Building a sustainable culture

Good design helped environmentally friendly architectural firm HOK crack the <i>Top 100</i>

From the elimination of sugar packets to the provision of extensive training programs, HOK listens to employees and responds. That collaborative approach has put the architectural firm on Canada’s Top 100 Employers list for the first time.

“Believe me, (our employees) don’t hold back, we have a very open and inclusive culture and encourage people to speak their minds,” says Lui Mancinelli, senior vice-president and managing principal of HOK in Canada, a firm committed to building sustainable communities and environments. “Our people are very vocal, they are so committed, they engage us in constantly improving what we do.”

That has meant the elimination of environmentally unfriendly offerings such as sugar packets and bleached coffee filters, along with the introduction of family-friendly benefits such as backup child care and elder care.

“We’ve worked really hard to build this type of culture. We’re a creative organization so you obviously get different types of employees than a financial institution. We try and cater to that type of environment and what speaks to our employees,” says Lara Koretsky, HR manager at HOK in Toronto.

The global policy of the firm, which has offices in the Americas, Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Europe, is to design all projects to environmental standard or to a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) equivalent or higher.

In Canada, the Toronto office has been LEED-certified with a gold rating. It is a state-of-the-art “green” office space that includes sensor-operated lighting and energy efficient windows. On-site shower facilities are meant to encourage employees to bike or walk to work, along with public transit subsidies. Newer offices in the West have an environmentally sustainable infrastructure that includes low toxic paints and recycled products. Environmental hazards have also been removed, with copiers and printers in enclosed spaces and no harmful chemicals used in cleaning or construction.

The firm has even banned certain glues and contact cement from the office, making it a challenge when it comes to the ubiquitous sample boards used by architects and designers.

“It’s taken a bit of creativity but the net effect on the quality of the environment is much higher and I believe people are happier and healthier,” says Mancinelli. “Space has a tremendous effect from a design and environmental perspective on the quality of the workplace and productivity of the people, just to create atmosphere — that really lends itself to creative thinking and innovation.”

That kind of approach is also appealing for future employees.

“Our space is a reflection of our moral and ethical commitment to this kind of thing and, as result, people who are equally committed.”

The company’s space is a reflection of HOK’s commitment to the environment, which helps HOK attract new talent, says Mancinelli.

“The new demographic of individuals leaving schools today is very focused on the environment and will choose us because of the quality of the environment and focus on the environment and the things we’re creating. So it’s become a very strong recruiting tool,” he says.

Firm benefits

HOK also provides an array of traditional employee benefits. The vacation policy is three weeks to start, which increases depending on years of service and position, to a maximum of 32 days per year. For the past few years, HOK has also closed the office between Christmas and New Year’s and employees can work summer hours.

With projects and offices around the world, flexible work hours fluctuate along with assignments.

“We try to provide flexibility and have a pretty robust IT and telephony system that allows people to work virtually,” says Mancinelli. “There’s everything from the organized (set-up), where specific people work at home on Fridays or a few days a week, to the more ad hoc, as a result of their work.”

There is also full health-care coverage for full-time and part-time workers (who put in at least 25 hours per week) and the firm started offering backup child care and elder care more than a year ago, providing access to guaranteed support.

“There are a number of people with young children or aging parents. Just the fact it’s there and you know you can get support eases your mind,” he says.

Similar support comes from an employee assistance plan brought in about the same time. This popular benefit helps employees find information and assistance for child care and elder care, says Koretsky.

“It’s been great because it offers employees as much flexibility as possible and the feedback is phenomenal.”

On the compensation front, HOK conducts annual salary surveys and pays in the 75th percentile or over. Finding comparatives can be a challenge because most architectural firms in Canada have fewer than 10 employees, says Korestsky, while HOK has more than 300.

In addition to spot bonuses handed out for exceptional work or high performance, there are bonuses handed out twice a year ranging from five per cent to more than 50 per cent of salary, depending on the performance of the company and employee.

“The bonuses are a reflection of our success through the year because we’re a completely employee-owned company, so much of our profits go back into the hands of individuals that participated in creating it,” says Mancinelli.

And employees can receive up to $4,500 in tuition subsidies per year for unrelated studies and are provided with extensive training programs, either specialized or for LEED certification.

Low turnover

In developing the benefits, HOK factors in feedback from employee surveys and lunch-and-learn sessions, attraction and retention concerns and what the competition is doing.

“That’s always very difficult because a lot of our competitors are very small or don’t report but we try to do as much assessment and research and learning as we possibly can, and our employees are a very positive source of information,” says Mancinelli.

While the industry standard for turnover is 15 per cent or higher, HOK’s numbers are “well lower,” says Koretsky, and the firm has hired 125 employees since it filed its application to Mediacorp Canada for the Top 100 competition.

Having been in Canada for almost a decade, HOK knows the process of creating and building the organization and its culture is a work in progress that goes beyond the Top 100 recognition.

“The demographics are changing so drastically, the technology in our industry is changing so drastically, the focus on design is changing so drastically, so we’re constantly going to be evolving to meet the demands of our people,” says Mancinelli. “And our real focus is on people, it’s everything for us — quality, excellence — and supporting that is what it’s all about for us.”

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