Kelly R. Collier-Clark and Maria Zambrano
By Cécile Corral
Like their counterparts in many other industries, designers struggle to find, attract, and retain savvy and suitable new members of staff during these times. Recruitment is a challenge in all respects – from finding the right and reliable talent to training them and, more specifically, retaining them.
Attitudes towards the workforce have changed and industry organizations aim to help members navigate this new landscape. One of the challenges coming out of the pandemic is the concept of “returning to the office,” said Gary Wheeler, CEO of American Society of Interior Designers (ASID).
Many companies are opting for a hybrid working model in which employees can come in a few days a week, while “others are pushing for a more comprehensive return to the office, hoping that employees will benefit from in-person collaboration and the physical environment”. the office favors,” Wheeler continued. However, “companies that adopt an all-remote model benefit from a larger hiring pool as many designers have shifted their locations and lifestyles in favor of ‘working from home’ during the pandemic.”
ASID found through research that “salary is only 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 even value quality of life more than their compensation, indicating that companies large and small need to 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,” said Cheryl Durst, executive vice president and CEO, International Interior Design Association (IIDA). “We are actively working to create a culture virtually and listening and learning as we go…Our challenge for ourselves is to remain open to change and truly listen to the needs of our employees.”
Interior designers weighed in on their own staffing experiences and what they learned in this new normal.
What are the biggest challenges to retaining/retaining employees? And did you lose employees during the pandemic and/or hire them?
“My biggest hiring challenges to date have been timing, the marginal learning curve, and knowing my ideal candidate. As a result, one of the two people we hired last fall is no longer part of the team and the other has not been fully utilized after the first two months.
Now that I’ve taken the time to more clearly define my ideal candidate and the timing is better (for me personally), hiring and retaining our next recruit should be more efficient. I hired three part-time/contract employees during the pandemic. One of my assistants has been with us since the fall Two others have been hired virtually, and to date the person who is still on board with us is working fewer hours. The hiring process was virtual via Zoom interviews and then in-person meetings with the two who live nearby. 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 | Terrain Decor Shop
How have you adapted your business to meet post-pandemic hiring challenges?
“I have developed a strategy that I think is innovative. It’s called The Meraki Design Alliance, for the Greek word meaning 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 fair.
We are four designers who each maintain our own businesses and our own corporate identities and our own brands. But with Meraki, we bring together our individual skills, experience and in-depth knowledge in different projects where we can collaborate.
The Meraki Design Alliance includes me and: Dani Blake of Dani Blake Interior Design in Richmond, Virginia; Monika Nessbach of DesignBar in Charlotte, North Carolina; and Svetlana Hanzyy of Svetlana Hanzyy Design in Nashville. It works pretty well for all of us. — Gary Inman, Gary Inman Interior Design
What tactics do you use to attract new recruits?
“We try to have a competitive package. And we’re always clear with candidates, it’s not just about salary – we offer other benefits. For example, we have a benefit for commuters. Our practice is now hybrid – three days in the office, two days at home.
We give people an additional monthly stipend in one paycheck each month to cover their travel expenses. And even if they walk to work, they still receive this allowance. We also have very great licensing advantages by encouraging our architects and designers to get licensed in their fields. Each time they pass a section of this exam, we reimburse them for the cost. We pay for the time they need to take the exams. And once they have completed all the exams, we give them a one-time bonus. We really stand for that and help our staff improve credentials. — AdamLara, KTGY Simeone Deary Design Group
What advice would you give to business owners who are trying to hire or retain people?
“Know what your business needs and what type of people you think will fill that need, provide clear job descriptions and make sure you are detailed with the responsibilities, skills and experience required, prepare a good interview process and offer orientation and training if needed. Since the pandemic, it has become more difficult to retain good people. Giving them the option to work from home on certain days has helped, as well as increasing their salary.” — Anne Marie Lloro, Internal design resources
What are the biggest challenges to retaining employees?
“[One] challenge was managing overworked and exhausted employees. We are accustomed to a fast-paced environment where we develop concepts, place orders and execute in a relatively short timeframe. Now with the [supply chain] delays, it’s slowed that process down to a snail’s pace, and we find ourselves having to quadruple check the status of products that were supposed to have been delivered months before.
We’re frustrated, customers are frustrated and it’s a bit of a pain. We tried to keep our spirits up by focusing on other aspects of growing the business. — Christa O’Leary House in Harmony Design
Did you lose employees during the pandemic and/or hire them? What are the biggest challenges to retaining/retaining employees?
“We haven’t lost any employees due to the pandemic, but we have had shifts/shifts. Some employees had more time to think about what they wanted to do and where they wanted to be, which led to some changes. Then we realized that some positions could be managed remotely, which we hadn’t considered before. The biggest challenge for us is finding the right candidate to fit into our culture. Although several candidates apply for our vacancies, we find it increasingly difficult for the right person to fit in with the whole team and not just the owner. Because we’re still a small company, I appreciate that every member of the team feels seen and empowered and we want everyone to understand that dynamic rather than just being a “yes” person. — From Val Reynolds, DuVal Design, LLC
What is your approach to retaining talent?
“The most important thing for me is to treat my employees well because they are the ones who support me. My team knows I don’t like being called the boss 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 to show my appreciation for their hard work and dedication to this company. I will order breakfast to have it ready and served when they get to work. I also took them out to dinner, in the spring I bought diffusers for everyone…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 disrespects one of my employees, I will correct them because in the end, it is my team who supports me, who supports me and my company. — Dennese Guadaloupe Rojas, Interiors by design
How have you tackled the issue of post-pandemic hiring inside your own company?
“I’ve mentored hundreds of designers and enjoy doing it. But when it comes to my day-to-day operations and my workflow, it’s been difficult to get someone to come in and get them to do things the way I needed to, to work within my workflow.
My solution was to hire my [adult] kids. It started hard 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 gave them the freedom to work their way and develop their own system to do their job here.
It worked well, and in the process I also learned a lot. My son works part-time while he takes his college classes online. And I’m giving my daughter space to run her small side business too.
I am here to nurture and guide them, and I hope they will want to continue working with me forever. — Veronique Solomon, Interiors of Casa Vilora
How have these challenges changed during the pandemic? How did you approach these changes?
“After 10 years of working with a local company, I left on my own. My business is one year old in June and I got busy very quickly. Right now I have 20 projects I’m working on – and three help me part-time, none of them being designers. I have an accountant, one who helps me with everything I need, like writing proposals and putting together specifications, and the third helps me with software that I use. Now I’m looking to add another part-timer to help me with the bookkeeping. But like my other employees, this new person must be someone who was recommended to me – not someone I’m looking for. She must fall into my lap, so to speak. I like to find people through reliable friends and colleagues, and then trust my instincts. —Mary Zambrano, MariaZInteriors
Cecile Corral is a journalist and entrepreneur who launched her eponymous public relations and marketing company, CecilePRin 2020 after cutting his teeth for over 20 years in the home fashion industry as a top writer and editor.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2022 issue of Designers Today.