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Disrupting the design industry. – Board & Vellum

Firm Culture, The Business of Design

Disrupting the Design Industry with Great Benefits

The architecture and design industry is notorious for high-pressure workplaces that lack great benefits. But it doesn’t have to be that way. At Board & Vellum, we are proving that a design firm can offer great benefits: the numbers pencil out. Now, our goal is to help other firms join us to redefine the design industry.

February 6, 2018

Why the design industry can (and should) offer great benefits.

I want to disrupt what it means to work in a design firm.

That’s a simple sentence, right? I certainly didn’t start out with the goal of Board & Vellum being “disruptive.” I wanted to do some good work, with some good people, and have a good time. Nice and simple. But in the end, that wasn’t enough.

However, what happened (is happening!) at Board & Vellum is far from simple.

It became clear that there’s a tangible benefit to taking the path less traveled when it comes to how we operate and how we structure this firm. Not only do we get to work in an environment where people are pushing themselves professionally to do better work and to serve our clients better, but also — as a business owner — there are all sorts of other benefits to creating a great place to work.

Business owners reap their own benefits by offering a great benefits package:

  • Low Turnover: In fact, turnover at Board & Vellum is basically non-existent, except for people leaving for personal reasons. (For instance, hello, Anne in Arkansas, we miss you.)
  • Low Training Time: Due to that lack of turnover, our time to train new employees is low. Once we get someone trained, they’re up and running and we continue to build our business.
  • High Rate of Referring Work: Almost 70% of our employees (and growing) have referred work to the company and then received a bonus for that referral. The incentive of a bonus certainly doesn’t hurt, but it takes more than that to attain a degree of participation so high. Everyone here feels invested in contributing to this great place to work, and everyone is empowered to be an ambassador for the firm. Those two things make a big impact. Imagine having that many people making it rain. Why do people think that only principals are qualified to do the work of bringing in clients? A happy employee is your best sales tool.
  • Fast Ramp Up Times: A great work environment includes opportunities and challenges, and at Board & Vellum, staff “ramp up” faster than at most other places. We are a challenging place to work and we expect you to put more into your 40 hours than most other places. This creates a steep learning curve and the opportunity to grow professionally more than anywhere else, which enhances the knowledge applied to your projects.
  • High Level of Focus: Crazy awesome benefits mean that staff aren’t distracted dealing with tricky health insurance, or figuring out how they can manage a personal vacation and see their family back east. The health insurance is great, and there’s enough paid time off to do all of that (plus additional time to study for your exams). This reduces stress, leaving staff happily focused on creating awesome projects.
  • Access to Great Talent: Being recognized as a great place to work means you get access to better talent, especially when you’re a smaller firm. (For last two years in a row, Board & Vellum has ranked in the Top Ten of Best Small Businesses to Work For in the State of Washington, and we have three consecutive years on Puget Sound Business Journal’s list of the Top 100 Companies to Work For — thank you very much.) I realized early on that finding great staff was going to be key to the success of the company. It was a way to compete with the bigger firms and it’s working.

It’s easy to want to make other peoples’ lives better. But, when you are running a business, the numbers have to work out, too. And, I’m telling you: they can.

Why does this matter?

So, why am I writing this post? Conventional wisdom is that I shouldn’t share this information. In that world, I would reveal the information only after I get an applicant in the door — to only then “wow” them with a great benefits package. It would be our secret weapon.

Frankly, I don’t want to have a secret cult of happy employees. If someone is the right fit for Board & Vellum, they’ll come to work here regardless, and the benefits are some fantastic icing on a great cake.

What I want, is to change the culture of every firm I can. I don’t want Board & Vellum to be such a standout in this field. We all can do better. Jeff Pelletier, Principal & Owner at Board & Vellum.

Right now, there are only around 30 of us at Board & Vellum. There are so many more of us in the design industry at large. So, we need to reach out and help change the status quo — change the culture of every firm we can. Board & Vellum shouldn’t be such a standout in this field. We all can do better.

To change the design industry for the better, a few things need to happen:

  • Let’s Wake Up: Other firms need to realize that the supposed frightening financial doom of providing things like four weeks of vacation and paid parental leave just simply isn’t a reality. It costs money to not do these things, even if that is a frightening leap to make when your head is buried in a spreadsheet (and trust me, mine usually is). How many new employees have those firms had to train when good ones left?
  • Let’s Spread the Word: People need to share this post with their coworkers and their firm leadership. Anecdotally, I once heard from a third party that my name was being cursed at some high-profile design firm for making them have to increase their benefits. Come on! If you’re running a successful business, you have the ability to treat your employees better. Board & Vellum isn’t a threat, complacency is.
  • Let’s Advocate: We all need to speak up and stand up for a better working environment in this industry. Consistent 60-hour work weeks are not the price you should have to pay for working in a design firm where you get the “privilege” of designing something — it is the cost of bad management. Fat salaries and corporate profits are not more important than livable wages so your employees can afford to live anywhere remotely near your office.

Here’s the deal: this is not rocket science, but it also isn’t easy. I remember looking over spreadsheets and debating hard if we could afford to do things differently. It goes against conventional wisdom and it is, in many ways, a leap of faith. But it works. I’m more than happy to speak with any firm leaders about steps you can take to start down this path with your company.

I know there are some great firms out there doing this in various ways who aren’t necessarily recognized for it. I think, together we can start to make a bigger impact. You’ve just got to start.

To get the conversation rolling, below, I’m including our current benefits package for your general enjoyment. It can’t hurt to share and I’m quite proud of it. I hope it helps move the needle on your own benefit package when it comes time to negotiate.

Plus, if you’re looking to join what I truly believe is the most amazing team in Seattle, we’re hiring! We're looking for people who are willing to work their butts off for 40 hours a week and do amazing design work. You’ll go through at least two interviews (including one with the entire team), and you’ll get the chance to show us that you’re talented, awesome, and ready to change the world. In return, we’ll give you the best damn place to work we can. Check out our careers page for our open positions and bring your A-game.

In the meantime, get out there and change the world.

The Board & Vellum 2018 Benefits Package

Board & Vellum offers industry-leading benefits, raising the bar for what it means to work in an architecture & design firm.

Update: Of course, we review our benefits package every year. Hop on over to our Careers page to download a PDF documenting our current benefits package.

  • Health Insurance, Including Vision and Dental: We offer an excellent medical, dental and vision health care plan through Kaiser Permanente at no out-of-pocket costs to the employee for coverage. Dependent coverage is available at your cost. Health care is available the first day of the month following 30 days of employment.
  • Life Insurance & Disability Coverage: Board & Vellum offers a short and long term disability benefit, as well as life insurance, at no cost to you.
  • 401k Matching: We also offer a 401k plan with a company matching program. You are eligible to begin contributing to the plan three months after employment. We match the first 2% and half of the next 2%. Following one year of service, you are 100% vested in the match. You are always 100% vested in your own contributions.
  • Membership Dues & Fees Covered: Any costs associated with maintaining credentials for LEED, NCARB, and association dues are covered by the company.
  • Paid Leave to Study: We provide up to 40 hours of paid leave to study for licensure exams.
  • Vacation: All employees have 4 weeks (20 days / 160 hours) of accrued vacation time per year. Your first eligible date of vacation will be 90 days following your first day, but if you need a day off here and there, or have existing vacations planned between now and then, we can figure that out.
  • Discretionary Time: All employees have 1 week (5 days / 40 hours) of discretionary time per year in compliance with the Personal, Sick & Safe Time Act.
  • Paid Holidays: We also give 10 paid holidays (including the day after Thanksgiving and a floating holiday for Christmas Eve).
  • Education Stipend & Paid Conference Attendance: Board & Vellum offers a continuing education stipend of up to $500 per year and up to 8 hours of paid time to attend conferences.
  • Paid Time for Community Involvement: We also offer each employee up to 24 hours of paid time annually to volunteer at a non-profit of your choosing, hold a board position, or participate in any civic organizations.
  • Performance Bonus: Everyone is a candidate for a potential performance bonus at the end of the calendar year. Basically, do a good job and if we make a profit, you will get a bonus.
  • Referral Bonus: Projects that you bring into the office will be rewarded with up to 5% of the revenue bonused back to you for the referral.
  • Flexible Schedule: Board & Vellum offers flexible working hours based upon client and project needs and your personal schedule.
  • Paid Parental Leave: Parental leave is available to both men and women. Inclusive of any Short-Term Disability benefit, staff may take up to 12 weeks of paid leave at 60% of their salary (calculated as an average of the previous 3 months) for the birth or care of a child.
  • Family Medical Leave: We also offer a family medical leave policy for up to 6 weeks at 60% salary to care for yourself or an immediate family member with a serious medical condition.
  • ORCA Passport: We provide a fully-subsidized ORCA Passport card, covering most forms of public
    transportation within King and Kitsap counties, at no cost to you.
  • Wellness Benefit: We offer a wellness reimbursement of $40 per month for gym membership, yoga, meditation, or other health and fitness classes.

That’s our 2018 list. We are proud of it, but we didn’t start out this way. It took time, and it took care. Each year, we revisit what we offer and debate as a firm where we could improve. (You can download the current benefits on our Careers page.)

So, give it a shot: ask for (and provide) better benefits. Just get started. We can take the design industry to the next level.

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