A cohesive culture

Dec 04, 2022

Creating an engaging culture across multiple offices is a challenge that requires constant diligence.

It’s challenging to build a cohesive and engaging culture, especially if your firm has multiple offices, multiple disciplines, field staff, or hybrid/work-from-home staff. In the case of BL Companies, we have all of the above. As an employee-owned firm, culture and engagement have always been a top priority, and we pride ourselves on the great culture we’ve built. That being said, culture and engagement are consistent challenges that require constant diligence.

So how do you take so many disparate groups and create an engaging culture that works for everyone? And how do you maintain a great culture once you’ve built one? After more than a decade of employee-ownership, BL has some lessons learned that can help any firm build and maintain an engaging culture.

  1. Start by understanding what a good and engaging culture actually means. It isn’t just about offering pizza parties and fun – it’s about respect, support, and connection. Fun is a bonus, not a cornerstone of good culture. No one stays at a firm because they have a ping pong table in the break room, just like no one leaves a firm because they don’t. People stay at firms where they are valued, listened to, and supported. They leave firms that undervalue or under compensate them, refuse to address problems or change, and leave employees to fend for themselves.
  2. While good culture is built on things like respect and support, fun events can still be a way to cultivate a better culture, as long as the fun is genuinely impactful. There should be a tangible benefit employees get by participating, as well as a tangible benefit the firm gets by hosting. At BL, our fun events usually come with some sort of prize for participants, so there’s a direct reward for employees who step up and get engaged. Our fun events are also centered around mixing up our teams, so participants build new relationships with people they don’t know and deepen relationships with people they do. Participants get a prize and can make some new work friends. The firm gets a strengthened, more connected workforce. Win-win.
  3. Keep engagement activities accessible, quick, and voluntary. Things like team-building activities are great for building strong relationships, but you’ll push people away if you don’t approach them thoughtfully. For example, if your team is slammed with deadlines a four-hour mandatory team-building retreat will only build resentment, not engagement (yes, even if it’s really fun). Likewise, if you’re trying to engage across offices, you need to find something that works in a virtual environment, not just in-person.
  4. Have consistent cultural messaging. At BL, being an employee-owned firm is very important to us and we say as much. Our culture and values are clear, consistent, and followed-through. This is especially important when onboarding new staff. For example, at BL we value and protect people who provide feedback. If there’s an issue with a team member or with a firm policy or process, we want our team to feel comfortable sharing that. It’s something that our current employees value and it makes our team feel heard and supported – it’s a great asset to our culture. But that ceases to be an asset if new employees or offices don’t know about it. If new team members assume feedback isn’t wanted or appreciated, they’ll feel unsupported and our firm misses out on a chance to improve.
  5. Don’t be afraid to think big. The decision to become a 100 percent employee-owned firm was a big one, but it is also one of the biggest assets to our culture. Not only does it offer a financial incentive regarding the employee stock ownership plan, but it informs our culture and philosophy. We’re all employee-owners, so we all have an impact on the direction and success of the firm, and as such we prioritize things like benefits, professional development, and wellness. Your firm doesn’t necessarily need to be an ESOP to make a big change, but there could be opportunities you’re missing because they seem too big.
  6. Embrace change and feedback. Your firm won’t always have the same leaders, staff, or culture. What worked one year might not work the next. That’s why it’s so important to listen to your employees on what they value. BL sends out a survey to our employees every year, where we collect feedback and find out what people appreciate and where we need to improve. That feedback helps inform our strategy and goals for next year, both in terms of our business and in terms of our culture. Without that direct feedback, your firm won’t know what issues need attention, and if you are resistant to change, your firm won’t be able to properly address those cultural issues, even if you know what they are.

Julia DeFrances is a senior marketing coordinator at BL Companies, Inc. She can be reached at jdefrances@blcompanies.com.

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Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.