11 Proven Ways to Transform Your Company into a 'Best Firm'

From free onsite yoga lessons to unlimited vacation time, BD&C's 2006 "Best AEC Firms to Work For" recognition program reveals 11 creative management ideas that can help make your company a more rewarding place to work.
August 11, 2010

For almost all AEC firms, recruiting and retaining high-quality professional employees is a top concern, if not the top concern.

Good people are hard to find, and they're even harder to keep. That's why progressive AEC firms are developing innovative benefits and rewards programs to entice people to join and stay with their firms.

Many of the 52 companies that entered our inaugural Best AEC Firms competition (including the winners, of course) are doing great things in this area—from free onsite yoga lessons to unlimited vacation time to programs that help maintain work/life balance. Here's an overview of 11 such innovative management approaches:

1. Give employees a piece of the pie.

Lots of firms give annual bonuses, but Destin, Fla.-based DAG Architects has taken profit sharing to a new level. For each condominium project the firm designs, DAG's management purchases several condo units at pre-construction pricing. When the units are sold, the profits are shared with the employees, with no investment risk on their part. And that's on top of the company's 8–10% annual bonus program.

2. Let staffers donate their vacation days to others.

At Madison, Wis.-based Arnold & O'Sheridan and Wallace Engineering, Tulsa, Okla., employees can donate their paid time off to fellow employees who are dealing with a personal or family crisis—say, an extended leave of absence to care for an ill relative or spouse.

At Wallace, the entire process is handled anonymously through the accounting department, based on strict criteria; the recipient never knows who the benefactors were.

"We've called on our employees to help in two instances since the implementation of this program last year," said Tom Wallace, president of Wallace Engineering. "Both times, enough was donated that the receiving employee had income until their disability payments kicked in."

3. Offer full benefits to part-timers.

To solve the "brain drain" that occurs when veteran employees retire, some firms are enticing retirement-age staffers to stick around by offering full benefits to part-time employees. It also applies to young mothers who may be considering staying home full time.

Houston-based Walter P Moore provides full benefits to employees who work at least 20 hours. The company recently lowered the requirements from 30 hours a week after losing some key employees to retirement (see p. S17 for more).

Similarly, HOK extends its 401(k), credit union membership, employee assistance program, and travel insurance to part-time employees.

4. Implement 360-degree feedback in performance evaluations.

Employees at Boston's Shawmut Design and Construction and Lauterbach & Associates, Oxnard, Calif., are evaluated not only by their director managers, but also by their peers, and even by key clients. This 360-degree feedback approach provides a well-rounded assessment of employee performance. (See p. S14 for more on the Shawmut Design and Construction.)

5. Encourage a healthy lifestyle.

Some firms are going above and beyond the industry norm to keep their employees in shape.

The Beck Group, Dallas, contracts with a nutritionist who helps set up personal dietary plans for its employees. The company also reimburses staff members for health club initiation fees and pays up to $25 a month toward a gym membership.

The St. Louis headquarters for contractor Clayco features a fully equipped fitness center, with treadmills, weights, exercise bikes, and elliptical machines. CPR classes are offered regularly on site, and flu shots are provided annually for employees and their families. Over-the-counter medications such as aspirin and cough syrup are also available free of charge.

Last year, Clayco instituted a tobacco-free campus, prohibiting smoking in and around the headquarters. The company reimbursed employees for nicotine patches, medication, and hypnosis treatment, and offered auricular therapy (a type of acupuncture) in the office. Clayco chairman/CEO Robert Clark ponied up a $500 bonus to those who kicked the habit for at least six months.

Wallace Engineering's Tom Wallace goes a step further, giving any Wallace employee or the spouse of any employee who quits smoking for six months a $250 bonus.

Parking specialist Timothy Haahs & Associates, Blue Bell, Pa., offers onsite yoga classes, flu shots, and healthy snacks for its employees. The firm's founder, Timothy Haahs, knows first-hand about the value of good health. Prior to starting the E/A firm in 1994, Haahs received a transplant to replace his failing heart. Four years later, his new heart began to fail. The second transplant was a perfect fit, and he began the long road to recovery—all the while growing his firm into a multi-million-dollar, 35-person company.

6. Provide temporary housing for relocating employees.

It can take weeks, even months, for relocating employees to find a new home. To help out, principals at DAG Architects regularly lend their guest houses and rental properties at little or no charge to employees while they search for new digs.

7. Offer unlimited vacation time to key employees.

Senior management at Houston-based 3D/I created a "no limits" vacation and sick leave policy for all officers and senior associates (about one-third of the 420-person firm). "We found that our officers and senior associates work much more than 40 hours per week," said Charles B. Thomsen, chairman of 3D/I. "We felt it was short-sighted of us to set arbitrary limits."

Ironically, since the program was established, the amount of worked hours actually increased. "Nobody abuses the policy," said Thomsen.

8. Treat your subs like one of your own.

Since 2000, Shawmut Design and Construction has had a policy of paying all its subcontractors within 30 days of completion of their work, regardless of whether or not Shawmut has been paid.

"It's an integrity issue," said Susan Ehrlich, VP of people strategies. "We want to keep good relationships with all the subs we work with." The policy also fosters good relations between subcontractors and Shawmut's project managers, who interact daily on the job site.

9. Send 'Care Packages' to show you care.

As part of its college recruitment program, Wallace Engineering sends packages stuffed with snacks and company merchandise to its summer interns to cheer them up during finals week. "The students love them, and it creates a buzz on campus," said Wallace.

Arnold & O'Sheridan sends welcome packages to new hires and gift baskets to families with a new baby.

10. Reward your employees for becoming licensed practitioners.

Law and accounting firms do it all the time, yet few AEC firms reward their staff for passing state licensing exams. FKP Architects, Houston, not only reimburses its successful interns for all costs and fees associated with the state licensing exams, but also presents them with giant-sized checks for $1,000 each at a company-wide ceremony.

Practice what you preach—embrace sustainability.

Countless AEC firms are profiting from the sustainability movement without actually implementing green practices in their own daily operations. But Portland, Ore.-based consulting engineer Interface Engineering has purchased four hybrid gas-electric vehicles as company cars for job site visits. To reduce paper consumption in the office, the company reconfigured its printers to default to double-sided printing.

Shawmut Design and Construction's internal green building committee (made up of LEED Accredited Professionals) has mandated recycling of all office materials and has implemented construction and demolition waste recycling on all job sites.