Firm culture and risk management

By Samantha McCloud AIA posted 09-10-2018 15:13


By Samantha McCloud, AIA


In our industry, firm culture takes many forms, considering the variety of firm sizes, specialties, locations, and numerous other factors. There is arguably no one-size-fits-all solution in how to best guide the way people work. Nevertheless, research shows that firm culture, when designed effectively, can be a powerful resource for positively engaging team members on an emotional level. This means big benefit for the bottom line. Firm culture can energize people to invest more in their projects. It can support social connection and increase loyalty to the company. It can also attract new talent and bring in new business.

However, on the opposite end, firm culture can also bring significant adverse outcomes when not managed with care. A blind firm culture can lead to employee exhaustion, high turnover, decreased productivity, increased team conflicts, and unfavorable notoriety. To avoid these negative consequences and to help boost desired results, below is an outline of how to conscientiously approach what firm culture can do for your company.

Team training at GastingerWalker on Diversity in Marketing

Step 1: The What – Definition  

Defining or re-defining firm culture requires connected thought and decision-making. It is important to take time to reflect on company goals and values. Some example components of the definition process include branding statements, marketing materials, employee benefits packages, compensation structure, team structure, dress code policies, office layout, work flexibility options, featured portfolio of project types, company membership in professional associations, and involvement in community organizations.

The list above is not exhaustive, but it does demonstrate how defining a cohesive firm culture will incorporate goals and values into internal messaging, public relations and business development. The definition of company goals and values, expressed in language, images (from company brochures to office art), amenities and benefits, are the foundation for guiding the behaviors, feelings, thoughts, and beliefs of your team and serve as support for connecting with your clients. Ask yourself:

  • What sets your company apart from your competitors?
  • What are the core pillars of your company’s identity?
  • What inspires your company to do its work?
  • What type of projects does your company pursue?
  • What type of scheduling demands do you expect your team to accommodate?
  • What situations do clients come before team or vice versa?
  • What values do you want your team members to possess?
  • What standards define success at your company?
  • What is the hierarchy structure at your company?
  • What demographics do you seek to serve?
  • What organizations do you engage with to pursue work?
  • What imagery do you promote in your marketing materials and in the workplace?


Step 2: The How – Wayfinding  

In addition to defining the goals and values of your firm culture, providing structured direction to help your team navigate expectations and better serve clients is critical. Wayfinding centers on effective and timely two-way communication. Examples of wayfinding in firm culture include team member on-boarding, policy implementation, access to performance measures for upward mobility, personal accountability, structure of formal reviews, team training opportunities, mentorship and sponsorship programs for professional development, employee resource groups, company social events, staffing management, project assignment, project approach, client appreciation practices, and leadership representation.

Without clearly identifying resources and opportunities for your team to align themselves with the goals and values of the company, you risk individuals’ disillusionment as well as detachment. It is important to demonstrate how professional development at your company is accessible and to create platforms for people to connect and contribute.

  • How do you communicate company goals and values to new employees?
  • How do you demonstrate your company goals and values in the workplace?
  • How do you inspire your people to do their work?
  • How do you communicate performance expectations to your workforce?
  • How do you develop desired new skills in your workforce?
  • How do you build trust among your team members?
  • How do you learn about the goals and values of your team members?
  • How do you help your team members grow in the direction of their goals?
  • How do you learn from your team members?
  • How do you recognize significant contributions in the workplace?
  • How do you determine who gets to work on career-advancing projects?
  • How do you relate to your team and your clients outside of work?


coworkers talking

Step 3: The Why - Risk Management

Aside from the ethical motivations for providing a workplace where people find value and belonging, designing an effective firm culture offers compelling risk management benefits. By optimizing your people’s performance with collective emotional vitality, you cultivate a workforce that equates personal success as growing the success of the company. This connection can mean the difference between simply operating versus fully thriving. Examples of risk management benefits include increased personnel retention, increased productivity, improved quality of services, strengthened trust with team and with clients, improved communication and innovation, positive outside workplace representation, talent attraction, increased referrals, expanded networks through an engaged team, and repeat business with satisfied clients.

When implementing change in your firm culture, from small adjustments to network-scale programs, it is valuable to plan measures for tracking outcomes. Examples of tracking measures include staff surveys, profit and loss statements, retention rates, recruitment metrics, client metrics, and comparative data analysis. While tracking measures require both time and financial investment, data-based evaluation of your firm culture provides accurate risk management documentation. As part of the defining and wayfinding processes described in earlier sections above, it is wise to weigh the strategic gains and losses of your company’s resources and outcomes to understand what may work best for you.



Ultimately, the most important aspect of firm culture is intentionality behind company resources. Understand what, how, and why your company is investing in its business materials, its operations, and its personnel. Firm culture is dynamic. It requires regular examination and flexibility to adapt to the climate of the market.

People tend to mirror their environments or draw towards new environments where they find identity. If an environment supports collaboration, people will feel comfortable working collaboratively. If an environment supports the status quo, people will feel apprehensive to contribute new ideas or innovate.

As an industry that plans for the future, firm culture is just another aspect to how we as designers can improve upon present standards of the way people work, live, and grow. Financially and fundamentally, investing in our people is investing in our success.



The AIA Trust is dedicated to assisting AIA members in making decisions about complex matters and offering insurance and benefit programs of the greatest possible value to AIA members and components. It serves as a risk management resource for the practice of architecture in cooperation with the American Institute of Architects. To find out more, visit

Interested in the work of the AIA Kansas City Equity in Architecture Committee?

Equity in Architecture mission is in its “A.C.E.” goals to Advocate, Connect, and Educate membership to improve industry awareness and success on issues around diversity, inclusion, and equitable practice. Check out the AIA Kansas City Equity in Architecture 2017 Survey Report for regional key findings on inclusion and goals in firm culture.


< go to #6: Brand

(Return to the cover of the 2018 PM Digest: Firm Culture)