How HOK Builds Engagement Despite the Downturn

By Jessica Marquez

Dec. 2, 2009

Doom and gloom this past year left Kimberly Dowdell desperate for some good news.

The 26 year-old had been at her company, the global architectural firm HOK, for just six months when it began layoffs. Over the next several months the firm let go 300 people. In just the New York office, where Dowdell is based, 20 percent of the workforce was cut in three separate rounds of layoffs.

“I didn’t know that something like this could happen,” says Dowdell, who joined the firm as an architectural technician. “I kept asking people, ‘When will it get better?’ ”

A partner pulled Dowdell aside at one point to tell her that her job was safe. But HOK has gone way beyond providing assurances to its high performers, such as Dowdell. Over the past year, the firm has launched a string of initiatives to keep its 2,000 employees engaged and productive in the face of the worst recession that many of them have ever witnessed.

HOK is among a number of employers taking a comprehensive approach to engagement that taps workers’ desire for transparency, career development, meaningful jobs and a degree of employment security. “If you don’t keep people engaged, the minute things start turning around, those people are gone,” says Eli Hoisington, a designer and senior associate at HOK.

Employee engagement in general has sagged during the recession, most studies show. While turnover rates have been low amid the dismal hiring climate, experts agree that employees overall and key talent in particular will look to leave companies that have done little to win over workers during the hard times. What’s more, dedicated, motivated employees can boost the bottom line and may be crucial to sustainable business success. Not surprisingly, engagement has become a top priority for HR leaders.

Trust equals engagement
Even before its first round of layoffs in December, HOK’s HR staff began discussing how it was going to keep morale up and keep its employees excited about what they do, says Marsha Littell, senior vice president and director of training and organizational development in the St. Louis office of HOK.

“When you lay people off, you often lose the best people because they don’t feel like it’s a stable environment,” she says. “Keeping people active is really important because if people are just sitting there in between projects, it just gets worse.”

When business slowed down, HOK had to make particular efforts to keep employees excited about being with the company. That requires a fair amount of internal marketing, Littell says.

At the same time, HOK has made it a point to keep in mind that a large percentage of its workforce is under 35, an age group that’s known for wanting to continuously learn, invest in their careers and exercise their entrepreneurial spirit. Littell and her team have spent a lot of time discussing what could keep these employees excited.

To that end, for example, HOK launched a blog last spring. Littell invited 30 of its employees to regularly contribute to what’s called Life at HOK.

The blog serves multiple purposes, Littell says. For managers and HR, the blog serves as a way of gauging the mood in HOK’s various offices around the world. But it also shows that the company has a significant amount of trust in its employees who contribute to blog on topics ranging from the professional, such as sustainable design topics, to the personal, such as a bicycle race just completed or discussions about a new supermarket in the area.

“No one edits what I am writing and I don’t have to run my ideas by anyone,” says Dowdell, who started blogging in March. “It shows they really trust me.”

Trust overall has been a casualty of the downturn and has become a priority for employees. “Trust/confidence in management” was among the top reasons employees gave for leaving an organization in a recent survey by advisory firm Watson Wyatt Worldwide.

HOK also has made it a point to use its intranet site to promote the various projects the company has won this year, Littell says. “Early in January and February there was really a sense of uncertainty around how bad this was going to get,” she says. “So we made a concerted effort to share new project wins using our intranet site.”

HOK’s management also did everything it could to minimize the number of layoffs it had to do over the past year, Littell says.

Part of that effort was an expansion of HOK’s talent exchange program, where employees can switch positions with someone in another office for three months and have their living expenses paid.

Since HOK managers saw that a lot of projects were winding down, HR made a concerted effort this year to see if it could move employees to other offices for a few months, says Marta Willgoose, an HR manager in the New York office.

Last summer—knowing that layoffs would be coming—Willgoose put out an ad in the New York office seeking employees who would want to move to San Francisco for six months, living expenses paid. “That was a way to reduce headcount here and keep people within the company,” she says. “And it also showed people the bigger picture—that we are doing everything we can to save jobs.”

Globally, HOK has shared 18 employees with other offices to save those jobs.

HOK’s HR team has also held special training for its managers to make sure that they maintain open lines of communication throughout the layoffs. The New York office ran a day-and-a-half seminar discussing the different issues around employee engagement and how to recognize the difference between an issue that supervisors can handle and one that needs to go to HR, Willgoose says.

Similarly, right after the first major round of layoffs in December, an employee complained to Willgoose that there wasn’t enough transparency around the layoff process.

“I called a meeting with all the managers in the office and told them that when we have reductions, we can’t just have a staff meeting. They have to foster the lines of communication and sit down and have conversations with their staffs,” she says. Specifically, Willgoose encouraged managers to sit down one on one with their reports.

Dowdell says that having that open line of communication helped her stay focused. “It was just good to hear that I was going to be OK,” she says.

Commitment to service
Dowdell participates in the ACE Mentor Program, an architecture, construction and engineering mentorship program for high school students. Dowdell’s managers have no problem with the fact that during the school year she has to leave early once a week to attend these classes, she says.

She is also on the board of the National Organization of Minority Architects as well as on the Association of Real Estate Women.

“One of the reasons I came to HOK was because of their commitment to service,” she says. It says a lot about HOK that the firm continues its service efforts amid hard times, Dowdell says. “It means a lot to employees in my age group to have that,” she says.

In fact, HOK keeps track of how active employees are in outside architecture-related organizations to determine how engaged they are, Willgoose says.

“We are currently rolling out an initiative to track how people are reaching their own professional goals,” she says. “Are people out there in the community doing lectures, getting involved with groups, taking interest in teaching? … These are all indicators of how engaged they are.”

Another thing that HOK’s New York office did last fall was to establish a series of networking committees where officers and junior employees could discuss issues. For example, HOK W is a women’s group that also invites outside women in the industry to speak. The Social Committee identifies opportunities for the office to get together socially, and the 4.44 group is a designer network where designers come together every fourth Thursday to discuss designs people are working on.

“In a big firm like this there is a natural tendency for different groups to break into different studios because that is the right way to design,” says Hoisington, one of the founders of 4.44. “The idea behind these sessions is to break down those silos.”

Each of those networks aims to serve that purpose, Willgoose says.

“It’s great to get to interact with women who I normally wouldn’t see,” says Dowdell, who is a member of HOK W.

Even just getting people together for a softball game or after-work drinks keeps people excited about coming to work, Hoisington says.

“I don’t know if you can call after-work drinks engagement, but I think it’s something,” he says.

Although HOK’s HR team prides itself in keeping its culture intact despite the reductions in staff, the company hasn’t conducted a formal employee engagement survey in a few years.

“There is sort of a sense of you don’t want to ask if you can’t do something about it,” Littell says.

However, HR managers like Willgoose make a point to continually have one-on-one conversations with employees and to keep track of the firm’s blog to gauge people’s mood. “We are not a huge corporation,” she says. “I think to overdo it with surveys is to kind of push a more corporate approach, and that’s not what people are responsive to.”

Willgoose and Nikki Duffner, a corporate recruiter at HOK, are putting together groups of employees at offices across the globe who will provide feedback on things they would like to see at their offices as well as things that they would like the entire company to focus on, Willgoose says.

“The idea is to provide a mechanism for conversations regarding professional development, coaching, project innovation, sustainability, resource improvement and wellness to happen and for us to have a means for capturing those ideas and focusing in on what people are really asking for,” she says. The company hopes to establish the groups next year.

For Kimberly Dowdell, one more change has come to pass—and she thinks it’s a good one. In an October 27 post on the Life at HOK blog, she said that she is transitioning from her job as an architectural technician and will instead work in the New York office in a public relations and business development role. She thanked her colleagues, including Willgoose, and the office’s management committee for their vote of confidence in her abilities. “There are not a lot of firms that would give me this opportunity,” she wrote.

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