By now, this is old news: The pandemic has created an unprecedented demand for interior designers. It’s never been easier to get new projects. Finding (and keeping) people to work on those projects? That’s another story.
“It’s officially a candidate’s market,” says Stephen Viscusi, a veteran design-industry recruiter who reports that his inquiries are up 30 percent. Across the country, junior designers are leaving established firms to start their own businesses or looking to hop firms in search of a better opportunity. Firms are actively poaching from one another. What has historically been a fairly stable labor market is buzzing with activity, and principals are newly wondering if their best employees are eyeing the door.
“This is a new phenomenon. Designers haven’t had to worry about this in the past, so this is catching some people off guard,” says Viscusi. “But they do need to be aware of it today.”
There’s nothing quite as disruptive as losing a top employee in the middle of a busy time. It’s safe to assume that most designers have already thought of the obvious way to avoid it: more money. Certainly, it isn’t a bad time to consider raises (especially if your fees have gone up) or revisit your benefits packages. But there’s a lot more to keeping employees than simply changing a digit on their paycheck.
Business of Home spoke to Viscusi and recruiter Billy Clark, business coach Sean Low, and designer and business coach Claire Jefford to get their best advice on holding on to talent in a red-hot job market.
Make Time to Talk
If there’s a golden rule to keeping your staff, it’s communication. That may seem obvious, but ask yourself honestly: When was the last time you sat down with an employee specifically to discuss how things were going? The need for regular check-ins has only gotten more important as many design firms have transitioned to remote or hybrid work arrangements, cutting down on a lot of the casual conversation that would happen naturally in an office.
Even if you’re fully back in the office, it’s a good idea to make a point of scheduling check-in meetings (once a month or every other month, suggest the experts). Setting time aside takes the pressure off and creates a space for employees to feel heard. “Our clients who keep employees long-term are giving their designers a lot of feedback,” says Clark.
Some designers—especially those who rose through the ranks at old-school firms—may bristle at the notion of having to coddle their staff, but they need to understand that these aren’t therapy sessions or praise parties (though a few words of encouragement never hurt). They can be as simple as a cup of coffee and a “So, how’s it going?” It’s also crucial, says Jefford, to invite feedback as well as offer it. “Ask for input so employees know you value their ideas,” she says. “When people feel part of a team, they’re less likely to leave.”
Create a structure, clear a path
Though designers are increasingly embracing highly structured workflows for their projects, it’s still somewhat rare to find a residential firm with a clear hierarchy and a beefy employee handbook. That makes sense—it’s a little silly to set up an HR department and make an org chart for a team of four. However, the experts say, creating a little structure goes a long way toward keeping employees on board. “The small investment of time it takes to make a quick handbook and a little bit of HR structure is completely worth it,” says Clark.
It’s also essential to let employees know where they stand and what comes next. “We’re big on advising clients to create a clear path for employees: How does someone advance here? How do you get to the next level?” says Clark. “You’re not guaranteeing advancement, but letting people know that they could become a senior designer after a few years working here.” Viscusi agrees. “Residential designers need to consider giving their employees new titles, or creating a path to partnership—that’s a good idea anyway if they want to perpetuate the firm after they retire.”
Even if you have only one employee, it’s wise to clearly convey how their role could evolve in the years ahead, say the experts. They may not be advancing up a long corporate ladder, but it helps keep employees engaged if they know they’re working toward something, not treading water.
Hand Over Real Work
It’s simple: If you don’t let your designers do real design work, they will move on. This is obvious, yet it presents a huge challenge for many firms. Some principals are reluctant to hand over significant design work because they’re perfectionists and can’t let go. Others love design too much to delegate it. Others still are worried about the business angle—clients may not be satisfied with anything less than the name on the door. All of these reasons are valid. It’s a thorny problem that every design firm of a certain size has to face, and there is no silver bullet.
However you deal with it, you should hand over creative work wholeheartedly. “Some designers will tell their employee: ‘Here’s this opportunity, but if you’re in over your head, tell me and I’ll jump in, because it’s my name on the door!’” says Low. “You may be thinking [this communicates that] you have their back, but what the employee hears is [that you’re] going to cut [them] out at the first opportunity. You need to ask yourself: If you give an employee a project to own, can you live with whatever they do?”
For that reason, Low is a big proponent of designers teaching culture and decision-making at their firms—not execution or a look. If you’re teaching your staff how to solve problems, he reasons, it’s ultimately easier to let them work independently. There’s even a test: “Everyone else has gone home on installation day, and there’s a 400-pound coffee table, 6 inches off where it’s supposed to be. Would your employee solve the problem in that situation the same way you would?” He invites designers to ponder the answer. (Ask around your office—the disparity in responses might surprise you!)
That doesn’t mean you have to hand over the keys to a big job on day one. Jefford suggests giving over creative work gradually, or offering more control in a different medium—like letting a design assistant manage social media. From there, she scales up their involvement: “I let my design student lead a client presentation last month, and she was so excited!”
Tease The Future
Job candidates today, says Clark, are looking for more than stable employment and a decent benefits package. They’re looking for opportunities to grow. If you’re hiring, it’s a great idea to let applicants know about where the firm is headed (and show off work that you can’t list on your public portfolio). For existing employees, don’t assume they know about what projects are in the works, the licensing deal you’re discussing, or your three-year plan to break into hospitality projects. Tell them.
“Designers are excited to be part of a firm’s trajectory, to do interesting projects and to have opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise,” says Clark. “They’re asking: What skills will I learn? What’s the competitive advantage I’ll get by joining this firm as opposed to another?” Low puts it simply: “You keep employees by showing them their growth curve is higher staying with you than out on their own.” The flip side: Don’t tease speculative ideas that aren’t likely to pan out. If your employees sense that you’re making empty promises, they’ll head for the exit.
Don’t Take It Personally
A harsh reality: You may be doing everything right and still lose people. Even with regular check-ins, room to grow, great salaries, free parking, lobster for lunch and Champagne in the break room, employees might be hell-bent on starting their own firm or—and this one hurts—joining up with a competitor. Whatever you do, don’t take it personally.
“If people want to go, they’re going to go. It’s better to be supportive, from my perspective,” says Clark. “Your paths will likely cross again and you want to keep things professional.” Even firms poaching an employee, he says, is actually more common than most designers realize, and it’s important to keep your cool. “In the finance world, someone will be recruited to leave Goldman to go to Citigroup—it just happens. Designers take things like that personally, but they’re not.”
If it happens, dust yourself off, reach out to your network, post a job listing or talk to a headhunter. Viscusi’s new-hire hack? “Ask your Holly Hunt rep who’s good, or your Sutherland rep if they know of anyone looking for work,” he says. “Sales reps are basically free recruiters.”
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