Managing for Happiness

Rena Klein , 14 June 2016

Nurturing a company culture of opportunity and challenge, support and appreciation is not just about giving you a warm fuzzy feeling – it can increase your bottom line. Rena Klein makes the case.

Sociologist and management researchers have known for decades that there is a direct positive relationship between productivity and the job satisfaction of workers. In other words, when people are happy, they are more productive, and when they are more productive, they are happier. And, generally speaking, when workers are more productive, a company is also more profitable. This reinforcing relationship between satisfaction and profitability is especially true in professional service firms and for professional and technical workers. Every aspect of a project-based organisation, from work quality to client satisfaction, depends on people having positive engagement with the work and with each other.

The Business Case for Happiness

In many parts of the United States, there is currently a significant shortage of people who are trained and capable of doing architectural work. As a result, there is competition among firms for the best talent and salaries are going up. In this environment, happiness is also an important recruiting tool.

But how do you create a firm that is attractive to talented and engaged people? First, it’s important to understand what makes architects happy.

While personal experience is a good guide, there is some research to help us in this inquiry. Among these is a book by sociologist Judith Blau called Architects and Firms: A Sociological Perspective on Architectural Practices (MIT Press, 1987). Although published 30 years ago, its insights are still relevant to current practice, especially since the profession is still populated by many who were trained in the 1980s and 1990s.

Here is a list of the top contributors to job satisfaction and career contentment among architects, generally based on Blau’s research. The order is mine, along with a few revisions and additions, based on my experience consulting with small architecture firms in the United States.

1. Opportunities to design interesting projects

It’s not surprising that this is first on the list and a reminder that all professional staff, even junior people, crave opportunities to participate in design. This can be designing a small aspect of a large project, being the project designer on a small project, or just being able to participate in regular design pin-ups, education and dialogue.

2. Autonomy – control over one’s own work

Along with opportunities to design, architects want the authority to make decisions about their own work. Knowing this, it makes sense that about 25% of firms in the US are one-person shops – solo practitioners. If you practise alone, design opportunities and autonomy are abundant. One key to staff satisfaction, especially for senior or long-time staff, is to give them more control over their work.

3. Recognition by peers and the public

As an architect myself, I have frequently observed how meaningful peer recognition can be to architects. After all, who is able to judge excellence in a work of architecture better than other architects? Recognition by the public is more elusive, but no less important to design professionals.

4. Optimal variety, challenge and learning opportunities

Professionals enjoy challenge and learning opportunities and want to keep growing in their skills and knowledge. To keep professional staff satisfied, stretch assignments must be offered along with work that is familiar and efficiently done.

5. Alignment of values and goals with that of firm leadership, co-workers and clients

Working with others who have similar values makes work meaningful and engaging. When the understanding of a firm’s vision and purpose is widespread among the staff, people can begin to focus all efforts in the same ‘big picture’ direction.

6. Feeling respected and well liked by firm leadership, co-workers, consultants and clients

All people want this as part of their workplace experience.

Firm Culture as Competitive Advantage

Firm culture could be defined as atmosphere, behavioural norms and shared expectations. Understanding of firm culture – what is happening now, and how you might like it to be – is helpful in creating a workplace environment that inspires excellence and attracts talent. The firm culture model illustrated in Figure 1 is one way of understanding organisational culture. This model is based on how much an organisation is focused on the success of the group versus the success of an individual; plus how much trust versus control is evidenced in an organisation’s governance and operations.

Firm Culture Model

Figure 1: Firm Culture Model

‘Transactional’ organisations are described in the lower right hand corner of Figure 1. In these firms, usually large corporate ones, engagement between people is often rule-bound and role-based. There can be an appealing sense of order here, but it may come at the expense of creativity, nimbleness, and knowledge sharing.

Above that, in the upper right corner are ‘Alignment’ organisations that revolve around ideals and a shared set of values. For example, an alignment firm might turn down projects that are not consistent with its values or mission, even if the survival of the firm is at stake. Employees don’t last long at a place like this if they are not true believers in the firm’s purpose.

Most firms in the United States fall between ‘Individualistic’ and ‘Mutuality’, shown on the left side of Figure 1 – generally leaning towards more trust-based and egalitarian organisations. The professional culture of architecture in the US is highly individualistic, displaying an interest in singular achievement and expecting professionals to demonstrate passion and gain pleasure from simply doing the work. Professional rewards in an individualistic organisation can be many, but most are framed as personal achievement, rather than recognition of group-based effort.

Firms that achieve ‘Mutuality’ in their culture foster an environment of trust, honesty and caring. They are likely to develop strategy in collaboration with their staff, be ‘open book’ about their financials, have family-friendly policies, and offer profit sharing and other benefits as part of employee compensation. People give extra effort because they care about their bosses, their co-workers, their team, and their clients. They don’t just love doing architecture; they love the people they do it with. If this sounds like a family business, a mutuality culture is very much like that. And like in families, difficulties can arise when people grow apart and have different priorities. In this kind of organisation, leaders must have discipline and insight to make personnel changes when they are needed and do so in a way that can benefit all involved.

When it comes to firm culture, there is no right or wrong. For firm leaders, the most important thing is to have self-knowledge and be authentic. When espoused culture and values differ from culture and values in practice, that’s when real problems begin. Firm leaders with a clear vision, who ‘walk their talk’ and have a positive attitude, are most likely to succeed in creating a firm culture that works.

The Power of Appreciation

No matter what the firm culture, all people need appreciation for their sincere efforts at work. For instance, appreciation can be freely given about a person’s character, such as noting a demonstration of integrity when dealing with a client. Appreciation can be given about a person’s positive impact on others, such as being a role model to younger professionals. And, appreciation can be, and should be, given frequently regarding another’s skill at performing their everyday work tasks.

Of course, appreciation must be sincerely given, and if so, it will contribute to a positive atmosphere, no matter what the dominant culture of the firm might be.

Appreciation towards an employee can also be expressed financially in customised benefits that reflect an individual’s particular interests or needs. In the US, examples of customised benefits might be commuter passes, a gym membership, help with the cost of childcare – whatever makes the employee feel seen and supported. Often these types of benefits will be very low cost to the firm, but will be very meaningful to an employee.

It’s important to remember that compensation, for both firm leaders and professional staff, is more than just salary. People are also compensated by less tangible rewards, such as feeling their work has meaning, feeling that they are part of a group where people really care about one another, or having opportunities to learn and advance. It’s interesting to note that money or high pay is not among the list of items that contribute most to job satisfaction among architects.

Knowing what makes professional workers, including firm leaders, satisfied in their work is critical to creating a workplace environment that inspires excellence and attracts talent. When firm culture also contributes to career contentment, increased productivity and improved profitability will follow. Current staff members can become your best recruiters – make them happy and you will never be without talent to hire. And that is the ultimate competitive advantage.

Rena M. Klein, FAIA is the author of The Architect’s Guide to Small Firm Management (Wiley, 2010) and principal of RM Klein Consulting, a firm that specialises in financial management support, strategic planning, and helping small design firms prosper.