Lauren Nassef

As a small firm, Work Program Architects, in Norfolk, Va., employs just 10 people, and principal Mel Price knows that in order to compete with larger firms for talent, it needs to get creative.

“Small firms aren’t always able to offer the same salary and full compensation packages that large firms are, but I feel like we offer [a] wonderful environment, and that also is evaluated heavily,” she says. Her firm is currently in the process of hiring three people, and Price says she has received a number of emails from prospective hires saying that salary isn’t necessarily the primary factor in their employment decisions. But things like an office-provided cellphone, tablet, or laptop (currently offered by 65% of firms) or a wellness program with participation incentives (34%) might be.

Firms of every size are increasingly placing an emphasis on fostering a strong office culture, according to AIA’s 2019 Firm Compensation Report. This means offering options like flexible working hours (as 83% of firms currently do) and a casual dress policy (offered by 90% of firms). Many firms recognize that building a strong sense of identity around what it means to be an employee there is just one piece of the puzzle, while another is offering benefits that fall under an increasingly broad definition of the term.

“One of the things that we did when we started the company was made sure we had a really good sound system,” Price says, laughing. “It’s easier to relax when people [might want] to work late.”

"Who Are You Employing and What Do [They] Want?"

As the architectural workforce skews younger and demand for qualified architectural staff continues to rise, there’s a growing emphasis on supporting employees along their career paths—whether that means paying off a recent graduate’s student loan debt, subsidizing a conference or training, or covering the cost of licensure exams.

“I think the thing around benefits really has to do with who are you employing and what do those folks want? What do they see as valuable?” says Petrina KM Gooch, assoc. aia, a principal and corporate human resources leader at Los Angeles–based HED Design, a large firm with 435 employees across eight cities.

“What appeals to somebody early in their career may not be the same thing that’s appealing to somebody later in their career,” Gooch continues, explaining that her firm started offering a high-deductible health insurance plan with a partially funded health savings account. “Over time, we’ve seen a larger-than-expected adoption, and adoption with folks who have families, because people are kind of getting savvy about this,” she says. The plan allows those who opt in to save on premiums, while accruing money that they can use for health care costs down the road.

An emerging “hot topic” in the industry, according to Gooch, is student loan repayment, currently offered by about 3% of firms.

“There are conversations around firmsponsored options,” she says. “Industry leaders are supporting policy that can help relieve some of the student loan repayment pressure for employees that are recent graduates.”

ARE reimbursement and a bonus upon licensure are three perks offered by BWBR, a firm based in St. Paul, Minn.

“The marketplace is so competitive out there right now that you really have to look at [benefits] as a holistic part of what you’re offering employees,” says Angela Shaw, human resources manager at BWBR. The number of firms currently offering reimbursements for licensure fees is 82%, and 65% offer ARE study materials, classes, and study groups. In 2018 about half of all architecture firms offered direct funding of professional development to staff.

A Trend Toward Wellness

Increasingly, firms are trending toward offering wellness perks, with the intention of improving the overall health of their workforce. At Work Program Architects, employees receive an extra $50 in each paycheck if they walk or bike to work, and the firm covers gym membership fees. This tracks with the 25% of firms that offer a gym or fitness club membership, as well as the 34% of firms that offer a wellness program with incentives for participation.

Firms also recognize the link between wellness and community building in the office, especially from a mental-health perspective. For the past nine years, BWBR has had an in-office well-being committee that organizes physical activities like canoe trips, spurred by health insurance increases that were proving troublesome for the firm to manage.

“I think it’s an important part of allowing people to make connections beyond the work,” Shaw says. “It’s a lot easier to work with someone if you have those personal connections and you know them on a different level.”

For HED Design, this connection comes in the form of office breakfasts and inoffice happy hours, the newest iterations of traditions that reach as far back as the firm’s 111-year history.

“Those are things that people look for in this age where everyone’s connected with social media, but people do still have a real desire to be a part of something bigger than themselves,” Gooch says—a sentiment that rings true no matter how the hiring market is trending.