The [arch] Office Part 4: NURTURE

31 May

As young architects/interns, we know how it goes: task, deadline, do this, do that, lots of overtime, nose-to-the-grindstone, workaholic employment. For many of us, it’s been hard to find work. For others, like myself, I am blessed to have work, but am frustrated by the office culture of the old-school, hierachial, corporate-style firm. I feel stuck on a sort-of plateau where I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere. Isn’t it time for AE firms to change their style?

In this, Part 4 of “The [arch] Office” series, we will see some great advancements ARCHITECT Magazine found in forward-thinking AE firms…as well as the challenges firms face in attracting and holding their talent. Since the 2008 start of the recession, design fields have seen a decline in new talent entering the industry. People have left the profession and schools are seeing a decline in new students. Now, firms exercising the old, hierarchial, sweatshop-style office are discovering problems staying ahead because they can’t hold on to talent.

Peace out old-school! Say hello to “the employee-centered workplace.”

NURTURE - copyright ARCHITECT Magazine

To best discuss this topic, ARCHITECT Magazine did a great job of showcasing a few specific firms (and I’m sure there are more out there). I will do the same, dividing this post into each firm and highlighting their story, then concluding with some overall thoughts. I hope you get as excited as I did reading this!

Mithun (Seattle, San Fransisco)
Say goodbye to the “cutthroat, pay-your-dues philosophy” of the architecture office. Founded in 1949, the Seattle office set up its camp in a converted waterfront industrial pier and boasts a beautiful sunlit studio. Why is this place so great you ask? First is the commute: employees are encouraged to walk or bike to work and are met with a three-car hybrid fleet for employees to share among the office. And with ample bike parking, on-site showers, and REI gift card incentives, why wouldn’t you want to commute this way?

Second is the office: Instead of the principals hogging the views with their perimeter offices, everyone gets a view of nearby Elliot Bay and surrounding mountains. You sit where it makes most sense for your current projects, which allows new and/or young employees to sit with senior partners and other office disciplines.  Third, some cool perks: Friday happy hour, Mithuniversity, an employee-curated gallery space for insipiration, and even scholarships for doing things OUTSIDE architecture.

Wait, did I just say that a firm is encouraging you to learn OUTSIDE of architecture?

The best example is Brendan Connolly, a partner at Mithun that won the scholarship. He used the scholarship to take a jewelry making class and made an engagement ring for his wife. How great is that?! ” ‘It’s incentive to learn new things, and for me it was great to take a class that was not about architecture.’ “ Obviously, this is exciting for employees to read/hear about. In my opinion, it also positive for firms, as Mithun is discovering. Their employees can bring new skills with them that not only enhances them personally, but also enhances their professional growth and skill-sets for their projects.

Mithun has realized the value of their employee talent. They do their best to cater to the innovative thinking, creative energy, and personal side of their talent, and they are seeing incredible benefits. Ray Kogan, president of management/consulting/planning company Kogan and Co., notices that Mithun has seized on the emerging trend of a serious upcoming talent shortage. According to Ray:

“Architecture will face a skills shortage in the near future and they will have two real challenges: quantity and quality of people…firms are going to have to turn their attention to that.”

Mithun (Seattle) - copyright ARCHITECT Magazine

Luckett and Farley (Louisville)
Luckett and Farley has also capitalized on jumping ahead of this trend. As one of the oldest firms in the country (founded in 1853!), you could say they have seen it all. They have realized through this time, however, that the old nose-to-the-grindstone attitude just won’t cut it anymore for young employees. As CEO Ed Jerdonek puts it beautifully: “…it’s ridiculous.”

Instead of only the usual interview questions, they now ask candidates what Luckett and Farley can do to make their job most meaningful. They have revamped their benefits packages, offer competitive time off for personal endeavors, and do consistent surveys to find out how to make their employees happier. They have certainly seen the results…a story of Judy McGrath tells it all:

“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.’ “

Wow!  I was blown away by this. While many firms only look at the hard, bottom line numbers, Jerdonek is noticing that the indirect, immeasurable benefits of positive office culture far exceeds those numbers…and will only make the bottom line better.

Employees at Luckett and Farley are very happy with their leadership. They listen to their employees, offer opportunities for access to a wide range of people, and help foster their growth. Those leaders have an especially difficult battle in the balance between Baby Boomers, Gen-X, and Gen-Y employees, which is evident at many firms. As Jerdonek explains, the Baby Boomers and Gen-X staff have seen it all but have less capacity for today’s innovation and technology. On the other hand, Gen-Y staff are incredibly more comfortable with technology and forward thinking, but lack context and experience in understanding. The marriage and collaboration of these generations is critical.

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

Beyond Specific Firms…
Like many people, Barbara Irwin, of HR Advisors Group, has noticed the difficulty firms are having with the generation gaps. Many firms are having difficulty understanding how to handle their younger staff. Understandably so, in my opinion, as the industry has been changing so rapidly that it is hard to keep up the pace. Irwin is finding that many firms are struggling with keeping our younger generation happy and can not seem to recruit and keep their younger generation staff. Surveys are finding that communication is the single biggest issue.

” ‘They just wanted what was going on in the firm, how they were doing, how the firm was doing,’ ” Irwin states. I can relate to that completely. At my current firm, feedback is few and far between. I have even asked for feedback from people, only to get a few brief comments or “yeah, we’ll talk later.” Oh, that talk didn’t happen by the way. And usually I hear updates about the firm through rumors. It becomes rather frustrating. What about an email?

Irwin advises to keep communication open on a regular basis between staff members. If not, Irwin points out, firms risk losing their employees to other, more exciting opportunities when the recession ends. And, she suggests, do it through story telling. ” ‘Give them a roadmap. Show them how to succeed. Show them respect.’ “

Respect…that is something I’m hearing about more frequently. “Creating a culture of respect – of listening and engaging and mentoring one another – is at the heart of Mithun’s policy.” They understand that an idea can come from anywhere, and anyone is invited to pull up a chair. Now that is the environment I want to work in!

Hello "employee centered workplace"! -copyright ARCHITECT Magazine

In conclusion, we still have not answered the inevitable question: is there any Return on Investment surrounding this office culture talk? I believe that the discussion above is evidence enough, but maybe Mithun can reiterate for us:

“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.”

I would love to hear your comments! Please leave your ideas/thoughts in the comment field below, or email Ryan at

Stay tuned for Part 5: Grow next Monday, June 4th!


Based on “Your Office, Your Future” from ARCHITECT magazine. For more information and case studies, visit

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