Keep morale high and attrition low with these simple strategies for a happy staff.
Whether you have a team of three or 30, chances are you have employees you really, really don’t want to lose. If you’re lucky, it’s all of them. But retaining a great staff can be a delicate art. You have to reward your superstars without spoiling them, praise without playing favorites and make sure you still have the leverage to push employees to do their best work. Here, seven designers share their best tips on the care and maintenance of a fantastic staff.
Fools Rush In
It’s a mistake to offer praise or critique before you understand a situation completely, says Florida designer Marc Thee. “You’ll walk into something your staff has done, and you can end up unintentionally doing a lot of damage by offering feedback before you know what happened,” he says. “Sometimes people take credit for things that others did. Sometimes there are issues beyond anyone’s control. In front of a large group, it might be insensitive to praise a designer or team on a recent achievement without first checking with leadership to understand if others have recently had similar achievements. Over the years I’ve really learned to slow down, take my time and hold back my thoughts until I have a complete picture. Asking the right questions before formulating an opinion proves again and again that partial understanding can really be far from reality.”
Often principals know, deep down, when an employee is eyeing the door. But sometimes—whether it’s an aversion to conflict, or sheer busyness—they wait until it’s too late to do anything about it. In other cases, eager-to-please employees say that everything is great—until it all falls apart. In either case, the key is being proactive. “I’ve had a situation where an employee left, and when we sat down to talk about why, it was all things that we could have worked on,” says Elizabeth Graziolo of New York– and Miami-based firm Yellow House Architects. “Ever since then, I’ve always tried to make time to check in to see how everyone is doing, and if I feel something might be going on, I try to bring it up first. It’s also really important to have a culture where employees feel they can be honest and open. That’s something you really have to work to create; it doesn’t just happen.”
Spread the Love
Admit it: You have a favorite. It’s natural, of course, for principals to connect more deeply with some staff members than others, and for star performers to get the spotlight. But to keep your team a team, it’s important to make sure that each person is recognized for their work. “Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses. Everyone has different skill sets—if you’re working here, you’re a rock star in a certain arena, and I make sure my team knows that,” says Chanae Richards of Philadelphia-based firm Ọlọrọ Interiors. “I’ve tried to strike a balance of not playing favorites by treating everyone as my favorite.”
It’s easy to get stuck thinking about staff salary increases in rigid, step-by-step terms. Graziolo did this until she realized that there were a few outperforming young members on her team, and if they left, she’d have to pay much more. “When I was doing their reviews, I thought: If I were to hire somebody at their level, I’d have to be really competitive with another firm. So instead of [an incremental raise], I’ll just bring their salaries up to their levels.” In other words, when you’re looking at compensation, don’t focus on what the employee is “supposed” to be earning. Think about what you’d have to pay—and the hassle you’d have to go through—to replace them.
It can be difficult to shed the mindset that employees should want to stay on because of personal loyalty. But seeing the situation through their eyes is crucial, says New York designer Wesley Moon—from the salary to the day-to-day experience of clocking in. “Great employees have options. I have to pay as well or better than other firms; otherwise, they could simply go some place else,” he says. “And while there might be a big firm that can pay a little more, it’s not always the most fun, [so I do my best to] make sure that this is an enjoyable, empathetic place to work.” That goes from the big picture down to the small details: “I thank everyone at the end of the day for coming in—a small thing, but I really do feel grateful to them, and I think they appreciate that I let them know,” adds Moon.
A good salary is a reliable way to keep a good employee, but money isn’t the only motivator. “What people often really want is flexibility around when and where they can work,” says Thee, echoing a common sentiment. Truly engaging work is also an absolute must. “That’s the thing that will really keep creative people with you,” says Roman Alonso of Los Angeles firm Commune. “It’s not always the easiest to do, though—that’s why we’ve deliberately kept our firm small, so we don’t have to take on uninteresting projects just to feed the beast. We also don’t silo anyone, so everyone is rotating a lot and learning from each other and constantly doing new things.”
If your firm is doing well financially, it’s a great idea to give employees a bonus. But how you distribute bonuses can be just as impactful as how many zeros are on the check. Ellie Cullman of New York firm Cullman & Kravis says she makes it a point to hand out bonuses equally across the team. “You could be lucky as a project manager and get a client who’s the big spender. Another project manager could work just as hard but the client ends up pulling back—and that’s just bad luck,” she says. “We reward the dedication and the effort, not the dollar number.”
Designer firms will probably never be able to compete with tech companies for extravagant employee perks, but savvy principals will reward their team members in ways that are much more meaningful than offering up kombucha on tap. Moon, for example, invites five-year veterans of his firm to come along for Paris Design Week. Lighting designer Lindsey Adelman has a program in her studio whereby employees are given a week’s paid leave and a stipend to take a trip and explore a hands-on passion—whether it’s working with neon in Iceland or making a surfboard in Spain. When they get back, they give a presentation to the full staff. “Everyone looks forward to it, and as an employee, a natural richness is deepened throughout our studio community in an authentic way,” says Adelman. “Plus, we all get to understand so much more about
Homepage image: Shapely furnishings belie the casual, comfortable nature of a Manhattan family room by Wesley Moon | Pernille Loof