Is the Way We Work Still Working?

    Firms that make executive and employee wellness a priority are seeing positive impacts.

    Long hours at the office, all-hands-on-deck deadlines, always-on technology, and the road warrior lifestyle is business as usual in the AEC industry. But is it killing us? This article examines an area of critical importance: executive and employee wellness. Firms that are making it a priority are seeing an impact from productivity and effectiveness to recruitment and retention.

    At international planning and design firm Sasaki Associates (Boston), the wellness conversation is personal, and the 250-person firm is tackling it head-on. It started when, during the firms leadership transition two years ago, now-Managing Principal James Miner found himself in the emergency room with alarmingly high blood pressure and a personal wake-up call.

    It inspired him to start a new conversation at Sasaki. During an emotional staff meeting, he shared his personal story and his vision for a healthier workplace. It was very tough to do, he said. And it resonated. Other principals and senior associates spoke up and shared their experiences. People felt it was now OK to talk about this.

    No easy answers.

    Wellness and balance mean different things to different people, and it touches everything from staffing and workload to design industry culture and client expectations, to 24-hour technology and generational changes in whats expected as people move up the ladder.

    Many firm leaders feel guilty about taking time out for exercise or working less than 60 hours per week. It can feel selfish, even unprofessional. The truth is, the time you spend improving your own health, productivity, and focus will actually help you build a stronger firm.

    Research shows what we all know and often overlook: Ignoring our health will catch up to us. Thats why 600-person A/E firm DLR Group (Omaha, Neb.) requires its senior principals to undergo regular confidential health check-ups. And its why 150-person structural engineering firm Silman Associates (New York) now has a wellness director and a wellness initiative that brings stress management, movement, nutrition, and other initiatives to staff across three offices.

    Wellness starts at the top

    Silman President Joe Tortorella said his experiences with stress reduction have made him a better leader and mentor, one who is able to recognize the tells when someone is stressed or needing a break. Yet the wellness program was also born out of asking staff what they wanted in a new office. Offerings include a quiet room for meditation and naps; weekly yoga, Pilates, and MELT classes; and lunch seminars on mindfulness, cholesterol, and healthy cooking. There is a monthly breakfast club, a running club led by a senior principal, and individual and team challenges with healthy incentives such as gift certificates for local food coops.

    We hear from employees: I never thought I could see myself doing this, but its made a difference in my stress level. he said. For us, its helping people live a better life. As an owner, isnt it wellness for you when your people are happier, more relaxed, and more focused and thus, more productive?

    A 2013 study conducted by the Harvard Business Review and The Energy Project backed this up. It revealed that leaders who encourage and model working in more sustainable ways have employees who are 55 percent more engaged, 53 percent more focused, 77 percent more satisfied, and 1.15 times more likely to stay at the company.

    Are the principals burned out?

    Firms can enact policies to encourage wellness and balance, but individuals also need to set their own boundaries and advocate for their own health and well-being, Miner said. They wont do that in a culture where the opposite is rewarded or where they feel like they cant say no.

    The way you carry yourself in the office is a big deal, he said. If youre on the road all the time looking haggard, and you think this is OK, it is not. People are watching and asking themselves, Is that really what I aspire to? We want to offer role models that make them say, Yes, I do want to be a leader at Sasaki.

    To that end, Miner schedules time for exercise during the workday, invites staff to walk or have lunch, and makes it a priority to be home by 6 p.m. when in town to be with his wife and three young children. Business trips remain a challenge.

    The firm also hired a generational expert, a leadership trainer and coach to work with senior staff. Its role modeling, and part of a strategic plan to cultivate more women leaders and address generational shifts in fatherhood and childfree professionals who value a meaningful personal life outside the office.

    Employees are encouraged to build peer relationships to cover for one another, to respect other peoples personal priorities (its not just family), and learn how to set boundaries that allow them to say no when necessary.

    Silmans wellness center is definitely a recruiting tool, agreed Tortorella. Clients also look at us differently, he said. For us, its not about measuring the benefits. Work-life balance is the most important thing to us, and this industry is not conducive to achieving this balance.

    Build a sustainable culture.

    Is it time to address your own and your firms approach to wellness? Here are a few places to start, from those who are doing it:

    • Reward leaders and senior staff who model work-life balance and who exhibit empathy and emotional intelligence.
    • Add wellness objectives to your firms strategic plan. Know where you want to go, and how you will define success.
    • Talk openly about what it takes to get ahead, whats valued, and whats expected.
    • Let go of the guilt and allow yourself and your staff to recharge.
    • Address staffing and operational issues that contribute to heavy workloads, and empower employees to say no.
    • Set clear expectations around email and voicemail use and availability, including response times and off-hours use.
    • Every day, balance achieving something with enjoying something.
    • Get up from your desk and out of the office. Take a walk or eat lunch away from the building.
    • Treat yourself like a business and have a personal strategic plan. Know what you want personally and professionally, and take steps to create your own balance.
    • Limit meetings to no longer than 90 minutes, or institute walking meetings, or offsite coffee and lunch meetings.
    • Create fitness or wellness rooms or offerings, nap spaces, and provide healthy, high-quality food at meetings.

    Have you instituted executive and/or employee wellness initiatives at your firm?

    Rich Friedman is president of Friedman & Partners, a marketing and management consulting firm serving the U.S. and Canadian architecture, engineering, environmental consulting, and construction industries. He can be contacted at or 508-276-1101.