AIA Young Architects Forum's Practice Innovation Lab
James Blake Photography / Courtesy The American Institute of Architects AIA Young Architects Forum's Practice Innovation Lab

Look on any architecture firm’s website and you will likely find a meticulously crafted mission and vision statements. The more savvy practitioners also explain their design process and client experience. How many firms, however, describe their workplace culture on their career page—and in a manner that its own employees would endorse?

When I onboarded at my current tech employer, one of the three orientation days focused entirely on workplace culture; this immediately conveyed its importance to us new hires. The morning was spent laying out expectations—namely that we should feel welcomed to offer our fresh perspectives and to contribute immediately to the company. In this public forum, a vice president recounted a time in which a report said the vice president's phrasing of certain statements made people uncomfortable. Not only did the vice president change their behavior, but they also asked to be held accountable moving forward.

Team-building workshops in the afternoon illustrated the company’s open feedback policy, which runs upstream and downstream. In one activity, groups were given a bag of loose Lego pieces and tasked with recreating a model obscured on the far side of the room. Each group could send anyone to examine the assembled model, but those individuals were then prohibited from handling the pieces. It was hard for any one person to become a leader—or hero—in this scenario because their role and ability to manipulate pieces changed when they gained greater knowledge. The exercise ensured everyone had an active role in problem-solving and in double-checking each other's work.

By investing time and resources into the onboarding process, my company got in return employees who were excited to begin working and who were confident of their colleagues’ values and support.

If you are not intentionally cultivating your firm culture, then you are missing an opportunity.

If you are not intentionally cultivating your firm culture, then you are missing an opportunity to attract top talent, better engage your current employees, and distinguish your firm to clients. Thoughtfully designed organizational culture not only creates the landscape for an office’s social order but, when mobilized effectively, it also can define how you do business and become your company’s sole differentiator.

Still not convinced you should spend some time putting pen to paper to define your internal firm culture? The research supports it as well.

Employee Satisfaction
Workplace culture is the unifier for your employees, who presumably come from myriad backgrounds. Their shared employee experience both invigorates them to show up every day and better helps you identify and hire people that will thrive in your work environment. The 2012 research paper “Impact of Organizational Culture on Organizational Performance: An Overview” found that employees committed to building a strong culture and values within an organization out perform their peers by 20%.These employees not only understood their company’s expectation, but also how their contributions affect overall project and firm outcomes.

Financial Health
Positive company culture positively correlates with overall company performance and profitability. Gallup’s 2016 meta-analysis of 1.4 million employees showed that companies in the top-quartile of employee engagement are 22% more profitable than those that are falling the bottom quartile. The study also found that employee engagement leads to better overall customer interactions, creating a direct tie between client interactions and organizational culture.

Recruitment and Retention
According to a 2017 study of more than 615,000 Glassdoor users, the primary predictor of employee happiness is workplace culture and values. This holds true whether the employee is fresh out of college or the most tenured individual on staff. Culture is a competitive advantage and differentiator to attracting top talent. Job seekers are not necessarily prioritizing perks; instead they are looking for organizations aligned with their own values and that offer opportunities for growth.

When employees know that you will put their needs first, they value and commit to their work more. A 2018 study by payroll and workforce management company Accuchex found that 59% of employees are less likely to look for another job if they are engaged and thriving in their current position. Not only is frequent employee turnover a drain on morale, the remaining workers are often left picking up the slack until replacements are hired—if they are hired. Finding and training new talent is also expensive in the current market.

According to a study of more than 615,000 Glassdoor users, the primary predictor of employee happiness is workplace culture and values.

As these research studies and others have found, developing corporate culture strategically is essential. Not sure where to start? Get some inspiration from Netflix’s original Culture Deck, which went viral when it was published online in 2009 and has since become a Harvard Business Review case study in human resource management. In a 2013 GQ profile on Netflix and CEO Reed Hastings, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said that the slide deck “may well be the most important document ever to come out of [Silicon Valley].”

Does your firm need to spend an entire day orienting new staff to its culture? No, but you can create and distribute your own culture deck alongside your employee handbook. Many architects and designers who start their own practices had ideas for their approach to firm culture, but few make it a strategic advantage.

Be intentional about your firm culture, write it down, and make sure your firm lives up to those intentions every day. How do you want your employees to describe where they’re working?