In a field as collaborative as architecture, internal communication is crucial to creating quality design and moving projects forward. Here are a few tips to help make firms more communicative, transparent, and effective.
Say it in Person
As much as possible, it's important to conduct internal communications face-to-face. Though some information must be sent through email or on paper, most of what happens on a day-to-day basis can be communicated live, in real time. David Greusel, FAIA, principal of Kansas City, Mo.–based Convergence Design, has come to prefer a verbal approach after years at big firms where communication was often electronic, impersonal, and overly bureaucratic. “I felt like there were too many emails coming down from Mount Olympus,” he says. “Some of them weren’t even attributed to a person, they just said, ‘We have decided … ’ ”
Design a Communicative Office
The design of a workspace can subtly encourage interaction. “Every single decision about the layout of our office is predicated on making it easy to talk to one another,” Greusel says. “Everything from the height of the partitions to the way the workstations are laid out.” He paid close attention to the design of his office space based on his earliest experiences in an architecture firm where he says he learned as much by overhearing the conversations of more experienced colleagues as he did by actually working. The office doesn’t have an earbud ban, but Greusel advises young architects against listening to music all day. “You miss a lot if you’re plugged into your iTunes,” he says. “You’re not hearing those things going back and forth across the office.”
Expose Staff to Clients
A big part of foster internal communication is making sure everyone on staff knows what the firm is working on and where it's going. To give people an intimate knowledge of the work underway, architecture firms should consider exposing as much of their staffs to their clients, according to Andrew Pressman, FAIA, head of his own Washington, D.C., firm. He advises having staff members at all levels interact with clients at meetings and site visits as frequently as possible. “They would appreciate the rationale for some of the decision-making,” he says.
Expose Staff to Other Roles
Pressman also advises rotating administrative roles among employees to help create a more comprehensive understanding of how the firm works, ensure transparency among staff, and help employees grow professionally. “It creates opportunities for staff to understand the nuances of running a practice and then also to contribute to running it,” he says. “Every employee can contribute beyond a specific task they’re assigned to at the moment, if they have a broader picture of what’s going on in the firm in terms of marketing or business development or budgets and so on.”
Provide an Annual Review
To keep staff members apprised of how the firm's business is going, consider giving a yearly update—a strategy used by the 900-person, multi-office SmithGroupJJR. Every January, firm president Carl Roehling, FAIA, and chairman David R.H. King, FAIA, travel to each office to report on the past year’s work, projects in the pipeline, awards received, and the community activities in which the firm has engaged. Susan Arneson, SmithGroupJJR’s director of marketing, says it’s important, especially in a big firm, to personally connect to the staff. “We try to share a lot of information so that they understand how important their role is within the firm and what an impact they personally have on the success of us as a firm,” she says.
Keep Marketing in the Loop
Managers should regularly give project updates to the marketing team to help identify milestones and news worthy of sharing about what is going on with firm projects. “Since we’re on the front lines to get the word out and help communicate those messages, the more information we have, the better we can be at our jobs in terms of trying to craft the right message or make sure that we incorporate all the relevant information that we want to share with the outside world,” says Arneson.