Hanbury EvansWright Vlattas + Co., a firm based in Norfolk, Va. (with offices in Tampa, Fla., and Wytheville, Va.), offers exceptional incentives as part of what it describes as a “learning culture.” Jane Cady Wright, the firm’s CEO and president, discusses the approach and explains why spending a little more to motivate staff now can reap dividends later.

How did you conceptualize incentives within the firm?

We tried to be competitive on the basics—salary, benefits, learning credits. Then we asked, “What could we do to increase the professional nourishment of the individual, beyond basic expectations?” We fostered the idea of a learning culture. “What is it that people really miss [in the workplace routine]? What nourishes their spirit?”

What is “the Academy”?

The Academy takes care of the basics; it’s kind of a school for getting your [continuing ed] credits. It’s done in-house, and lunch is provided. It’s probably not that dissimilar from what other firms do, except it’s a very rigorous curriculum. It’s a couple of times a week, so if you miss it, you can go another time.

Jane Cady Wright, photographed in Norfolk VA, for Architect Magazine, 13 March 2009.

Jane Cady Wright of Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Co. says a rich program of incentives attracts talent to the Norfolk, Va.-based firm.

Credit: Mike Morgan

There’s also the Summer Design Scholars program.

We [host] four to six [intern-level] scholars each summer. We provide their housing. They come internationally. It’s different than an internship. Everyone will work embedded in a team, but we have a curriculum: sketching classes, Revit classes. They learn every aspect of the profession. They go on a field trip to Washington, D.C., or New York with architects from the office. They come back and share what was important about those experiences. They’re so young; they have video or Flash presentations—it’s a totally creative event.

And the Virginia Design Medal …

We have [college architecture] faculty come in and give a few lectures to the whole office. It’s research-based, and learning through engagement. Six to 12 people will work with the faculty member for the three weeks. They lead design critiques of our work—it’s awfully humbling. It builds relationships between us and academia.

And the International Design Retreat …

We give people the time off, and we have faculty [from architecture schools in Virginia] plan a definitive curriculum with a course of intensive study. It’s always 10 to 15 people at one time—always two principals and a cross section [of employees at different levels]. For a firm of 85 to 90 people, that’s a lot offline, but everyone will participate in it at one point.

What’s the selection process for Design Retreat?

In the past five years, I’ve just selected [staff] and created a cross section. This year, we solicited. We asked, “Why would it be meaningful [for you]?” We’re going to tour Peter Zumthor’s work in Switzerland.

Do these programs attract talent?

We don’t have young talent popping in our door. We’re not in Boston or San Francisco. When you look to recruit in a location like ours, it creates a magnet. [The programs] definitely attract people to the firm. A lot of people who interview are interested in the Design Retreat. They’re interested in a culture that’s willing to invest in this.

What do all these incentives cost?

These are all significant financial commitments.

Do the programs help retain talent?

We’ve retained three of our scholars in the last five years. We were able to attract them initially, and retain them, keeping them meaningfully engaged in the firm.

What are people bringing back to the firm?

We’re looking [for them] to come back and ask deeper questions about our work. As a young firm that’s trying to build a national market, that’s important for us.