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By Will Swearingen

In a preliminary data pull from Zweig Group’s Best Firms Employee Engagement study, we found that one of the long-time gripes from staff has taken a back seat to other challenges. The perception that there is a lack of communication in an AEC firm has consistently plagued owners, management teams, and staff. Let’s be real; communication or lack thereof is the root cause of many of our issues. The causal relationship between our communication styles and the intended outcomes is direct. Communicate effectively and end goals are realized, communicate ineffectively and – well you know the rest. But, in a recent study by Zweig Group, communication has been trumped by “loneliness”, “problems with technology”, “work life balance” and “general distractions.” In these weird times, we have to take stock our situation, our businesses, our people and make the right adjustments.

When we work with a firm on strategic planning, we conduct interviews and surveys to better understand a firm’s culture and challenges that leadership have to overcome. Communication from the top down, across teams, from PM to team or one office to another is always a primary concern. This isn’t surprising because humans naturally have a difficult time conveying their intentions in a manner that recipients receive well. The problem can be focused on a specific area of the business, a single person, a system or an entire level of management; but the data always comes through in our assessments. How we address that communication gap is key and is a major value add from an independent third-party advisory service.

If you are married (or have ever been married), just look at the amount of dysfunction in simple discussions with someone you love. Jerry Seinfeld has a new Netflix special called “23 Hours to Kill.” It’s hilarious. Apparently, he actually jumped out of the helicopter at the beginning of the show-which is pretty impressive. But his description of the parallels between the plates of food people construct at an all you can eat buffet in Vegas and their emotional struggles is gold. He rolls that segment into cracking on the fickle communication dynamics between he and his wife. And it’s true. The tone, delivery, consistency, and actual act of sharing information are all key pieces of effective messaging.

In 2018, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics conducted an “American Time Use Survey.” They found that people with jobs “spent more time working at the office than at home—7.9 hours, compared with 2.9 hours.” Before -19, that meant we were spending 2.7x more time at work than were with our families. That’s a lot of opportunity to miscommunicate. It’s no wonder communication is a consistent issue in design firms. But today, many of us are spending extended periods of time working from home and trying to find the balance between family, work, school, and sanity. Managing distractions and establishing a work life balance were the two most pressing issues for people working from home. So, it begs the question, how do we take this kind of information and help our people and our teams? How do we adapt our expectations of staff and our business practices?

There is no doubt that today we have new trials. Our time spent at home has to abide by a new work life balance standard. We have co-workers that are struggling with new challenges. Some may be experiencing emotions they have long forgotten. Some may be truly challenged by the dark clouds cast by the pandemic; others may be stressed beyond connection and still others may be performing better than ever. We have to understand our teams and equip them with the systems and personal network that enables productivity. This is incredibly important to the stability of our businesses. The data suggest our partners in the industry are making every effort to reach their people and mobilize their team. Now, we have to figure out how to maintain the delicate balance of standard operating procedures, productivity and empathy.

Will Swearingen is Director of Ownership Transition at Zweig Group. He can be reached at wswearingen@zweiggroup.com.