal at Hacker in Portland. “And the only way to achieve that is to retain our best staff long term.”

So what can you do to keep your staff from straying to other firms? Here are seven tips to keep your employees happy.

1. Offer Flexibility. In a profession known for long hours, work-life balance can be lost amid unreasonable deadlines and huge workloads. At an EQxD seminar held in Portland this past November, Jan Willemse, managing partner at ZGF, said, “Flexibility is the key to fighting the persistent attrition in architecture.” Allowing people to have part-time schedules or the ability to work from home goes a long way in accommodating the demands of employees’ lives. Long gone are the days when men were able to spend all their time in the office while women took care of things at home. Modern life calls for shared family duties, making it critical for architecture firms to respond accordingly.

The Hacker bike-commute challenge. Seventy-seven percent of the staff choose alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles. Courtesy Hacker.
The Hacker bike-commute challenge. Seventy-seven percent of the staff choose alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles. Courtesy Hacker.

As stated in the EQxD report, women in particular value the flexibility required for caretaking, whether for children or aging parents. The survey found that more women left their jobs, passed on project opportunities, and turned down promotions than men for fear of losing flexibility.

Some firms are taking notice and doing something about it. Hacker, for one, “promotes a culture of life-work balance,” Dorn says, “and principals monitor overtime and talk with employees if they are working too much.”

2. Encourage Open Communication. To feel engaged, architects need regular feedback, an exchange of ideas, and an understanding of their firms’ mission and vision. “People are much happier when we communicate and when [employees] know what the future looks like,” Dorn says.

In that vein, Hacker holds quarterly principal meetings followed by roundtable discussions with the entire firm and a weekly all-office gazette. These formal get-togethers promote open communication between the staff and leadership and facilitate better informal communication every day. According to the “Staff Development and Retention” chapter of The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, “Employees who are knowledgeable about firm goals, client objectives, and project problems consistently make better decisions, resulting in improved performance by the firm.”

3. Commit to Staff Development. Developing employees in areas that interest them is another great way to retain them. As Willemse said in Portland: “I pay attention to what people do first thing when they arrive at the office. Do they start working on their Revit model to develop a detail they were thinking about all night, or do they answer emails?” This gives him a clue as to whether a person is naturally inclined to be a designer or a project manager. Paying attention to what people are good at and enjoy, and then supporting those skills, is key to employee retention.

black butte ranch architecture
Company picnic at the Hacker-designed Black Butte Ranch in Sisters, Oregon. Courtesy Hacker.

4. Set the Bar High, and Maintain a Clear Vision. One way to retain employees is to maintain high standards of work so employees will be proud to be associated with their firm. Employees are also motivated by the type of work a firm does, whether it’s high-end retail, custom residential, or institutional work.

But when a firm has a reputation for a certain area of specialty, changing course (even when it’s the right move) can have its short-term drawbacks. “One of our retention challenges occurred when we shifted from mostly institutional work to more of a diversified workload, and some of our longer-term employees questioned the strategy and chose to depart,” Dorn says.

5. Recognize and Reward Achievement. “People stay at a firm where they feel recognized for their achievement and are rewarded for it,” said Hugh Hochberg, partner at The Coxe Group, at EQxD. Recognition and reward can come in the form of a raise, bonus, promotion, or even acknowledgement in a one-on-one conversation, at a firm meeting, or in a company newsletter. Or it can come in the form of providing comp time for employees who put in long hours to meet a deadline.

And although architects don’t choose their profession for the money, “compensation is very important when it comes to retaining good staff,” Dorn says. Hacker even offers free financial-advising services to employees to ensure they save for retirement.

Hacker architects employee retention
A drawing class at Hacker. Courtesy Hacker.

6. Inspire Mentors and Champions. “We leave school with confidence, but in our careers, we often don’t find sponsorship and support, and we can lose confidence and leave the profession,” said Joann Le, owner and principal at Dao Architects, at EQxD. Many firms have formal mentorship programs where more senior employees are tasked with regularly checking in with junior employees regarding their professional development.

But sometimes, “the most effective mentorship happens informally,” said Hochberg, “such as when a principal and a junior staff member ride together to a meeting in a car and have the opportunity to talk about various subjects.”

7. Provide Purpose and Passion. Cultivating the careers of employees gives them a great reason to stay at a firm. For example, embodying the passion for sustainability in a firm can help define purpose for employees. “At Hacker, we have a very strong sustainability committee, we are signatories to the 2030 Challenge, and we have a climate action plan and a carbon neutral office,” Dorn says. This level of commitment to sustainability helps retain staff members with the same values.

Ultimately, it all comes down to fit. “Some athletes thrive in certain teams and don’t do well in others,” Hochberg said at EQxD, just as some architects do well in certain firms and not others. So finding the right matches for your firm is crucial. And when you find and hire those great employees, don’t forget to keep ’em happy.

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