A/E Firms Grappling with Strategies for Growth, Employee Satisfaction

by | Mar 22, 2021 | architects and engineers, Important, News


As executives at design firms throughout the U.S. formulate their business plans for the remainder of 2021 and beyond, many face challenges with work arrangements and employee satisfaction, along with longstanding headwinds in competition for projects and talent.

Earlier this month, Ames & Gough surveyed executives at 50 design firms of all sizes to gain insights on their critical management and employee concerns. With respect to management issues, half of those surveyed had significant concerns about increased competition, recruiting new talent, as well as identifying and capitalizing on new revenue streams.

What we gleaned from the survey responses, in terms of navigating the competitive environment design firms should emphasize attributes that distinguish themselves from peers, such as investment in technology to drive efficiencies and enable them to stay on budget and meet compressed time requirements. Given a shortage of talent, design firms may need to revisit their recruitment efforts, for instance, by emphasizing what makes them stand out from competitors, being more creative with the interview process, and highlighting their culture and any special perks they offer.

Meanwhile, as their firms emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, many design firm leaders are still wrestling with issues surrounding working environments and employee satisfaction. Notably, 62 percent of those surveyed are keenly aware of employee satisfaction and mental health, making human resource issues their biggest overall challenge. Similarly, 59 percent expressed concern about fostering a healthy work environment and half cited the impact of working in a virtual environment and its effect on their ability to collaborate on projects.

Many design firms are revisiting their employee benefits package in their quest to attract and retain talent – at least within certain limits, as 44 percent cited concerns about healthcare costs and expanded benefits. Even so, there are many areas where firms are working to protect the health and wellbeing of employees.  

Among the steps firms are taking to enhance employee work experiences are promoting healthy lifestyles, regularly assessing workloads, encouraging regular breaks and celebrating personal and work milestones. Specifically, 42 percent provide flexible work environments, such as teleworking. Roughly the same percentage are expanding employee engagement, including through more proactive communications such as frequent colleague online meetings, employee lunches, virtual birthday celebrations or greetings, and where permissible, informal get-togethers.

Even in these times, only 21 percent expressed specific concerns about employee attrition rates, which may indicate that design firms have a sufficient backlog to keep employees busy.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, despite the widely reported spike in cyber-related incidents affecting all businesses during the pandemic, only 36 percent of those surveyed have heightened concerns over the threat of cyber-attacks and their firm’s vulnerability to them. With cyber-attacks becoming more widespread and sophisticated design firms shouldn’t overlook these serious threats.

As the findings of this brief survey indicate, the operating environment for design firms this year is increasingly complex. As leaders face challenging near-term and longer-range decisions about their firm’s growth, direction and market positioning, they also need to stay focused on employee concerns, evolving work arrangements and emerging risk issues. For assistance with all aspects of your firm’s risk management and insurance program, please contact your Ames & Gough client executive.