Making your firm a better place to work

Oct 16, 2022

Four things you can do to build the kind of workplace over time that good people want to stay in.

There’s been a real focus on people in our business – one that isn’t going away. We have all heard about the “great resignation” and how people can “quit in place.” When those things happen it costs us – as business owners – dearly. Productivity and quality decrease, morale gets worse, and it makes it harder to hire and keep good people.

So what can we really do about it? There is only so much we can afford to pay our people and only so many titles we can give out before everyone in the business is either a “vice president” or “senior (something).” Besides that, those things usually only have a very temporary effect. There are other, more important things we can do that not only don’t cost us as much, but that work better in terms of building the kind of workplace over time that good people want to work in.

Here are my thoughts on four of those:

  1. Show a genuine interest in your people and follow up. What I mean by this is that you and your managers need to talk to the people who work for you and actually listen to what they are telling you. That means you probe and ask more questions when you hear someone’s daughter is sick or that their vacation house got broken into. And then you follow up a few days or weeks later to check back in on them to see what is happening. Put your phone down, look at the person you are speaking with, and listen to what they are telling you. If there is anything you or the company can do to help them, offer it. Show a real interest.
  2. Provide less evaluation and instead give more help. We had a discussion recently at a company we work with where I am an advisor to their board of directors. They were discussing how they wanted their performance review process to be more positive. None of the managers enjoyed it, and they felt their employees didn’t either. I suggested that instead of rating and criticizing how someone is doing, they would be better served to instead focus on how they can help the person. What are the impediments to them doing their best job? What demotivates or discourages them at work? How can management help them more? Where do they see themselves in five or 10 years? What roadblocks do they perceive that could keep them from accomplishing that? It’s these kinds of questions and follow-ups that create a more positive and motivational experience for the individuals who work at the company, and that makes them happier workers. It really only became clear to me as a teacher that this has become more of my orientation in the last few years and one I plan on sticking with. My emphasis is not on grading, as it is for many teachers, but rather on teaching and helping. So I don’t give tests that involve recall of information, and instead only have people write papers and do projects and presentations – and I spend more time than ever in one-on-ones with my students.
  3. More flexibility versus hard and fast rules. If there has ever been a time to be more flexible instead of having unbendable rules, it is now. The best example of this is whether or not you will allow people to work from home. If the pandemic taught us anything at all, it was that not everyone has to be in the office all day, every day. I’m not saying there aren’t many positives associated with that if we can get our people to do it, but it is not the only way everyone works best. And demanding everyone be there may cost you some good people who have reoriented their entire lives around not having to go in every day. This is just one example. There are many other rules one could be flexible on, such as how people can decorate their own workspaces, when they have to arrive by, whether or not they are allowed to bring their dogs to the office, and more. Those readers who knew me 30 years ago know I used to be a hard-liner on certain rules. I am much less so now because I have learned that isn’t the best way to create a healthy and positive work environment.
  4. Less division/more focus on the whole. This is something that makes some principals of AEC firms very uncomfortable. They think that we have to do P&Ls on every office or department in the firm and share all of this information – or that we have to pay our bonuses based solely on individual performance – all in the name of “accountability.” While I won’t argue that doing so will make people more accountable, it will also create unhealthy competition and elicit behaviors that can be counter to what should be one of your top priorities as a business owner, i.e., creating a growing and profitable company in its totality. The best way to do that is not always breaking the business into parts that compete with each other for resources and don’t cooperate and/or help each other. We all know that there are cycles to individual disciplines and geographies that mean there will be times one service line or market is hot and others may not be. Yet, they are all necessary to providing a complete service to our clients and to accomplishing our longer term goals. So reinforce that idea versus making yours a culture of “eat what you kill and don’t share any of it.” It will make your business a better workplace and you will get better long-term results.

None of these things are easy, mostly because they will force you and your managers to unlearn some of what you could consider cornerstones of “good management practice.” But we live in a rapidly changing world and have to recognize that and act accordingly, or we will find we are plagued with high staff turnover and lower productivity than we used to have.  

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him 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.