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Architecture & Engineering Firms

Energizing Firm Culture in a Virtual World

Posted on May 11, 2021 by

Kevin Johns

Kevin Johns

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Maintaining a magnetic culture in an architecture or engineering firm is tough enough in normal times, but in today’s virtual environment it’s even harder to keep team members fully engaged. Here are some tips owners can use to deal with this challenge, along with some context to help tailor your approach.

Working remotely or not, people are a crucial part of your competitive edge

When choosing your firm, clients are putting their business reputation on the line. To minimize risk, they need assurance that your professional problem solvers will not only deliver a high-quality job, but also stick with them from start to finish.

Retaining a market-leading team of architecture and engineering experts comes with a vexing mix of variables.

  1. When it comes to culture, job satisfaction and engagement are not the same thing
  2. Culture isn’t a one and done proposition – not all employees will respond the same way
  3. Your results hang as much on the skill of your line managers as on your programs

When it comes to virtual culture, job satisfaction is not the same as engagement

Job satisfaction is about basic working conditions. These are things such as a comfortable office or a competitive compensation package. Engagement is what it takes to get people to invest discretionary effort in the success of the firm. Getting from job satisfaction to engagement demands work that provides meaning, a sense of connection and assurance that one’s individual contribution has a real impact on the team.

When people work remotely for any length of time, it’s still relatively simple to protect job satisfaction. Engagement, on the other hand, demands direct and consistent leadership intervention. In virtual cultures, your team’s sense of meaning, connection and impact must also be actively reinforced.

Remote work adds a layer of complexity to the existing engagement challenge

As suggested, nurturing a firm identity that promotes engagement is hard enough when everyone shares the same workspace. When you add elements like home distractions, failure-prone virtual meetings and having to wait hours or days for collaborations that would happen spontaneously in the office, you need new tactics to keep the engagement fire lit.

The external trappings of culture and firm identity are important, but different generations or personality types will respond to them in significantly different ways. What fills the tank of one employee might completely drain a colleague sitting a few miles away. Your workforce may consist of introverts, enthusiasts, skeptics and group thinkers – and you need to be able to reach all of them.

Founders and principals can’t drive virtual engagement on their own

Even the best initiatives will only get you halfway to real engagement. Whatever you do, it won’t fully take root in your firm until it becomes an authentic part of the daily conversations that happen peer to peer and between front line staff and their managers. Once you set (and model) the cultural tone, the leaders of your firm have to own the message and help you cascade it.

Train your line managers to adopt these ways of acting and thinking as communicators. When you hear a department head, designer or field superintendent spontaneously share one of your cultural norms with a client or a supplier, you’ll know your culture is coming to life.

Eight tips for energizing remote culture

  1. Make an extra effort to frequently celebrate small business and personal victories on your team. If you have a list of cultural values or beliefs, consider a peer-to-peer nomination system for people who demonstrate one of them on a project. For bigger accomplishments or milestones, you can arrange to have an award or gift dropped off at the recipient’s home while you’re in the presentation meeting with them.
  2. Humans are tribal by nature and biologically wired for stories. If you have message pillars that define your firm identity and culture, consider launching a focused storytelling program and invite everyone in the firm to submit short personal narratives about what a favorite value looks like in action to them. These can be posted in writing or as social-style videos on a company blog or intranet channel. Reward participation.
  3. Vary cultural messaging and socially distanced activities to allow for different personalities. When you ask for virtual meeting participation, give people the option to come on camera or contribute via chat. Also, give the more introverted people on your staff time to absorb content and collect their thoughts. After the “early responders” have blurted out their opinions, invite some of the quieter ones to step in safely.
  4. Get intentional about virtual meeting management practices and make sure that people understand their roles and what they’re expected to contribute before they show up. Try to allow extra time in the meeting for folks to review documents before discussion if you’re unable to distribute them when you publish the agenda. Consider blocking out meeting-free sprint days where people can get a break for focused activity.
  5. Being on camera all day, or even for big parts of the day, can be exhausting. The feeling of being stared at in headshot view takes a mental toll on everyone whether they’re aware of it or not. Consider setting up a light workshop for all of your leaders and meeting facilitators where they can use their knowledge of your people to brainstorm online gathering practices that boost inclusion and relieve stress.
  6. To break up the monotony of virtual work activities, experiment with a remote happy hour. If you want people to prepare themed trivia games, treats, drinks or props, just know that some naturally love doing that and others hate it. For those who don’t like being “joiners” in that way, maybe invite them to serve as a panel of judges and award prizes for as many inclusive categories as you can think of.
  7. A big part of cultural success is the blinding glimpse of the obvious that hits you when you experience another person’s reality for a few minutes. As disconnected as you may feel trying to make yourself heard in virtual gatherings, consider that this is how folks in your remote offices have felt for years. Make it the facilitator’s job to frequently test for connection and make sure that no stakeholder gets shut out of the discussion.
  8. Work relationships can become one-dimensional, even when people occupy a common work area. When we’re separated by blocks or miles or time zones, there’s an even greater danger of seeing one another as roles instead of as people. Remember what a relief movie day used to be in elementary school? Bring that experience to work and set a monthly or quarterly time to let people present something personally meaningful. Who restores vintage cars or musical instruments? Who’s been to an exotic place? Create a protected space in the firm to discover other dimensions of your coworkers.

Contact Us

This is by no means an all-inclusive list of tactics to manage firm culture in a virtual world, but it is a useful thought starter to give you some early wins. We’d love to make this an ongoing conversation with you. If you have an idea or a question to share, we want to engage with you in the comments section or through our contact page. For additional information, or to talk about financial considerations for architecture or engineering firms, contact us to learn more. We look forward to speaking with you soon.

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Kevin Johns


Kevin leads the firm's architecture & engineering group, helping entrepreneurial owners build a better blueprint for growth.

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