Launch Slideshow

FXFowle office karaoke party in the firm's gallery.

Office Space

Office Space

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    Populous tailgates a Royals game.

There are any number of ways to do office culture. There’s top-down office culture, spelled out in employee manualese by HR. There’s bottom-up office culture, where no one’s late when everyone’s hungover. Small firm and large firm, West Coast and East Coast, trendy and rigid: Every office has one.

But how do firms go about recognizing their culture—or better yet, changing it? In an ongoing recession, when employee morale can decline right along with receipts, it’s a question that firms need to consider. The examples set by three firms show that the same skills that go into understanding what a client wants from a project can help to determine what a staff needs from an office.

At FXFowle, culture starts with the space itself—specifically, an in-house art gallery.

The gallery is a modest example of FXFowle’s commitment to social betterment, says managing partner Guy Geier, FAIA. “We use architecture to get there. Commitment to the greater good is also about making life for the staff, principals, and everyone else about more than just coming to work.”

The gallery was envisioned as a counterpoint to the practice of simply hanging the firm’s own work on the walls, Geier says. Instead, the gallery shows work by artists unrelated to the firm, and is currently showing wall sculptures by artist—and director of architectural photography agency Esto—Erica Stoller. While FXFowle staff get a discount on the work on display, the firm takes no commission on any artist’s sales.

“‘Do I like this, do I not like this,’” Geier says. “It generates a lot of discussion.”

In July, the space prompted more than talk: FXFowle used the gallery for a staff karaoke party. Though the firm’s annual outings usually take staff further afield—the Bronx Zoo, Central Park, and so on—Geier says that the gallery is crucial to the firm’s culture.

“There was a time six or seven years ago that we had expanded our staff to the point where we had to put workstations with architects in that space, because we had no place to put them,” he says. “When it wasn’t available as a gallery, I remember hearing people say, ‘We have to get that gallery space back.’ ”

 

At Populous, the work itself sets the tone for the firm. “One of the unique things about working in a practice that has for most of its history focused on sports and entertainment is that architects that gravitate to this work are fans,” says Populous senior designer and principal Brad Clark, AIA. “I think not every architecture practice is filled with people who have that love of sports. A big percentage of our staff have allegiance to the local teams.”

In June, project team members at Populous enjoyed tickets to the inaugural game at Livestrong Sporting Park, the Major League Soccer stadium that the firm designed. And in July, the staff at Populous held a tailgate for a Kansas City Royals game at Kauffman Stadium, for which the firm completed renovations in 2009. Populous also spearheaded the 2010 renovations at Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs—another stadium in Kansas City with Populous’s fingerprints on it.

Yet Populous people are more than just Kansas City sports fans. Last year, the firm made a shift in its accounting practice that promises an even stronger relationship with the city. Prior to the change, a Populous designer between projects might bill his or her time to a “General” or “Nonassigned” category in the company’s accounting system. Now—under the ominous-sounding designation “Initiative 066”—underworked staffers are encouraged to channel their energy into the community.

“Rather than not having true accounting for that time,” Clark says, “we’re making that more meaningful and eliminating the stigma of charging to that number.” Time assigned to Initiative 066 is “time that the staff can spend exploring ‘cool stuff’ that has a correlation to our business and strengthening our brand.”

Working with local marketing agency VML and local audiovisual company Harvest Productions, for example, Populous has helped to stage TEDxKC events—an independently organized offshoot of the popular TED talks series—at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. One former Populous designer performed a statistical analysis of how new sporting venues contribute to a team’s win–loss record. In another Initiative 066 effort, several Populous designers joined the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies, based at nearby Fort Leavenworth, for military- and design-planning discussions.

“Participation expands our work locally,” Clark says. “We want to emphasize that we’re here in Kansas City, and that we’re part of the local design community as well.”

 

Some firms are large enough to represent entire design communities in themselves. For large firms, organization is not just a human-resources dilemma, but crucial to employee morale. At HDR Architecture, young professionals groups—YPGs, by the firm’s own parlance—exist to guide and organize young talent joining the nation’s fourth-largest firm. YPGs mean different things to different divisions within the company. At HDR’s Denver office, it means intramural volleyball.

The Denver office team—Hit Dig Roll (get it?)—describes this year as its “breakout season” in the city’s intramural Design Volleyball League. One of 84 teams organized into four divisions, Hit Dig Roll meets in Washington Park in central Denver to compete for bragging rights over other architects, engineers, and contractors. With a 3-9 record, Hit Dig Roll might appear to be a pushover, but the team placed fourth in its division during the first of the season’s two tournaments.

Back at the office, the Denver YPG hosted an event for young professionals from the state’s other HDR offices as part of the firm’s “One Colorado” push. Young professionals from more than a dozen HDR business groups assembled in July and August for “speed networking” sessions, in which they delivered short presentations on their projects, software, and other areas of expertise—from marketing to preservation.

“This is a great opportunity for them to develop their public speaking skills,” says HDR project coordinator Valerie Martin, Assoc. AIA, “as young professionals oftentimes don’t get many chances to do that.”

For a firm with thousands of employees, the YPGs represent a crucial vehicle for intracompany knowledge sharing. But HDR associate vice president Chad Narburgh, AIA, assures that it’s not as soulless as all that. Those young professionals are at the forefront of the firm’s use of social media in internal and external communications—one example of how the firm would like to take its lead from its younger staffers.

“All these things that people are doing across an 8,000-person firm in terms of communication have really hit the street in a big way in the last three years,” Narburgh says. The YPGs network enables HDR to “pull them across multiple sources,” he says.

Size notwithstanding, any firm has to grapple with some fundamental questions. How does the studio communicate? How does the firm interact with the city? Office culture is defined by more than just social get-togethers—it’s the sum of the answers to these questions. Though the occassional happy hour doesn’t hurt.