After building a talented and valuable staff, how can an interior designer keep employees satisfied? Is it the obvious—higher pay, better benefits, more time off? Or is it more nuanced now in a post-pandemic workplace?

We consulted with Studio Designer clients to find out what interior design business owners can do to keep today’s employees content and motivated in their interior design jobs.

Creating Work-Life Balance

Three-plus years of COVID-19 and the devastating ramifications it left in its wake led to a wake-up call for many, who decided they want more from their 9-5 jobs and they need more of a work-life balance. After a year of staying put and waiting to see what would happen next while often living in survival mode and under extreme stress, employees have a pent-up demand to make a positive change. So what does this mean for firm owners? The answer is that retaining good people must be prepared to meet employee expectations much more than in the past.

Taking the necessary steps to develop a healthy work-life balance can be difficult. As a manager, you can help your workers by building pathways for them to make these changes. Better compensation, benefits, and the flexibility to take care of both personal and professional responsibilities are what interior designers seek in employment. Offering unlimited PTO, wellness days, and parental leave have been popular among other firms and continue to be the right step forward in keeping talent.

Out of Office—or Not

While most business owners acknowledge that remote working is highly desirable, the interior design firm owners we consulted are proof that working remotely is not the industry norm.

“I don’t believe in hybrid work from home, not in our business,” notes Barclay Butera, founder of his namesake interior design studio. “So much of our work is tactile. It’s also important that our team is together for major design decisions. You can’t accomplish that remotely.” However, Butera says he does promote flexible scheduling, which his 42 employees appreciate. “Everyone’s lifestyle is so different these days. Family should dictate how/when people are most productive, as long as it serves our clients and we are getting 100% during work hours,” he says.

Andrea Schumacher, owner of her Denver interior design firm, concurs with Butera’s opinion about flexible schedules versus working from home. “We don’t do much remote working but certainly respect everyone’s time as long as it’s reciprocated,” she explains. “I know a lot of people want to work from home; however, I feel in this line of work, it’s so collaborative that it’s not possible. But being flexible is key.” Ultimately, Schumacher believes that freedom is what employees are seeking—freedom in terms of expressing their ideas and using their time and a culture that is supportive of such. She feels offering her staff that freedom is essential to keeping them content.

“There has been such a push for ‘work from home,’ which, honestly, doesn’t work for our business. We’re an in-person industry. We need to see and feel things and spaces in order to do great work,” insists Dan Rak, owner of his namesake firm. “In my opinion, it takes a very highly motivated person to be able to manage their work location on their own. We’ve found that working from home results in significantly lower productivity and overall engagement in the work we’re doing as a team.”

However, despite Rak’s anecdotal assessment, statistics defend the productivity of working from home in the design industry. In fact, according to Studio Designer’s own 2022 Design Business Fees and Salary Report, more than half (58%) of the interior design firms surveyed have a remote work policy, with the most popular model being a hybrid approach (45%)—only 13% have a fully remote policy. A survey conducted by Interior Design magazine in June 2020 (in the thick of the pandemic) found that 27% of respondents said working from home increased their productivity. A year later, in mid-2021, Metropolis magazine reported that 80% of interior designers they surveyed had adapted to remote work and felt comfortable with it. Around that same time, design software company SketchUp conducted a survey revealing that 48% of respondents said their productivity had improved while working from home.

Prioritizing Employee Well-Being

The bottom line is business owners must do what they feel is right for their own organization in terms of appeasing workers’ requests and demands. Rak acknowledges, “I had to come up with some way to keep my staff happy and to feel like they were getting some perks of the new flexible work world we’re all living in. So, I decided to take the office to a four-day workweek with slightly longer days, Monday through Thursday, and everyone has the day off on Friday. It’s really working out for us.”

Butera says he treats his employees like family and tries to foster a stimulating and comfortable workplace. “I think most people—especially creatives—want to work in a beautiful space, one where they can thrive and also focus on what they do best,” he says. “A warm and inviting work environment, along with a strong and fair management staff, cultivates mutual respect and optimal performance.”

Similarly, Schumacher views her staff as a team where all players are valuable. “The key to happiness in any business is everyone knows how valuable they are,” she offers. Essentially, no one wants to work at a company where they feel disrespected, undervalued, or overlooked, and the more business owners realize that and make adjustments to their office culture, the less turnover they’ll see.

When The Firm Benefits, All Benefit

Studio Designer’s report found that the top benefits offered by architecture and design firms surveyed were paid time off (provided by 62% of firms) and work-from-home flexibility (55%). Only 33% of the participating firms offer retirement benefits and only 30% offer health insurance. However, according to the report, roughly 70% of interior design firms surveyed gave salary increases in 2021 and 2022, which looks hopeful.

“We’ve just come through a big period of growth, and our revenue and employee salary expectations followed. It was great being in a position to give pay increases,” Rak notes, adding that as a small business, he has offered staff full health and dental insurance for the past four years, two weeks of vacation, plus 10 holidays and every Friday off. “A 401k plan is on my list, but we haven’t gotten there yet.”

As the leader of a medium-sized design firm, Schumacher offers a medical stipend rather than paid health insurance, and PTO is accrued based on time with the firm. And she always gives annual pay raises of at least 3% “and more depending on the company’s health. If we are all working toward a common goal, then we all benefit,” she says, adding, “We care. We listen. We pay well. And we give creative freedom.” And as such, she says, “We haven’t had anyone leave in a really long time!”

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