Working is More Than Just Working
By Alex Knesnik, AIA, LEED AP
This is an article written by Alex Knesnik, a former employee of Alliance Architects. While Alex left us a few years back in order to pursue a writing career, he has allowed us to republish this article to remind us of and underscore the culture of camaraderie and community involvement we continuously strive to permeate throughout the firm. I am thankful to have such a committed and fun group of professionals making up the backbone of our firm.
I don’t volunteer, and I don’t do mornings. When someone stands in front of the room – on a stage, perhaps – and he says, “I need a volunteer from the audience,” I try to make myself as small as possible and sit lower in my seat. When Saturdays come and a sliver of light creeps around my blackout shades into my bedroom and delicately brushes my forehead, I pull my covers over my head and I hiss at the coming day.
So what could have persuaded me to volunteer for a Saturday morning of stacking cans for charity? It is the atmosphere of camaraderie and fellowship that infuses my firm.
Joven, one of my colleagues, tells his story about our firm this way. He had interviews with two other firms within a few days. Charlie, our boss and one of the principals of the firm, invited him to interview during the winding-down hours of a Friday. They talked through serious, dry, typical interview topics – Joven’s experience, education, and the inevitable “what would you say is your biggest flaw?” Outside the glass-walled conference room people passed by with chips, cheese dip, cookies, and bubbly drink- filled plastic cups. Joven, who faced the glass wall, kept looking up and thinking, “Hey this is kinda cool.” He says now that Charlie probably set the appointment time purposefully to coincide with the party. Further, he probably set Joven facing the glass wall on purpose. Charlie’s a wily guy; I can see him doing that. However, this is more than evidence of Charlie’s salesmanship. It also speaks to the pride he has in the social atmosphere in the firm. He values and wants to show off this time when his employees take the pins out of their hair and shake out the workweek.
One month ago, the firm was crowded into the conference room enjoying one of these Friday afternoon meetings of decompression. On the table were a cheese tray, a plastic container of cupcakes, a bowl of chocolate-covered strawberries, and more bubbly liquids. The head of the CANstruction Committee talked about the next day’s agenda; we would build our Very Hungry Caterpillar out of cans of green beans, corn, and other foodstuffs. She said that volunteers would have to be at the shopping center at five o’clock in the morning. (If you don’t know about CANstruction, please follow the link here.) I think I had had too much bubbly liquid because I raised my hand.
Or maybe it was that I had spent a month on the periphery of the preparations for our Very Hungry Caterpillar. I had seen Joven plan it on the company’s computers, during company time. Had seen the CANstruction committee go to Sam’s to buy, with company money, the cans and foodstuffs that would be donated to a local foodbank. Had seen them spend more company hours building a full mock-up of the caterpillar in the middle of the open office during company time. Maybe I had seen people inspired by leadership that watches the financial bottom line but also believes in engendering a community spirit in its employees.
In preparing for this article, I asked my colleagues to write a few sentences about the various ongoing fellowship and social activities. To help generate those thoughts, I made a list: Hearts & Hammers, CANstruction, Retrospect, those Friday afternoon parties, golf, racquetball, holiday parties, and open houses. I got a few written responses, but I also got yells from across the office: “Don’t forget about Shreveport!”… “Don’t forget about the Vegas trip!” (Those last two are not company sponsored, by the way.) Before you think, “Well he works for a party firm. Who wouldn’t want to work there?” let me tell you I spent many months in 2002-2003 working sixty-to-eighty hour workweeks. And I did it because I believed in the product I was putting out, and I believed in the company I was doing it for.
I started working for this company in 1999, I worked for them for five years, and then I left knowing I would miss the friendships I had made. At the time I had been given an offer that I wrongly thought was too good to pass up. Now I’ve returned to the firm, and I see that it wasn’t just the friendships I missed when I left. The friendships could only have grown with the encouragement from the top.
Now I’ve come to the more difficult part of this essay because I know that other young architects are not blessed to work for a company like mine. I also know that in today’s economy, other young architects may not want to search out companies like mine. In response to those two legitimate concerns, I have two simple ways to find the same spirit where you work now:
- Initiate. Invite someone to lunch. Gather the foursome sitting immediately around your cube to a happy hour. Tell your cube-mate about the last album you downloaded. Spend a lunch hour making a plan on how to make your company a more community-focused company. Make an appointment with your HR representative or principal to go over your plan.
- Join. Find a committee at your local AIA chapter. Look for a charity to which you want to donate your time. Pull your headphones out long enough to hear the conversations around you.
If a shunner of light like me can roll out of bed at five o’clock on a Saturday morning to spend some time with my co-workers, anyone can.