In publications such as The Atlantic Monthly and The Economist, articles have heralded a new economic era. An era that demands that business be done differently in order to survive not only the continuing recession but to create a new, more agile business model. As many economists have asserted, the effects of poor economic policies and deregulation throughout the 2000’s will be felt for years to come.
In essence, companies have to approach their businesses differently, regardless of their industry sector. That means that they have to be more flexible about the types of services they offer. They have to be smarter about the way they recruit clients. And they must make changes so that they can keep their talent pools productive and happy. Together, these elements ensure the continued success of the company itself.
One strategy is to create a better physical environment. For example, a cafeteria that offers free food (like Google), or at least good coffee and an array of other beverages. What’s more, as the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, argues, companies must also support a creative and enriching “extra-curricular” environment beyond the immediate workspace. That includes supporting arts and entertainment venues. Or instituting a program that reimburses employees who partake in such activities. Moreover, Mr. Hsieh thinks that dating amongst employees is a positive boon. After all, says Mr. Hsieh, you work better if you like the people you work with.
For creative-based jobs such as the tech and architecture industries, another key component is helping employees understand their own energy ebbs and flows. And then training employers to encourage their employees to take breaks when that energy ebbs. Because, as one Economist article asserts, one of two big challenges for firms who hire talented people for creative jobs is dealing with employee burn-out. For all sorts of creative-based work, one is expected to always be “on,” which is impossible to maintain. Instead, employees therefore need to manage their energy level for sustained, long-term performance without high turnover. Architecture firms, notorious for ignoring that their employees are people, should acknowledge and accommodate this basic fact.
Another practice for successful firms is telecommuting. From technologically-intensive environments like Google to universities like UCLA, telecommuting 20% of the time is becoming the norm. It seems counterintuitive, especially for the architecture culture which treats every project deadline like life and death. But as this author has asserted in a co-authored book, it’s architecture, not medicine. You can take a break and no one will die. What’s more, you can work from home 20% of the time (one day out of five) and still no one will die. If this were not possible, architects would not hire free-lancers who work from their homes. Other services provided include either child-care facilities or subsidies (which does not include Dependent Care programs which is technically not a subsidy). For the childless, an occasional visit by pets also improves morale.
Involving employees directly in decision-making, on everything from corporate policy to the next project, is equally crucial. Employees become invested not just in the success of the discrete projects they are involved in, but in the company as a whole. This tactic is deployed by IBM, an international company that has successfully remade itself from being a hardware firm into the ideas company for an ever-expanding pool of clients. Many firms have instituted some if not all of these policies in order to remain competitive and keep their talent. After all, satisfied employees not only stay put (instead of taking your company’s secrets with them to the next job), they also work better.
Another ubiquitous perquisite that is patently missing from architecture is holidays. They not only add to the impoverished vacation structure prevalent in the U.S. (of all developed nations, the U.S. offers the least amount of vacation days, ten paid days on average), the effect on morale as well as improving the quality of life outside of work is immeasurable. Significantly, architecture firms do not honor them. It remains to be determined why architecture firms feel it is necessary work on national holidays that everyone else recognizes. But the effect on employees is to reinforce a sense of exploitation and overwork.
Interestingly, employees’ perceptions at less successful firms, regardless of industry, are remarkably uniform. First, there is the issue of corporate structure. No employer likes to believe that they are coercive, controlling, or tyrannical. Yet the report found that both employers and those in human resources are 8 times more likely than the rest of employees to believe that their organizations are “self-governing” and do not demand blind obedience. By contrast, ½ the employees interviewed say that their firms were led by strictly top-down, coercive style of management; only 3% reported that their firms were self-governing. Thus while many employers believed that they provided an egalitarian environment for their employees, employees overwhelmingly disagreed. And this was the most important factor in determining company loyalty and turnover.
To compound this management delusion, almost 1/3 of these same bosses also
believed that their employees felt inspired by their firm. Significantly, only 4% of
employees agreed. The consequences of such management style are clear. First, there
is the inability to keep talent, which costs firms of all sorts money, in recruiting and
retraining. Furthermore, it creates an atmosphere in which employees feel they need
to somehow compensate for their exploitation. That can include behaviors that range
from “borrowing” supplies to showing up late, taking long lunches, or leaving early.
Sherin Wing is an independent scholar. She received her Ph.D. in the Humanities from UCLA. She has published articles on issues and subjects ranging from the economy and architecture to social and cultural history. She is also a frequent contributor to Metropolis, Architect Magazine and other publications. Follow Sherin on Twitter at @xiaying.
Sherin Wing, Ph.D., is a social historian who writes on architecture, urbanism, racism, the economy, and epistemology (how we know what we know by researching and examining the agendas inherent in our sources of information) to name a few issues and topics. She is dedicated to exploring issues in ...