Firm Culture, The Business of Design
How a Philosophy of High Performance is Changing the Way We Work
Designing a home or building is one thing. Designing the work experience of your employees is quite another. But the design mentality we bring to our projects also allows us to adapt and innovate how we operate as a team. Though our firm has evolved over the years, our values have not, guiding us to adopt the philosophy of a high-performance team.
October 22, 2020
I’m a little obsessed with how a design firm operates. Over the past decade, I’ve realized I not only love the actual design work we do but that I love to design the experience of working here at Board & Vellum. I’ve come to appreciate my ambition is based on my desire to innovate and a belief that creating a work environment that is supportive, respectful, and fosters innovation allows teams and individuals to perform at their highest level.
We’re always looking for new ways to support our teams, who give so much to Board & Vellum.
It goes without saying that it’s been a stressful year. We’re all navigating uncharted waters, and we know we’ve asked a lot of our already dedicated and hard-working staff.
Frankly, it’s reinforced our belief that, if we expect our people to perform at their highest level, it stands to reason they should be rewarded with excellent benefits and a safety net that supports the inevitable variability that accompanies our frequent innovation.
Great Benefits Are Great, But Only Part of the Equation
Over numerous discussions and working sessions, copious amounts of research, and through plain observation, we have realized that professional happiness tends to occur most when someone is achieving outstanding results with really fantastic people. You don’t get happy when you just do an adequate job. And, similarly, you may initially be happy with just having great benefits but, if the work isn’t rewarding, benefits alone will never be enough to keep high-performing workers at a company. (Still, I believe deeply that a lack of benefits should never be a reason on the table making someone want to leave.)
At Board & Vellum, we’ve found that when we connect with really talented people who want to go the extra mile, our benefits are an appreciated acknowledgment of their hard work, and not a carrot dangled to encourage them to work harder.
We still aren’t afraid to pivot when things are no longer working at their best.
Working at Board & Vellum is committing to push yourself every day. We think things through very carefully but are always improving.
When We Outgrow a System, We Improve It…
Several years ago, we were still holding on to the idea that we could continue to grow and function with staff in a flat hierarchy. We read strategies, rolled out a new, public format to decide firm direction, and then, after half a year, realized it just didn’t work for us.
We’re used to going back to the drawing board, but, this time, there was a lot at stake. The straightforward next move was to enact a traditional hierarchy, but we knew the lessons we’d learned under our flat hierarchy would have a hard time finding a place within that rigid structure. The straightforward path, we found, wasn’t the one that offered the most promise. Instead, we took the road less traveled, brought forward the values we cherish, and rolled them into the simple hierarchy we have today.
…Without Reinventing the Wheel
Layering hierarchy into our structure allowed us to streamline roles and responsibilities, build easy pathways for collaboration, and refine workflow all while affirming the tenets upon which Board & Vellum was founded.
Consequently, all employees are still trained in every aspect of what we do: everyone is challenged to explore their interests and strengths and encouraged to acknowledge where they need help from their team; all billable design staff are trained to contribute to all project phases including working within a budget, invoicing, project management, design, and even business development and marketing.
This means we look for quick learners who are open and able to receive, accept, and contribute constructive feedback, understand design can always be improved, and are willing to fall down and let their co-workers pick them back up again. And again.
Fear of taking risks is a sure path to not achieving great things and this team is too ambitious to settle for just adequate.
We work hard, so we know the necessity of recharging.
Years ago, someone said employees here go through “Principal Boot Camp,” and the spirit of that message still rings true today. We expect you to challenge the limits of what you can do and to always push yourself to be a better professional.
Do as I Do
Along with that drive comes an acknowledgment that this sort of push can, and will, be intense. As the owner of a company, I would never expect our staff to work the long, sometimes weird, hours I put in. But I also recognize the importance of setting the example for taking a break when you need one. People who work with me know I’m not a superhuman who can work 80-hour weeks every week because they see me take vacations, cut out early on Fridays so I can go camping with my family, and sometimes show up late to meetings because I’m helping my kids get into their online classrooms for the school.
You Have a Real Life, and That’s Okay
By normalizing the ups and downs of everyday life, we can support each other to “work hard and recharge.” We advocate for work/life integration because we know balance isn’t – and never was – possible. You can bring as much or as little of your life outside work to the table because we value supporting your unique needs and lifestyle, even if that means showing up to a team meeting with your kid or cat on your lap.
We aim for flexible working hours that allow you to take care of yourself and your family when you need to – you have enough balls in the air without having to jump through hoops, too. Micromanagement isn’t a value we reward because we know you know how best to take care of yourself. Everyone gets four weeks of vacation, sick and safe time, and bereavement time and is encouraged to use them, no strings attached.
Our team of salaried employees recognizes that, while we strive for 40-hour weeks, some longer and harder weeks are inevitable. And they know, afterward, they can take the time they need to recharge.
We believe in our values above all else.
I think I am pretty self-aware, and I know now you can’t go to great lengths to make others happy at the expense of your company values. (Or your own values, for that matter!) Some things are worth holding on to, like creating a firm of stunning colleagues that pushes innovation and design, a supportive firm culture that rewards this effort with outstanding benefits and a deep safety net, and the need for equity in creating a nurturing and supportive workplace for a diverse group of diversely talented people.
Over the years, we’ve learned that not everyone is the right fit for our team – people come, and people go, and that’s totally okay. But for the right person, our innovative, high performing, rewarding work environment is more than just a job.
If you think that you might be a deeply ambitious and hard-working person or even someone who’s used ambition to achieve excellence in a field, we encourage you to apply. We still hire for talent and not just a specific role, and we’re always looking for colleagues willing to challenge us to learn more.
Our benefit cut sheet can be found here. We are proud of the work we do to improve it every year and even more proud of the talented people we get to share it with.
We hope to hear from you.