Adam Lara – How designers master the art of hiring and retaining talent now

Designers Today

June 1, 2022

Like their counterparts in many other industries, designers are struggling to locate, attract and keep savvy and suitable new members on staff during these times. Recruiting is a challenge in all aspects – from finding right and reliable talent to training them to, most especially, retaining them.

Attitudes about the workforce have shifted and industry organizations aim to help members navigate this new landscape. One challenge as we come out of the pandemic is the concept of “return to office,” said Gary Wheeler, CEO of the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).

Many firms are opting for a hybrid work model in which employees may come in a couple of days a week, while “others are pushing for a more complete return to the office, hoping that employees will benefit from in-person collaboration and the physical environment the office fosters,” Wheeler continued. However, “the firms embracing a fully remote model are benefitting from a larger hiring pool, as many designers changed their location and lifestyle in favor of ‘work from home’ during the pandemic.”

The ASID has found through research that “salary is just one piece of the puzzle for interior designers,” Wheeler noted. “Designers, like employees in other professions, are increasingly interested in benefits such as flexible working hours and parental flexibility. We found that many designers are even placing a higher value on quality of life over their compensation, indicating that firms both large and small must respond to these demands creatively when hiring.”

“Building a highly diverse team and culture, while simultaneously creating lasting workplace satisfaction and retention, is imperative for today’s design organizations,” advised Cheryl Durst, EVP and CEO, International Interior Design Association (IIDA). “We actively work towards creating culture virtually and listen and learn as we go…Our challenge to ourselves is stay open to change and really listen to the needs of our employees.”

Interior designers weighed in on their own staffing experiences and what they’ve learned in this new norm.

What are the biggest challenges in keeping/retaining employees? And have you lost employees during the pandemic and/or hired them?

“My biggest challenges with hiring to date have been timing, having a marginal learning curve and knowing my ideal candidate. As result, one of the two people we hired last fall is no longer on the team, and the other one hasn’t been fully utilized after the first two months.

Now that I’ve taken time to define my ideal candidate more clearly and timing is better (for me personally), hiring and retaining our next hire should be more successful. I’ve hired three part time/intermittent employees during the pandemic. One of my assistants has been with us since fall Two additional were hired virtually, and to date the person who is still on board with us has been working less hours. The hiring process was virtual via Zoom interviews, then in-person meetings with the two who live nearby locally. We have a virtual administrator who lives in Texas.

Having staff working remotely for administrative tasks works well.” — Kelly R. Collier-Clark, Plot Twist Design | Plot Decor Boutique

How have you adapted your business to work around hiring challenges post pandemic?

“I developed a strategy that I rethink is innovative. It’s called The Meraki Design Alliance, for the Greek word that means to do something with love. It’s a team of designers, but not a traditional team. It’s more of a partnership, and it’s very equitable.

We’re four designers who each maintain our own firms and our own corporate identities and our own brands. But with Meraki, we bring together our individual skill sets, experience and depth of knowledge to different projects where we can collaborate.

The Meraki Design Alliance includes me as well as: Dani Blake of Dani Blake Interior Design in Richmond, Va; Monika Nessbach of DesignBar in Charlotte, N.C.; and Svetlana Hanzyy of Svetlana Hanzyy Design in Nashville. It’s working out quite well for all of us.” — Gary  Inman, Gary  Inman Interior Design

What are some tactics you are using to attract new hires?

“We try to have a competitive package. And we are always clear with candidates it isn’t just about salary – there are other benefits we offer. For example, we offer a commuter benefit. Our firm is hybrid now – three days in the office, two days at home.

We give people an additional monthly stipend in one paycheck each month to go toward their commuting expenses. And even if they walk to work, they still get that stipend. We also have really great licensure benefits in terms of encouraging our architects and designers to get licensed in their fields. Every time they pass a section of that exam, we reimburse them for the cost. We pay for the time off they need to take the exams. And once they complete all the exams, we give a onetime bonus. We really advocate for that and help our staff improve credentials.” — Adam Lara, KTGY

What tips would you give business owners who are trying to hire or retain people?

“Know what your company needs and what type of individuals you feel will fit that need, provide clear job descriptions and make sure you are detailed with required responsibilities, skill set and experience, prepare a good process for interviewing and offer orientation and training if needed. Since the pandemic it has become more difficult to maintain good people. Offering them flexibility to work from home some days has helped, as well as increasing their pay.” — Ann Marie Lloro, Inhouse Design Resources

What are the biggest challenges in retaining employees?

“[One] challenge has been dealing with overwhelmed and burned-out employees. We are used to a fast-paced environment where we are putting concepts together, placing orders and fulfilling within a relatively short period of time. Now, with the [supply chain] delays, it has slowed that process down to a snail’s pace, and we find ourselves circling back to quadruple checking the status of products that were supposed to have been delivered months prior.

We are frustrated, clients are frustrated and it feels like a bit of a slog. We’ve been trying to keep morale up by focusing on other aspects of company growth.” — Christa O’Leary, Home in Harmony Design

Have you lost employees during the pandemic and/or hired them? What are the biggest challenges in keeping/retaining employees?

“We have not lost employees because of the pandemic but we have had changes/shifts to positions. Some employees had more time to think about what they wanted to do and where they wanted to be, which caused a few changes. Then there were some positions that we realized could be managed remotely, which we had not considered previously. The biggest challenge for us is getting the right candidate to fit our culture. While we have several applicants submit to our open positions, we find it increasingly more difficult for the right person to fit the entire team and not just the owner. Because we are still a small firm, I value each team member feeling seen and empowered and we want each person to understand this dynamic rather than just being a ‘yes’ person.” — DuVäl Reynolds, DuVäl Design, LLC

What is your approach to retaining talent?

“The most important thing to me is treating my employees well because they are the ones who have my back. My team knows that I don’t like being called the boss around here. We are a team, and we work together, collaboratively, as a team. That said, I like to do special things for my team whenever I can as a way to show my appreciation for their hard work and dedication to this business. I’ll order breakfast so that when they get to work it’s ready and served for them. I also have taken them out to dinner, in the spring I bought everyone diffusers….it’s the little things that show you care. Everyone wants to feel special, especially when they deserve it. If I have a client who is disrespectful to one of my staff, I will set that client straight because in the end, it’s my team that has my back, that supports me and my business.” — Dennese Guadaloupe Rojas, Interiors By Design

How have you addressed post-pandemic hiring hiccups indoor own business?

“I have mentored hundreds of designers and I take pleasure in doing so. But when it comes to my daily operations and work flow, it’s been hard to get someone in and have them do things the way I need them to do them, to work within my work-flow.

My solution was to hire my [adult] kids. It started out rough because I had to train them. I guess I expected them to already know how to do things. But the truth is, my kids are like any other employee. I trained them like I would anyone else, and then I gave them freedom to the work their way and develop their own system to get their jobs here done.

It’s worked out well, and in the process I’ve learned a lot, too. My son is working part-time while he takes his college courses online. And I give my daughter space so she can also run her small side business.

I am here to nurture and guide them, and hopefully they will want to stay forever working with me.” — Veronica Solomon, Casa Vilora Interiors

How have those challenges changed during the pandemic? How have you addressed these changes?

“After 10 years of working with a local firm, I went on my own. My business turns one year old in June, and I got busy very quickly. Right now I have 20 projects that I’m working on – and helping me are three part-timers, none of them designers. I have one bookkeeper, one who helps me with whatever I need like writing proposals and putting together spec books, and the third one helps me with a software program I use. Now I’m looking to add another part-timer to help me with accounting. But like my other employees, this new person must be someone recommended to me – not someone I seek out. She has to fall into my lap, so to speak. I like finding people through reliable friends and colleagues and then I go with my gut feeling.” —Maria Zambrano, MariaZInteriors