September 15, 2023Design Firm Organizational Models and Their Role in Workplace Satisfaction
The May 2023 edition of our AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee conversation series, “Advocacy and Agency in Architecture,” was titled Organizational Models – Acceleration in Practice. The goal of the evening was to highlight the organizational models that help guide the architecture and engineering practices of four different firms. Each of these firms’ business models prioritizes an abiding sense of respect and trust, along with an open acknowledgement of employees’ need for work-life balance.
The purpose of the panel was to discuss how we design organizations so that people’s work reflects the modus operandi of the firm, with a specific focus on the interplay between an organization’s structure and the work that its practitioners get to do, including the design solutions they produce. We asked whether more progressive business models change a practitioner’s experience and commitment to do their best work. Melissa Marsh, PLASTARC founder and co-founder of AIANY’s Social Science and Architecture Committee, moderated the four-person panel of design professionals, who addressed these questions by reflecting on the organizational models that shape their practices.
Diana Ostberg, COO of Saam Architecture, a 15-year-old WBE based in Boston, shared some of the innovative methods that Saam has implemented within the framework of a traditional ownership structure. Most importantly, she emphasized Saam’s “flat hierarchy” and how its radical transparency and flexibility help to shape its work culture. Employees have the choice to work remotely or in person, and they also have the ability to flexibly plan their schedules, so long as they remain accountable to their clients and colleagues. The availability of unlimited PTO, she noted, has not led to abuse of the policy. Furthermore, every employee is able to take advantage of their principals’ accessibility by meeting with them on a regular basis.
Ostberg also noted that the acceptability of working remotely has allowed Saam to expand geographically and attract employees from across the country. While redefining the physical office has led to less in-person collaboration, the firm has implemented new programs—such as peer groups, quarterly in-person meetings, and firm-supported dinners—that serve to foster connection. This employee-sensitive organizational structure has resulted in a 91% retention rate, and the Saam CO2 emissions footprint has been greatly reduced by hybrid work opportunities.
Danile DeBoo, Director and Educational Leader for DLR Group, pointed out that DLR’s organizational structure is rooted in its Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP). She shares the firm’s philosophy that when you own a firm, you buy into its thinking. She argued that DLR is an overarching business, which is organized as an ESOP and happens to oversee a design firm. Both the business and the design firm aspire to elevate the human experience through design, and the overall business priority is to “focus on how to make things better.”
Founded in 1966, DLR currently has 30 compact offices in the United States. As such, the company represents itself as a small firm with a big footprint that can influence policies happening across the US. DeBoo also shared that no employee owns more than 3% of the firm, which ensures the existence of a level playing field. Moreover, every five years the firm hosts a planning exercise that attracts 100% participation—an impressive figure for a company with more than 1,400 employee-owners. The firm’s equitable philosophy and commitment to improving the world is also manifested in its community impact: DLR donated over $1.6 million in fiscal year 2022 and logged over 3,000 hours of volunteer hours in 2022. These contributions came about as a result of decisions made by employee-owners in the spirit of teamwork
Paul Sanderson, Director of New York Operations for Epstein, spoke about the evolution of the firm’s organizational structure and culture. Though Epstein was originally a family business that was passed down from father to sons, it is now also 100% employee-owned, with an ESOP organizational model similar to DLR’s. As employee-owners, each practitioner at the firm tries to address their client’s needs with the question, “what does the owner need for this project to be successful?” The goal is to align the client’s needs with those of all participants and stakeholders in order to create a more holistic solution. Additionally, Epstein nurtures a mentoring environment in which colleagues support one another. This serves to enable each employee-owner to follow a personal learning path that they can pave for themselves. Epstein’s inclusive and cohesive project solutions aptly reflect its culture of cooperative and supportive learning.
Victoria Cerami offered a very different perspective. Although she served as Chief Executive Officer of Cerami & Associates for 37 years, she has segued into a new venture—a social enterprise start-up called NextCube—that she hopes will nurture “active caring.” While at the firm she inherited from her father, Cerami spent much of her time building and cultivating client relationships. She also helped staff members become technical experts and thought leaders in acoustical and audiovisual consulting, along with a suite of IT and security services. Her modus operandi was to chase people and tend to them, without chasing money—a more humanistic approach to client relations.
Since the start of her career, Cerami had noticed that people frequently gave her help without an expectation that she would ever reciprocate. This realization led her to recognize that the act of helping others can evoke a personal sense of joy. It occurred to her that such “micro-exchanges” exemplify what she has come to call “active caring.” While employee engagement implies the existence of a hierarchy, active caring presents a different kind of tool for interpersonal connection. NextCube aims to further the belief that “active caring” can be foundationally built into a business model if its owners proactively choose to adopt its precepts. Toward this end, NextCube is creating a new certification category, called HUMANKIND Certification, that works much like the sustainability certifications offered by LEED. According to Cerami, “becoming a certified HUMANKIND company” is a way to “normalize active caring” in the workplace and make it a “place where people want to come to work.”
After presenting individually, the panelists took part in a discussion that was moderated by Marsh. The conversation, which orbited around business structures and approaches to employee accommodation, shed light on a shared ethos amongst the panelists’ respective firms. All three resoundingly agreed that inviting workplaces must cultivate trust, flexibility, human kindness, transparency, sharing across distances, mentorship, and connection.
Sanderson noted that while an ESOP business structure often embraces many of these workplace priorities, a sense of trust on its own doesn’t necessarily result in a fully transparent organization. DeBoo agreed with this statement, but noted that trust is the cornerstone of DLR’s ESOP structure. When employees are also the owners, she asserted, they are expected to collectively determine their organization’s direction, and they therefore must trust one another to succeed. Ostberg added that at traditionally-structured firms like Saam, an inviting workplace can only exist when leadership first openly espouses its foundational priorities. As firms continue evolving, it’s possible that progressive organizational structures such as employee ownership will only represent a component of their evolution. Perhaps future firms will also adopt philosophies of pervasive kindness and proudly bear a HUMANKIND certification, or ones like it, such as the B Corp Certification.
Event attendees were surveyed afterwards, and the response was largely positive. Some suggestions for future events included a greater focus on research, along with a panel exploring organizational models for engagement with consultants and contractors. The AIANY Social Science + Architecture Committee welcomes all input for future events.
Want to Join the Conversation?
The AIANY Social Science and Architecture Committee meets monthly. Meetings are open to the public and typically occur at 8:30 am on the last Thursday of each month.
Thanks again to our panelists:
Diana Ostberg, COO, Saam Architecture
Victoria Cerami, Founder NextCube, CEO Emeritus Cerami Associates and Angel Investor
Paul Sanderson, AIA, Vice President, Director of New York Operations, EPSTEIN
Danile DeBoo, Northeast Region Higher Education Sector Leader, DLR Group
Melissa Marsh, Assoc. AIA, Founder, PLASTARC