Creating a team-oriented environment

Aug 22, 2021

By focusing on teams, you could deepen employee engagement, enhance communication, and improved your firm’s agility.

In 2012, Neumann Monson Architects began transitioning from a founder-led to a purpose-led culture. With this change, we overhauled our organizational model and created an agile, team-oriented environment. Rather than separate principal-led teams, we used resource planning software to build project teams around individual strengths.

As we established crucial initiatives, another layer of teams emerged: Design quality, quality assurance, sustainability, and client experience. Each team became an opportunity for staff to engage in leading and managing our practice while involving themselves in all our project work.

This approach produced remarkable results. Today, most of the staff are engaged in at least one of these teams, as well as their own projects. The overlap between these teams and the project teams creates a cross-weave of communication, enhancing the quality of our work. Since adopting this approach, we have increased employee engagement and elevated our position in the industry in terms of design excellence and client experience. These results, however, developed after years of incremental change and experimentation. We learned that transitioning to a team-oriented environment takes time and patience.

Listening to our team. Before 2012, our firm looked much different. We divided our team into six separate studios that rarely interacted; the principals oversaw day-to-day decision-making and client relationships, leaving the staff with a limited perspective. Our new structure evolved gradually after our 2012 retreat. The staff planned and organized the event, providing a decisive opportunity to elevate their voice. At the retreat, the staff called for an increased focus on design excellence. The principals, however, wanted to increase the staff’s engagement with clients.

Although changes were not immediate, the retreat resulted in two major steps that furthered the staff and principals’ goals. First, we used resource planning software to organize teams around individual strengths and deepen the staff’s involvement with each project. Second, we began our design quality initiative.

Finding a new structure. Initially, the design quality initiative consisted of two principals reviewing projects and leading critiques. Although it may seem hard to believe, this was the first time we started a formal firm-wide process for reviewing our work. Implementation was disruptive at first. The project reviews slowed our internal processes, frustrating both clients and staff members. We shared the staff’s interest in design excellence and continued refining and developing our system. As we evolved, we invited staff to the team, which set the stage for the design quality team, now a staff-led initiative.

Other initiatives evolved alongside design quality. Good design relies on good documents, so we helped seasoned staff form the quality assurance team. This team sets standards for construction documents and design specifications and reviews all projects before groundbreaking. Our preexisting sustainability initiative gained new momentum as other teams emerged with a newfound level of empowerment.

Lastly, our client experience team evolved through an internal culture of feedback. In addition to rethinking our management structure, we implemented a new system for employee reviews. Rather than annual top-down reviews, we began 360-peer-reviews where everyone receives feedback from the principals, as well as a cross-section of their peers. The success of this system inspired us to increase our level of client feedback. We utilized the Client Feedback Tool, which tracks stakeholder expectations throughout a project’s lifecycle, and created a team to oversee its use.

Providing leadership. Our initiatives and staff-led teams developed over time. With each team, the principals were heavily involved in the early stages to provide crucial leadership until the teams could operate with minimal oversight. Our 360-reviews also facilitated the process. By receiving feedback from a group of their peers, the team became more coachable and learned how to work together. Today, our firm sustains a non-hierarchal culture amid the necessary hierarchy, and each team continuously seeks new learning opportunities that evolve our firm with the industry.

By creating a team-oriented structure, we deepened employee engagement, enhanced our communication, and improved our agility. These changes occurred over a decade, demonstrating that change is not immediate. In his 1996 book Leading Change, John P. Kotter argues that transformation is a process – not an event. Our story is proof.

Tim Schroeder, AIA CDT LEED AP is president with Neumann Monson Architects. Contact him at

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