Compensation strategies from a small firm principal

Work Program Architects

A coordination meeting at Work Program Architects led by Mel Price, AIA (center left)

How being financially transparent and sharing responsibilities improves happiness in the workplace

At previous firms where my partner and I worked, there was no real transparency about money. Information on salaries, fees, and profitability weren't shared, and staff became easily frustrated. When we learned what others were making, and the lack of rationale behind those compensation decisions, unnecessary tensions arose. That's why we started Work Program Architects in 2011 with a business plan including full financial transparency. In addition to getting rid of those tensions we previously experienced, we also hoped this would help keep us honest and teach our staff the true ups, downs, and stresses of running a small business.

The road to financial transparency amongst staff starts with our first interaction. When we interview a prospective employee and are getting close to making a decision, we ask them to let us know how much they think they should be paid. I share with them a spreadsheet of our staff salaries so they know going in where they fall on the spectrum. From there, they can equate knowledge, ability, licensure, and years of experience with total compensation, and we reach an amenable offer together.

We have staff who love the work they do and feel in control of where we go and how they are compensated, and we believe this comes as a direct result of our transparency efforts.

We've learned that transparency works best when benefits and opportunities for growth are strong. On top of traditional health and IRA offerings, we also have benefits that cater to a young and diverse staff, such as fitness and technology reimbursements, flexible hours, telework, bonuses, and four weeks of paid vacation. We conduct three and six-month check-ins with new staff and annual reviews with everyone, moderated by outsourced human resources consultants. We set professional, personal, and compensation goals together.

We have staff who love the work they do and feel in control of where we go and how they are compensated, and we believe this comes as a direct result of our transparency efforts. With the added responsibility of seeing the finances, doing their own fee proposals, and evaluating a project’s profitability on a weekly basis, our staff start to behave like owners. Younger staff get advanced experience in running a firm, which will ensure our future as a firm and strengthen the profession at large.

Our commitment to transparency has become a part of our culture and workspace. Our office is designed for collaboration. We all sit together at two large tables to work and are constantly talking about improving our design work and our company. We gather as a staff frequently with the purpose of making joint decisions. Each week, a different person leads our staff meeting. We use the same agenda format: starting with positive personal and professional wins and ending with a short skills training. We vote on which projects to take on and any large purchases. We discuss pro bono opportunities openly, taking on work we know won’t make money but proves important for our community. All of these decisions are made with the understanding that they will directly affect our overall profitability and in turn, our salaries and bonuses.

For more information, explore our Small Firm Compensation Report and connect with the Small Firm Exchange.

Mel Price, AIA, is principal and co-founder of WPA, a full-service architecture and urban design practice located in downtown Norfolk, Virginia.

Image credits

Work Program Architects

Work Program Architects

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