A few years ago, a now-defunct blog called Intern Architects in Hell inspired a small but dedicated following. The site posted cartoons depicting the frequently baffling, often amusing exchanges between an overworked, underpaid intern and his bosses. In one cartoon, a principal holding designs that he drafted himself chastises a young intern, saying, “If you had drawn those, I would have fired you.” The series encapsulated the strenuous, hierarchical environment that is prevalent at many practices—the kind of environment where you say goodbye to a personal life, keep your mouth shut, and toil away for years in the hopes of advancing up the food chain.

You won’t find that cutthroat, pay-your-dues philosophy at Mithun, a design firm founded in 1949 and known for highly sustainable designs and urban plans. Located in a sunlit studio in a converted industrial pier on the Seattle waterfront, Mithun (which also has a second office in San Francisco) defies the stereotypical culture so often associated with architecture. First, there’s the commute. Staff are encouraged to walk or bike, and those who do receive gift cards from places such as REI as a reward. Once on site, there is ample bike parking and showers as well as three hybrid cars for staff to share.

Inside, the principals’ offices do not rim the perimeter hogging the view; instead everyone has a sight line to Elliot Bay and the Olympic Mountains beyond. People sit where it makes the most sense for current projects, so new employees share space with senior partners and the firm’s multiple disciplines—architecture, interior design, landscape architecture, and urban design and planning—work in close proximity. Lunchtime often finds employees participating in a Mithuniversity class—an award-winning continuing education program that highlights cutting-edge ideas and products. Employees also find inspiration in the firm’s Threshold Gallery, an employee-curated space featuring a rotating cast of emerging designers and artists. Courtney Rosenstein, 43, a marketing specialist with more than 15 years of experience at architecture firms, joined Mithun in 2010. “When I started here I was almost overwhelmed by all the perks,” she says.

This list is indeed impressive. There’s an annual Mithunerfest celebration with employees, family, and clients, and the biennial Mithun Olympics, where staff compete in competitions such as relay races. Frequent crits held by project teams encourage collaborative insight and inspiration, and a 5 p.m. happy hour on Fridays caps off the week. Individuals are afforded the freedom to work when and where they need. Some leave early to coach soccer, participate on boards, or teach; new moms work a reduced schedule, and parents volunteer at their children’s schools. And because creative energy is so valued here, employees are offered paid scholarships to attend activities not related to their profession. The J. Don Bowman Scholarship, named for a former employee, underwrites lessons in Flamenco, classes in French pastry, and trips down Highway 101 for a film documentary. “I got that scholarship and took a jewelry class and made an engagement ring for my wife,” says Brendan Connolly, AIA, 38, a partner at Mithun. “It’s incentive to learn new things, and for me it was great to take a class that was not about architecture.”

The office culture holds such appeal that employees who decamp for other firms often return. It happens enough that they coined a term for it: Mithunerang. “There are so many aspects that drew me back to the firm,” says associate J. Irons, 37, who returned after a stint at another firm. “Continuing education, mentorship, a commitment to good work and innovation. The car share at work means we only have one car as a family. Having those benefits sets this firm apart.”

These perks benefit employees psychologically, but they aren’t free. This year, Mithun set aside $40,000 just to cover Mithuniversity. In a floundering economy, how can a firm afford to invest so much in human capital? What’s the return on investment? For starters, it has helped Mithun retain talented employees. One third of the staff has been with the firm for more than a decade.

“As a design firm, our resource is creative people,” says Dave Goldberg, AIA, 42, president of Mithun. “Like everyone, we have to be strategic about where we invest time and money. To retain a creative person—to convert that to a monetary value—is difficult, but the return is huge. It gives us a competitive edge and it attracts the best clients, clients with shared values who want to work with people who are smart and happy.”

The Impending Talent Shortage
Mithun has seized on an emerging trend, says Ray Kogan, AIA, president of Kogan & Co., a management-consulting and strategic-planning company for design firms. He believes that attracting and retaining talent will become the top priority for the firm of the future: “Architecture firms will face a skills shortage in the near future and they have two real challenges ahead of them: quantity and quality of people.”

According to Kogan, population trends warn of a diminishing talent pool. Thirty-five percent of the AE workforce is older than 50, and with the economy discouraging many from entering the profession, managing employees is going to require business acumen. “When people get so scarce and the talent is hard to come by, firms are going to have to turn their attention to that,” he says.

This task, Kogan says, will rival that of business development. “Today, firms that compete for projects get disappointed when they don’t win,” Kogan says. “Soon, I think firms are going to be equally disappointed if they cannot attract or retain people they want. That is going to be a commodity, and it’s going to be a very important aspect of a firm’s existence.”

Mithun isn’t the only firm to recognize the value of an employee-centered office environment. At Louisville, Ky.–based Luckett & Farley, Architects, Engineers, and Construction Managers, nurturing employees is now a part of the firm’s strategic plan. Founded in 1853, Luckett & Farley is one of the oldest architecture and engineering firms in the country. The firm’s president and CEO, Ed Jerdonek, AIA, says that to remain nimble and competitive, the firm has rejected the traditional mentality, “where you hire a young intern and they work a 60-hour week, nose to the grindstone, and they don’t look up.”

“That’s the environment I grew up in and a lot of places are still that way,” Jerdonek, 50, says, “but it’s ridiculous. Those days are long gone. The question we ask our candidates is not what they can do for us, but what we can do for them to make their job at Luckett & Farley most meaningful.”

In recent years, Luckett & Farley has revamped its benefits packages for employees and explored ways to cultivate a happy and supportive office environment. Jerdonek says that it’s hard to quantify how much of the annual budget supports employee perks and benefits, but, he says, “it is a significant amount of money that we invest.” The benefits include paying above-market salaries and quarterly bonuses based on firm profitability, taking staff on outings and hosting events, contributing to health and retirement benefits, and offering a competitive paid-time-off policy. “Every five years an employee earns another week of paid time off,” Jerdonek says. “After 15 years of service, we pay that [the equivalent of another week] in cash as a retention bonus.”

Quantifying the exact return on this investment is difficult, Jerdonek says. “You are talking about cultural change, the essence of the organizational DNA.” Still, he believes that the strategy is effective, as evidenced by how well the firm has retained quality projects, clients, and employees. Jerdonek tells the story of one interior designer, Judy McGrath, 55, who cut her vacation short when a client—a Fortune 100 company—called with a last-minute plea for help in moving its office. Jerdonek knew nothing of McGrath’s sacrifice until the client called to rave about the results. “She took direct ownership of the problem, and she exceeded expectations,” Jerdonek says. “Can I measure that? I cannot, but let me tell you what I know as a CEO: The expected value of work we will get from that client will be in large part due to the reputation of people like Judy.”

The ultimate goal, Jerdonek says, is for his firm—which currently has 82 employees—to become the employer of choice for the AE industry. “We believe that if we have the best culture, we will attract and retain the best people and the best clients.”

Once hired, Jerdonek recognizes that he must mentor future leaders. Last year, he launched a Leadership Institute, in which employees apply to participate in a series of classes aimed at developing personal and professional skills. Nicole Dorion, 30, is the firm’s director of first impressions, a title that reflects her growing role as more than a receptionist. When she started in 2007, she was unsure of her career goals or whether she would stay at an architecture firm. But after participating in the seven-month Leadership Institute in 2011, she says, “I’ve totally bought in to Luckett & Farley.”

The fellowship classes feature an intentional mix of professional disciplines and ages that Dorion says gave her access to a range of people, and a better understanding of how the firm operates. And it instilled greater confidence in her future. “I have more trust built up with the business as a whole and the employees,” Dorion says. “I know that if there is something I want to do, that someone in the company is going to back me to grow, which is huge.”

Dorion is also impressed that firm leadership listens to employees. “They have us do surveys on a regular basis, and I’ve seen what the employees ask for put into effect,” she says. “From little things like buying soft drinks so that we don’t have to pay for them, to the attire, which has become more casual.”

“It is very important for leaders to listen,” Kogan says. Yet this is a skill that can be hard for some in this profession to master. “Architects are very task-oriented people. It begins when we are in school. You are given a project, you are given a deadline, and by God, you keep that deadline. None of that prepares you for the nurturing of people. But as you grow your career, more and more, you are involved in people planning, not technical planning.”

An especially difficult management challenge can be catering to the different workplace needs of multiple generations. Baby boomers, Gen-Xers, and Gen-Yers have distinct skill sets and philosophies on live/work balance, and leadership must help navigate those generational divides effectively. “The needs of each generation are very different,” Jerdonek says, and the danger is that divergent perspectives among his firm’s 87 employees may eventually lead to irreparable rifts. “Thirty-two-point-one percent of my workforce is Gen Y. They are young, but they are digital natives. They can work with software. The baby boomers and Gen-Xers, on the other hand, have a lot of context. They’ve seen it all, they’ve stepped on just about every land mine possible, and they know how to do architecture and engineering. But the way we do architecture and engineering is changing so rapidly. These Gen-Yers are proficient and very comfortable with the technology. Yet, they lack the context with which to apply it.”

“In order for our firm to thrive and grow into the future,” Jerdonek says, “we have to really take care of the people who are going to come behind us and run this company.”

The Generation Gap
Barbara H. Irwin, president of the Washington, D.C.–based HR Advisors Group, has worked in human-resource management for over 20 years and now serves as an HR consultant for small and midsized AE firms. She found communication between the generations to be the biggest challenge for employee relations and retention. Irwin conducted a survey a few years back and found many leaders flummoxed about how to manage younger employees. “Time and time again, we would hear clients telling us this younger generation is entitled, and they don’t know how to deal with them,” Irwin says. “They would tell us that they couldn’t seem to recruit people and keep them happy.”

Meanwhile, survey responses from employees with up to seven years of experience cited communication within the firm as the single biggest issue. “They just wanted to know what was going on in the firm, how they were doing, how the firm was doing.”

Irwin’s advice is to communicate on a regular basis with staff, but this message doesn’t always get through to managers. “We keep hearing, ‘But we need to keep our eyes to our desk and we have to focus on our clients,’ ” Irwin says. “I tell them that every little thing they do now will help them in the end, because when we come crawling out of this recession—and we will—they risk losing these employees to other opportunities.”

Improving employee relations doesn’t require extravagant measures, according to Irwin. It could be as simple as hosting a lunch where an experienced member of the firm talks about his or her area of expertise, or revamping the annual employee review to focus more on the goals and needs of the employee.

“Just last week, I was encouraging a CEO to have a meeting with younger staff to discuss how he moved up through the ranks,” Irwin says. “Storytelling is simple, but effective. If you tell them a story, they will listen, they will absorb it. If, on the other hand, you tell them only, ‘Do this, don’t do that,’ you are going to lose them. Give them a road map. Show them how to succeed. Show them respect.”

Mithun’s Goldberg remembers how the firm’s respectful approach to employees immediately won him over. “I am one of only two people in my graduating class who has stayed at the same firm,” says Goldberg, who has been with Mithun for 16 years. “I remember meeting friends from other firms for lunch and they kept looking at their watches because they had to be back by 1 p.m. or there would be repercussions. I couldn’t understand it. I was treated as an adult. There was a free flow of ideas, so it wasn’t a big change from my academic setting.”

Creating a culture of respect—of listening and engaging and mentoring one another—is at the heart of Mithun’s office policy. Employees of all levels consistently repeat a powerful refrain: A good idea can come from anywhere. “We don’t have a top-down design hierarchy,” Connolly says. “The staff recognizes that there is opportunity to insert thought and opinions without fear of repercussion. Anyone can pull up a chair.”

Miye Moriguchi, 30, architect intern at Mithun, had several firms vying for her when she graduated in 2003. She chose Mithun because of the company ethos. “When I interviewed with a different firm, they told me, ‘You are going to sit in the corner and draw details all day,’ ” she says. “Then I came to Mithun for an interview and the principals didn’t talk about architecture with me. Instead, we talked about who I am as a person, what I like to do, how I think. It was amazing.”

Mentorship is so valued at Mithun that each year the firm awards one staffer with the Mithun Mentor of the Year Award. Feed the mind and the soul of the employee, Mithun believes, and you feed innovation—an indispensable part of the firm’s design approach. “We have a high metric for sustainability, and we expect a certain level of performance. Every project is to be better than the last,” Connolly says. If the firm’s culture helps to achieve that goal, then that’s a significant return on investment indeed.