OfficeInsight | September 2, 2019
Architecture and design firms, and companies of every industry, have many options to choose from when investing in company enrichment programs. These programs communicate a lot about the firm itself, its leadership and company culture.
A whole host of factors can affect what type of program a firm eventually settles on – goals for the program (what do they want to accomplish/get out of it), scale (how many people can be involved), and working within a budget, to name a few.
We recently learned of an exchange program between two firms – U.S.-based MBH Architects and U.K.-based Hyphen – in which a designer from each firm spends one month at the other’s office. An exchange program between A&D firms of this nature is unusual – requiring intensive planning, budgeting and a close relationship between the firms – and so we spoke to MBH Principal Dimple Manghani about how the program got off the ground and why.
From MBH: “MBH Architects has always championed company culture that encourages employees to expand their horizons. Channeling this ethos, the firm started an exchange program in collaboration with international architecture firm, Hyphen. Established last year, the new program allows an architect from each firm to trade places for a month, creating an opportunity to learn and share local expertise and brand knowledge while receiving training on client standards and the nuances of projects in different geographic regions.”
Just the possibility of executing an exchange program like this would require a close relationship between two firms who have similar aspirations. MBH and Hyphen had aligned goals for the program – to gain knowledge-sharing between firms who are aligned culture-wise, while providing an incredible experience for its participating employees.
“MBH began a strategic alliance with Hyphen, and we realized that our firms, culturally and work-wise, are so similar,” said Ms. Manghani. “But, geographically we are different, with Hyphen located in the UK and MBH in the U.S. in California. We wanted to work on better assisting our clients from each other’s locations, and understand what each other’s clients are looking for, so that we could better enter into those new markets. We wanted to understand what clients in the U.K. want, and vice versa.
“The processes and locations of our clients are so different, that we learned a ton from the experience. It was so successful that we knew we wanted to continue it in a more formal annual program format. We got a ton of exposure to similarities and differences in the ways we work, the processes each goes through.”
Lessons learned dealt with everything from tiny but obvious details – such as Hyphen’s use of the Metric system of measurement in the U.K. versus using MBH’s use of the U.S. system – to larger-scale distinctions.
“Construction terminology is so different there,” said Ms. Manghani. “Even small things…where in the U.S. we would say, ‘scheduling a time on the calendar’ – they call that a ’diary’.”
“The way drawings are done is completely different, and that was a big contrast we uncovered. Drawings in the U.S. have a lot of detail in them, they’re very litigious. Drawings in Europe are much broader, and then they are more hands-on through other phases. It’s really made a difference in the way we interact with clients in the U.K. Our set of drawings are so much more expensive than what theirs are because of the detail. Now, we know we need to walk them through the process in the U.S., how jurisdictions are tougher here, and that we need to show a lot more detail in order to get the necessary permits.”
This past May, Charlotte Goodman-Simpson from Hyphen’s Winchester office in the U.K. headed to MBH’s Alameda, California headquarters, while John Chavez from MBH headed to England.
From MBH: “The two employees immersed themselves in a new office, region, and culture, gaining insight to share with their teams at home.
Throughout the month, Charlotte and John were encouraged to document their experiences via letters, outlining their observations, lessons learned, and appreciation for the people and projects they were introduced to while abroad.”
The program currently runs once annually, with one person from each firm participating. How do the firms select someone for its exchange program? MBH and Hyphen set a few basic criteria, but leave much of the decision-making to each other when narrowing down applicants.
Together, our firms decided on a certain career level to focus on, in the 5 to 10-year experience range. And rather than selecting people in higherup managing positions, we wanted to make it available to people who are very much involved in the day-to-day detailed work at our firms. At the same time, we wanted that person to have enough experience behind them to actually be able to discern the differences and get the knowledge-sharing we’re looking for. Anyone within that range can apply, and then we pass all of those applicants to Hyphen, and vice versa, and each firm selects who they think would be the best fit.”
Each firm makes an effort to accommodate requests for the person selected, helping each other to gain valuable knowledge they otherwise wouldn’t have.
“We really try to make it a value-add for each firm, and each firm can select a candidate with something that benefits them in mind,” said Ms. Manghani. “It’s knowledge-sharing in a very specific, very pointed way.”
“The first year, Hyphen were really interested in having someone from MBH who had a lot of Revit experience so that they could enhance their knowledge with Revit, and we were able to send someone with that skill set. One of our initiatives has been to do more data-center work, and Hyphen does a lot of that type of work, and so we requested that our person be involved in data-center projects during their time at Hyphen.”
In the exchange program’s first year, the MBH candidate visited Hyphen’s Madrid office, and this year, the MBH candidate was based in Hyphen’s Winchester, England office. Hyphen candidates for both years visited MBH’s Alameda office in California.
“Both offices really make a big effort to expose their visitors to experiences in the city, and to help them grow as professionals while working at their firm,” Ms. Manghani noted. “And most of the people who have done the program have kept in touch with the people they met. Both firms want this to be a meaningful experience for them, and for each other’s firm as a whole. It’s relationship-strengthening and knowledge-sharing that increases a trust that was already there. To have that relationship and trust with another firm is an uncommon thing.”
“We’re committed to continuing the program and would love to expand it to occur twice a year, but logistically it’s difficult to pull them off projects they’re on. It’s a very planned experience, and we have to make sure there are backups in place to cover the work of the designers who are selected.”
The exchange program between MBH Architects and Hyphen demonstrates the impact of creating opportunities for employee growth through creative, out-of-the-box initiatives. It shows the power of company culture, but also the impact of simply investing in learning – a firm opening its doors to another to learn, exchange ideas, and experience something meaningful.