Thinking of expanding your team? Here’s how to get it right, from attracting applicants and finding the perfect fit to making onboarding a breeze.
With many firms busier than ever and looking to grow their staff to meet demand, hiring has never been a hotter topic. But the time between identifying your need for a new employee and welcoming someone on their first day can be an unpredictable minefield. Whether you’re making your first hire or your 40th, a firm grasp on how to navigate the hiring process—from drafting a compelling job posting to helping a new employee settle in—is essential to your success.
How to Know You’re Ready
While much of the hiring process can be personal, one thing is undeniable: You’ll know it is time to add to your staff when you have more work than you can keep up with. “I’m not above doing everything myself— that’s how I had been operating since I opened my business in 2015,” says Norwalk, Connecticut–based designer Chauncey Boothby, who recently hired her first full-time employee, a design assistant, last July. “It got to a point where I realized that I needed help, and I needed it yesterday. It was about knowing my value, too—it’s not that I can’t run a package to FedEx myself, but my time is better spent designing.”
For Arianne Bellizaire, a designer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, that moment came in 2016, three years after starting her firm. While her initial idea was to take on a series of interns instead of a full-time hire, she quickly realized it wasn’t a longterm solution. “I couldn’t really turn over anything important to them, as they didn’t have the experience to make design decisions in a way that I was comfortable with—and by the time you did have them trained and were in a good workflow, the semester would be over, and they’d move on,” recalls Bellizaire. “I was essentially constantly in the onboarding phase, and you can’t build anything off of that.” After a few interns came and went, she switched to a contract-based virtual assistant for about a year before she felt ready to bring on a full-time design assistant.
Those first few employees who join the team might have a set job title, but in practice they are often wearing many hats. Designers who already have a small team can grow with a different set of considerations, identifying specific areas where their firm could expand and hiring accordingly. As Katie Rosenfeld doubled her team over the past two years, going from a staff of four to eight, the Wellesley, Massachusetts–based designer made a pointed choice to hire team members with specific experience in categories like interior architecture or kitchen and bathroom design. “I’m self-taught, so those more architectural skills are things that I don’t have,” she says. “In order to continue to grow my business and take on full-scale remodels and renovations, we needed people in the office every day who could take on the technical aspects of a build-out, not just the finishing details that come with decoration.”
Identifying your pain points and the areas where you lack experience is key when creating a well-rounded practice. “You’ll know when you’re out over your skis, and you need more support,” says Rosenfeld. “You can’t be good at everything—and even if you could be, there’s often just too much work for the number of people you have. But you also have to know that bringing in a warm body isn’t going to help. You have to zero in on what kind of help you need and what kind of skills you need someone to have, and then staff up accordingly.”
Assessing your finances is another major aspect to consider, though many designers—especially those who bill hourly and can more easily adjust their rates—find that it’s worth figuring out how to pay an additional person when you truly need the help. “There is always the question of money, but the reality is that salaries are spread out over months, so the initial cost is usually low-risk,” says Dan Mazzarini of New York firm BHDM Design. “It’s well worth bringing in new blood to keep my existing team and talent happy, sane and supported.”
How to Attract Talent
While hiring has always been somewhat arduous, the current job market is notoriously difficult. A national labor shortage has paradoxically coupled with the Great Resignation, with Americans voluntarily leaving jobs in unprecedented numbers. The exodus has been caused in part because the pandemic shifted worker expectations for work-life balance, healthcare benefits and the flexibility to work remotely. And because demand for talent is so high, it’s not particularly difficult to find a new employer if a job isn’t living up to an employee’s workplace standards. (Or, given the huge demand for design, strike out on their own.)
Though Rosenfeld was able to fill several positions at her growing firm since the onset of the pandemic, the process was much more challenging than it had been in the past. “I used to put up a post and have applicants trickle in without much effort. This time, we posted on job boards but just weren’t getting any resumes,” she says. “I finally put a call out on our Instagram and, once I did that, we got a flood of resumes. But I had to appeal to people and basically explain why they should apply. It’s a buyer’s market!”
So, in a market that’s never been more competitive, how do you attract applicants and make your firm stand out? For most designers these days, having a good reputation and a solid social media presence tend to do the trick. Boston-based designer Duncan Hughes says that his firm regularly receives resumes from interested applicants even when they’re not actively filling a position, which he attributes to both positive word of mouth about his business as well as regularly getting work published in regional and national publications. “The fact that we’re out there and people know our firm, that gets interested people calling and asking if we need anyone,” says Hughes. “That, coupled with the good press we get—it’s an important way to get good clients, but it helps get potential employees, too.”
Tapping into your online following, as Rosenfeld did, is a logical way to reach potential employees who are already fans of your work and brand. Bellizaire connected with the woman who would become her full-time hire through an Instagram message expressing interest in working for the firm—and even offering to drive in from another town to do so. “The fact that she was willing to spend an hour commuting just to work with me, that definitely got my attention,” says Bellizaire. That employee ended up working at the firm for two years.
Bellizaire and Hughes also admitted to scouting talented showroom employees for potential new hires. “Before I hired my current project management coordinator, I had been working with her for years at a local showroom,” says Bellizaire. “I knew her disposition, that we worked well together, and that she had come up through the ranks of that company in a way that spoke really well of her. She actually approached me and said, ‘If you’re ever looking for someone, I’d love to speak with you about any opportunities.’ And when I had the means to bring her on, I did.”
For other designers, mentoring has also led to hiring passionate employees. “Mentorship is very important to me and something that I really believe in,” says Philadelphia-based designer Rasheeda Gray. “In 2018, a woman wrote me a well-crafted email with her resume, asking if I would be willing to mentor her. I was looking to make my first fulltime hire at the time, and I was so impressed by her that I asked if I could interview her for the position, and ultimately I hired her as a project manager.”
Boothby’s recent first hire came about in a similar fashion, when a family friend who was looking to start a design career reached out to her three years ago. “I wasn’t hiring at the time, but I was willing to meet with her and offer advice,” says Boothby. “She reached out again last summer, just to check in, and it happened to be at a time when I was realizing I could use some help. It came about so organically that bringing her on felt like a baby step instead of a big change.”
In today’s difficult job market, there’s more to consider than just finding a good fit. Offering a competitive salary is crucial to attracting and retaining talent. Job boards and Glassdoor posts can offer a starting point for designers looking to make sense of an appropriate salary for the role they’re adding to their team. Discussing the matter with industry peers can also play a crucial role. When Gray started thinking about giving her team members raises to mark their professional growth, she began talking with other designers about salaries throughout the industry—and soon realized that she was paying her team less than what her peers were paying for similar positions. In response, she raised her team’s salaries accordingly, both to reward their hard work and in order to stay competitive.
How to Make the Right Choice
Once you have a stack of resumes in hand, the real work of hiring begins. There are no easy shortcuts when it comes to sussing out a winning combination of demonstrated experience, desired skill sets and an alignment of design aesthetics—all layered on top of gauging personalities and how well the candidate would fit into an existing team.
“There’s no perfect science, it’s intuitive,” says New York–based designer Eve Robinson of interviewing new hires. “Seeing the skills on paper is important, but so is the in-person chemistry. It’s always a little bit of a crapshoot. You meet with someone and spend half an hour with them. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t. I’ve been fortunate to make a lot of good choices and invest in talented people who have grown into great designers, but I’ve also made some mistakes and ignored things that made me feel uneasy about a candidate because I wanted it to work out.” Over time, she’s learned to trust her gut more. “Sometimes a candidate makes a passing remark that makes you go, ‘Hmmm,’ but you let it go. Those are the moments that have come back to bite me,” she says. “It can be hard to see those things, but later you realize you should have paid more attention to that feeling.”
Especially at smaller firms, hiring someone who will fit in well with the existing team and company culture, and who seems prepared to stay on longterm, is imperative. A revolving door of employees can majorly bog down a smaller business. “I have four employees, so one person is a quarter of our firm,” says Hughes. “With a firm of this size, one person also makes a huge impact on the workplace culture, so it’s important to get it right. I really value longevity and low turnover. It’s a lot of work to be hiring all the time, and it slows the whole train down.”
Asking about a potential employee’s professional goals can offer insight into whether or not they’re keen to stick around. “I ask, ‘What do you want to be doing in three to five years?’ If they’re like, ‘I want to be living in Japan,’ that’s awesome, but I am not in Japan,” says Bellizaire. “I’m not trying to take away anyone’s dream, but I need to know they’re committed to the long haul. There’s a lot of vulnerability for business owners in bringing a new person on— we’re sharing our business practices, client list and financials with this person. I want my staff to be as committed to me as I am to them, I’m looking for an indication that they are in it to win it when I’m interviewing. It’s kind of like agreeing to marry someone after one date, so you have to watch out for red flags.”
To help make sure he is getting it right, Hughes will often get second and third opinions on a potential hire, asking other employees—even those who might be junior to the incoming candidate—to meet with their potential new colleague. Sometimes, he’s even sought the opinion of his peers, showing them resumes and discussing his impressions of candidates to help him find the best fit. In an effort to assess how a new hire will fit in, Rosenfeld has applicants come in for an informal interview with the entire staff before meeting with anyone individually. “I don’t like it to feel formal; it’s more of a meet and greet,” she says. “Most of the people I’m bringing on are going to be working more directly with the rest of my team than with me, so it matters how they get along. But I never want it to be stressful—it’s much more about getting a sense of, ‘Who are you, and why do you want to be here?’”
Hiring for interior design positions presents the added element of making sure that the people you hire have a design aesthetic that aligns with your brand. While recent design school graduates often have an advantage because their sense of style can still be molded, most designers agree that it’s crucial to hire someone with a sensibility that matches their own. “If someone can’t say why they like my work, that’s an issue,” says Rosenfeld. “You’re working under a principal with a branded aesthetic— you’re not a hairstylist renting a chair in my shop, developing your own signature style. Everything has to be consistent, and they all have to be decisions that I would authorize. Anyone working for me needs to share and appreciate my style.”
One of the challenges of hiring is discerning what remains unknown about a candidate. How much of a hand did they have in the work from their portfolio? How quickly can they produce high-caliber work? How open are they to feedback about their designs? Klaus Baer, the co-founder of Jackson, Wyoming–based WRJ Interior Design, has taken a more standardized approach to the interview process, developing a test for design candidates to get answers to all those questions. The firm has grown in recent years to employ about two dozen, with at least half of those positions dedicated to interior design work. Three years ago, Baer noticed several new hires who didn’t seem to have as much experience as their resumes had intimated and who struggled once they were on the job. “I felt like we needed to find a way to really focus in on the technical aspects, which can all be very difficult to ascertain from resumes or even from portfolio work,” says Baer. “It’s really hard to see how that person is going to work in real time.”
Baer came up with an assessment for applicants at the junior and senior designer level. “It takes about eight hours—it’s literally a full day of work that we give them,” he says. “We’ve pulled blank plans from a random project, and then we give that to the person with a set of instructions, asking them to work through some standard design exercises with floor plans and draw some elevations.” The final, more open-ended assignment is to put together an aesthetically driven furniture presentation. “We don’t give them a template for that. We leave it up to them,” says Baer. “It gives you phenomenal insight into how someone’s brain works, what their design aesthetic looks like and the direction they might go in.”
At the end of the day, the candidate presents their work to the leaders of the firm’s design team. “We’ve had some candidates take the assessment and present really glitzy, slick designs, and we’re like, ‘Did you even look at our website? That’s so not our style,’” says Baer. Candidate responses to being asked to complete the test have also been revealing. A few years ago, an applicant decried the exercise as unreasonable, claiming it to be several days of work. “It gave us an insight into how that person handled stressful situations,” says Baer, who notes that many candidates have completed the assessment in the allotted time with impressive results. “This has absolutely changed the game for us and how we measure and evaluate people who might be interested in coming to work with us.”
How to Onboard New Hires
Once you take the leap and make a job offer, the final hurdle is setting up that new employee to quickly become a contributing member of the team. Some designers prefer a formal onboarding process, complete with procedures and timelines; others let the newbie hit the ground running. “I think experience is the best teacher,” says Gray, who prefers the latter approach. “I like to think I hire really smart people, so I don’t micromanage them. I allow the team members to start their work and get some experience, and then I’m there as support for any questions that come up.”
Rosenfeld also prefers to have new employees jump straight into the deep end after a few days of shadowing and technical training on the firm’s internal software. “It’s a little awkward for the first few weeks, but I still believe that trial by fire is the only way to do it,” she says. “I’m not interested in spoon-feeding people. You have to learn how to fend for yourself and survive, or you’re not going to make it here.”
Hughes used to do things that way as well, in part because that’s all he knew in his own career working for other firms. “It was always very much: ‘Here’s your desk, we have a client meeting in two hours— see you later,’” he says. “Over time, I realized that wasn’t the best way to do it for my business.” Now, he makes an effort to personalize an employee’s arrival, leaving flowers on their desk and having them meet individually with the rest of the team throughout their first week to get them up to speed on all existing projects—even those they may not be working on directly. “I want them to know what’s happening not just today, but next month,” he says. “I’ve found that it helps them to learn our language and lingo, and get a sense of our banter as well as the speed that we work at. It lets them see the big picture, which is great, because I want people to want to stay here for a long time.”
Homepage image: In a kitchen designed by Katie Rosenfeld, brass and copper details glisten against a clean backdrop of white cabinetry and subway tile. When it comes to hiring, Rosenfeld prefers informal interviews where her entire team is present to ensure the new person would vibe well with the existing staff. | William Abranowicz