One might argue that traditional practice has not evolved for decades, but the complexity required to deliver buildings is ever increasing. In order for design firms to manage for change, they need to consider building a culture based on values, or a values-based organization. The Society for Human Resource Management defines a VBO as a living, breathing culture of shared core values among all employees. It has clear ground rules for establishing a foundation and guiding principles for decision-making, but it also inspires a sense of community among all employees. Management and leadership set an example by leaning into their firm’s values and living them at every moment at work. VBO is a culture where the personal values of individuals align with those of the firm, motivating the company into action.

Historically, values-based or purpose-driven cultures remain more stable and agile over time because they work from day one to build employee commitment to the firm.

In good times, a bad workplace environment is one of the most common reasons for employee attrition. In the worst of times, a good workplace environment pulls everyone together to help each other through the hardship. A 2018 LinkedIn survey found that 70% of professionals in the U.S. would not work for a company with an intolerable workplace culture. Furthermore, 65% of respondents would accept lower pay and 26% would forego a fancy title rather than put up with a bad workplace environment. This survey also identified the following factors as reasons why people stayed at companies for more than five years:

  • Sense of belonging (46%)
  • Support from leadership (36%)
  • Benefits over perks including, but not limited to, the ability to work on a more flexible schedule (44%)

Think that your firm culture is good, even during and after the COVID-19 pandemic? Your perception might be quite different from that of your employees. The 2020 Employee Engagement & Retention Report by Achievers indicated that, prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, only 33% of survey respondents planned to stay at their jobs.

A 2018 LinkedIn survey found that 70% of professionals in the U.S. would not work for a company with an intolerable workplace culture.
original: Tomas Ragina

As we come out of the pandemic, you can bet that the best candidates will be asking, “How did your firm manage through the pandemic?” All other things equal, you can do more than simply hope that your answer is better than the last or next person they interviewed with. You can discover how your firm is currently faring in the eyes of your employees. And, if necessary, you can begin to rebuild or recreate your culture as a values-based organization from the ground up. Here are five general steps.

  1. Start by asking the leadership “Why?” Why did you start the firm or join the firm’s leadership? Are the mission and vision of the firm still the same? Does leadership need to make changes around the firm’s mission and vision?
  2. Revisit or build your company values. Once you have established or re-established the firm’s “why,” engage the entire firm in a value-creation exercise. Make sure that every employee is able to see a bit of themselves in the new values developed.
  3. Conduct an annual survey. See if your employees’ view of the firm is the same as that of the leadership. Add a few questions that will help the firm establish its employee Net Promoter Score (eNPS), which helps identify the engagement of each employee.
  4. Establish a culture committee. Create a culture committee that includes a diverse cross section of all your employees. The primary responsibility of the committee should be to address any gaps identified by the survey; to recheck the eNPS throughout the year (three times annually is recommended); and to make strategic recommendations on how to close the gaps.
  5. Rinse and repeat. Building a VBO and a successful hybrid practice is about creating continuous improvement loops that keep the firm agile and adaptable.

According to a 2019 Gallup blog post, 52% of employees who are voluntarily exiting their companies say their manager or organization could have done something to prevent them from leaving.

This is the time to rebuild culture and add additional flexibility to employees’ schedules as they emerge from the pandemic. Take any downtime you may have now as an opportunity to create a values-based organization and the glue that will help your firm thrive and remain agile during tremulous times. The pandemic threw a wrench into how we do work, but if firms have cultures that are agile to change, the next incident will not hit them as hard.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.