Change with the times

Mar 09, 2020

Many firms still cling to old-school attitudes and business practices that chase away top performing employees looking for a more future-friendly place to grow their careers.

Today’s AEC firms are facing the biggest talent shortage in history. Record low unemployment and competition for top talent is forcing firms to offer higher salaries and become more creative with benefits, work-life balance, and culture.

On top of the talent shortage, the workforce is changing. But many firms are still clinging on to old-school attitudes and business practices that not only dissuade potential employees from coming on board but chase away top performing employees who are looking for a more future-friendly place to grow their careers. So, who is winning this fight?

Does your firm “get it?” While some leaders are entrenched in maintaining the traditions of the past, wishing the world was still the way it was when they came up through the ranks, others are embracing new hiring and business practices that are more in line with today’s younger employees. And it is not just the employees who are changing – times are very different now and employees, and clients, want to work for a firm that “gets it.”

The face of the workforce is changing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, millennials are the largest segment in the workplace. Within the next two years, 50 percent of the U.S. workforce is expected to be made up of millennials. It will be 75 percent by 2030.

Gallup reports that “millennials are pushing for change in the world – including in the marketplace and the workplace. They don’t accept ‘that’s the way it has always been done’ as a viable answer. They want to be free of old workplace policies and performance management standards, and they expect leaders and managers to adapt accordingly.”

The next generation to follow them, Gen Z, grew up with a digital device in their hands and is just entering the workforce. How are you preparing your firm for this new generation that has very different attitudes, expectations, and technical skills?

And to complicate the picture in the next few years, ACEC Engineering, Inc. magazine, July/August 2018 edition reports that 50 percent of all experienced engineers will retire in the next three years.

In order to accommodate the changing workforce expectations and prepare for the future, many AEC firms are moving away from old-school business practices and building a firm culture that is more progressive, modern, and relevant to attract today’s younger architects and engineers.

How to make your firm relevant. Here are 10 transitions every firm can make to become more relevant for potential employees and clients, and prepare for the future:

  1. Focus on your mission. Young people today want to have a purpose. They see what is happening in the world and they are scared that they won’t have as bright a future as their parents. They want to feel that they are connected to a greater cause and not just the rat race of going to work every day and working toward a retirement in 30-40 years. Being clear about your company’s “why” for existing – whether it is to design better communities, improve the environment, or help people enjoy better healthcare – being clear on your mission and how you accomplish it with the work you do is critical to engaging their hearts as well as their minds.
  2. Embrace sustainability. Whether it is plastic creating miles of trash in the oceans, birds dying from straws, or companies that create more waste than they do value, the younger generations care about where the products they use come from and how they are made. They are very focused on the future of our planet and its limited resources. This affects their purchases as well as the companies they choose to work for. Ensure your company has a position on the environment and doing business in a sustainable way. As designers and builders of the future, today’s young architects and engineers want to ensure the projects they work on are good for the planet.
  3. Ditch the corporate ladder. Those of us who have been in the industry for more than 15 years had to work our way up the ladder to attain career success. This type of career path does not appeal to young people today. They want the opportunity to grow quickly depending on their contribution and skill set. This means that today’s firms should look at how to enable faster growth in the company based on capability rather than tenure.
  4. Listen to the young folks. They have great ideas but are not often asked for feedback or ideas for improvement. Stop making decisions behind the doors of the ivory tower and bring the young people to the table. They will be happy to tell you where outdated (or nonexistent) processes, inefficient systems, and lack of training are affecting their productivity and performance. You might also be surprised at the different way they look at the world and can help bridge the gap with the growing number of millennial clients you are now starting to work for.
  5. Encourage diversity. Employees and clients want to see themselves fitting into your firm. Make sure your leadership page reflects the diversity of employees you are looking to hire and the way your clients look today.
  6. Update technology. Employees are increasingly frustrated with the level of technology at work. Many state that their tech at home is actually better than it is at work. Outdated software, slow performance, lack of training, and non-integrated systems top the list of complaints that employees have about their workplace technology. To ensure your employees are productive and not frustrated on a daily basis with your computers and software applications, ensure that systems are reviewed annually, and a future-focused strategy is developed to reduce integration and compatibility problems.
  7. Give tons of feedback and recognition. Employees today value frequent and consistent feedback and want to feel valued and trusted. As children, they got feedback from parents, coaches, and teachers frequently. Annual reviews are not sufficient and let’s admit it – no one likes them – even the managers who have to fill them out once a year. To keep employees engaged and happy, update your performance management practices to include clear goals, regular feedback, and recognition when deserved.
  8. Become transparent. Most firms have hopped on the transparency bandwagon but there are still a third of all firms that are not sharing enough information with their employees. It is more common to see 100 percent employee-owned firms offer full financial transparency and it pays off. Studies show that firms with full transparency have more engaged employees and higher profits. Transparency includes sharing company strategic plans, regular financial performance, and in some cases, open sharing of bonus plans and profit-sharing numbers.
  9. Let them work at home. Outside of the AEC industry, the majority of corporations are letting employees work at home several days a week. The benefits often outweigh the negatives – with studies showing that employees are often more productive at home without the long commutes and distractions from co-workers in the office. Another advantage is the ability to hire people that are not close to any of your offices. With the tight market for talented AEC professionals, finding workers in remote locations can be a competitive advantage.
  10. Tie company profits to the mission. We have now come full circle – back to the mission. I often hear the assumption that talking about profits is not acceptable anymore. Leaders often believe that with the strong focus on the mission, many younger workers don’t have an ear for business talk. The problem is how you are framing the business conversation. By tying company profits back to achieving the mission, you can create a clear connection between the focus on giving back – and how you are going to pay for it. Once employees see that it takes money to make the world a better place, they will admire your firm’s diligence toward financial responsibility and be proud to work for a financially successful firm. They will also enjoy the financial benefit they realize personally as well.

Being relevant today is not an option. The war for talent and the changing face of your clients is making it critical to rethink the “way you have always done it.” Be willing to question all your business practices and give up the traditional practices of the past. Ask your employees how you can be better and let them help you implement change. You will see your profits increase and your employees will want to stay where they are appreciated, and their ideas are valued.

June Jewell is the author of the book Find the Lost Dollars: 6 Steps to Increase Profits in Architecture, Engineering and Environmental Firms. She is the president of AEC Business, helping progressive AEC firm leaders increase project profits and improve employee and client retention. Connect with her on LinkedIn and learn more about how to improve your project financial performance at

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About Zweig Group

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.