Diversity and Design Innovation

The high quality of Fisher  ARCHitecture designs is the result of work undertaken by our well-educated, multicultural staff: In the past three years, we’ve employed interns from Pakistan, China, India, Columbia, Dubai, Iran, and Turkey.  As well we have hosted three new-to-Pittsburgh UDream interns courtesy of the CMU Remaking Cities UDream program.  In a recent report titled, “Diversity And Design Innovation”, reprinted below, doctoral student, Marty Jacobs, suggested that our innovative approach to cross-cultural management “should be the envy of the industry”.

 

 

“Diversity and Design Innovation: The Story of Fisher ARCHitecture” 

Marty Jacobs – Saybrook University

 

Fisher ARCHitecture was established by principal Eric Fisher about ten years ago and “has become a recognized advocate for quality, contemporary, Pittsburgh Green design” (Fisher ARCHitecture, n.d., Homepage). The buildings the firm designs are contemporary and connected to what is being built around the world while being somewhat provocative for Pittsburgh. The firm hires three different types of interns: architectural interns who are paid a modest salary, unpaid interns from all over the world who want some work experience and to get into a good graduate school, and unpaid interns from other countries whose visas do not allow them to be paid.

 

The firm’s office is located in Eric’s home, which he specifically designed to house his firm. The house, which is situated in downtown Pittsburgh, has an open layout conducive to collaborative work, as well as a resident cat. Music is a part of the firm’s culture, and everyone is expected to take turns choosing the music for the day. On Fridays the entire team is treated to lunch and those who want are encouraged to have a beer with lunch. Overall, the atmosphere is open, friendly, relaxed, and very collaborative.

 

This purpose of this report is to give an overview of the work conducted by Marty Jacobs, a doctoral student in Organizational Systems at Saybrook University for her Organizational Culture and Cross-cultural Management course. The course assignment was to interview three leaders in an organization that hires people from other cultures to learn what these leaders do to manage cross-culturally. Interviews with Eric Fisher, Iliya Jordanoff, and Hallie Dumont were conducted in May 2016 and asked the following questions:

 

  1. Why do you hire the interns and how do you integrate them into the firm?
  2. Do you notice challenges that arise that may be due to different cultural understandings and values? If so, what are they and how do you manage them?
  3. How would you describe your management style?
  4. How has that style helped and/or hindered managing cross-culturally?
  5. How much do the interns work as part of a team vs. individually? How well do they adapt to that?
  6. How do you help your interns resolve conflicts and is it effective?
  7. What have been your biggest challenges managing cross-culturally and how have you addressed them?
  8. What have been your biggest successes?
  9. What sorts of things do you do to help your interns understand US culture better?
  10. How much do you encourage your interns to share their culture?
  11. What advice would you give to someone new to cross-cultural management?

Below is an analysis of those interviews:

 

Fisher ARCHitecture hires interns for a variety of reasons. It is a convenient method for finding summer help, and the interns bring in new ideas and perspectives and share what is currently being taught in architecture. The firm enjoys the idea that they are helping these young people get a start on their careers. The interns integrate seamlessly into the firm, mainly attributed to the open design of the workspace and the comfortable, friendly atmosphere. The interns are encouraged to listen to what is being discussed and to observe meetings to learn as much as they can.

 

The biggest challenge that arises with international interns is the language barrier. However, architecture has a language all its own through its sketches and models, and these often bridge the language barrier. Some interns are not comfortable speaking out or challenging the ideas of someone older, male, and more experienced and thus are encouraged to gain more comfort with that style of interaction. The firm works to build the trust of their interns so that they develop this comfort. The differences among the interns are less about culture and more about skills. Therefore, the interns learn to share their skills and play to each other’s strengths.

 

Overall, the management style at Fisher ARCHitecture is low-key and casual. They set reasonable goals for the interns while still challenging them. They lead by example and let the interns struggle a bit with a problem before stepping in. This creates an environment that, unlike larger architectural firms, is relatively stress-free, nurturing, and empowering. This helps with the interns’ integration, especially since for many, the internship is their first job in a professional setting. They often ask the interns for their feedback on projects, allowing them an opportunity to feel competent. The flexibility of the open environment also makes it possible to deal with situations as they arise. The only concern raised about this management style was if it might hinder some who are not accustomed to asking questions openly or going to a superior for guidance. It seems like that may be a problem only before the interns begin to feel at home. They have yet to see an intern who did not respond positively to their environment.

 

The interns at Fisher ARCHitecture are often paired to work on models, and they quickly recognize each other’s skill sets and play to those strengths. The firm prides itself for its collaborative work, and the interns are able to enjoy working on a group project without the worries of grades or credit. They find that the interns tend to be more invested in the work when they are working as part of a team. The intent is to give the interns an immersive experience. Most interns have generally adapted to the collaborative environment within two weeks of starting.

 

Fisher ARCHitecture has no formal policies on how to handle conflict in the workplace. There have been very few conflicts, and the more likely scenario involves concerns over job performance. The typical response is to sit down and discuss it, attempting to understand the intern’s perspective and reiterating expectations. Sometimes they will print out a previous job to help with understanding. Occasionally the interns feel inadequate, so the firm will emphasize their strengths. Eric feels strongly that if any of the interns fail, it is his problem and not theirs–he did not do his job if his interns are not successful. Sometimes because of age, experience, or cultural differences, interns are hesitant to speak up about their concerns. The firm continually works with them to communicate openly to avoid conflict.

 

The biggest challenge that Fisher ARCHitecture has faced with the interns is the language barrier. As noted earlier, architecture has a universal language but there are times when even that is not enough. The firm stresses open communications and careful listening as a remedy. Another challenge in managing the interns is when is it proper to question or ask for help, which are typically handled with encouragement to do both. Successes, on the other hand, are more abundant. The firm is proud that many of their interns have gone on to prestigious graduate schools, and they hope that these up-and-coming architects will also establish their own firms that are open and collaborative. They also delight in seeing everyone in the firm absorbed in their collaborative and creative work and relish the thought that the firm is giving these interns something special. They also see the value that these interns bring to the firm through their different perspectives.

 

In addition to helping the interns integrate at the firm, Fisher ARCHitecture also helps the interns understand more about U.S. culture. Choosing the music of the day gives the staff an opportunity to introduce the interns to various genres of U.S. music. There is a significant amount of discussion of current events and pop culture in the office, and the Friday lunches offer an opportunity to have more conversation. Eric invites interns to as many of the events around Pittsburgh as possible. Likewise, interns are encouraged to share their culture, from their music to what they cook. They are encouraged to tell stories about their lives and their culture, and when it comes to work, the interns are often asked how they would handle a particular situation in their country.

 

Fisher ARCHitecture clearly understands how to manage cross-culturally. They would advise newcomers to cross-cultural management to be patient, kind, and open with communications. It works best if you can create a dialogue to try to understand their base of knowledge and ask what questions they have. It is important to treat people as individuals and not as products of their culture, and it helps to be aware of differences in age, personality, and education. It is imperative to maintain an open mind and try to understand the different perspectives. As Eric said, “we are richer for our differences, and there’s more that unites us than divides us” (Fisher, personal communications, May 4, 2016).

 

It is clear that our global society will continue down the path of more diversity and multi-cultural workplaces. Many of us continue to have a tendency toward a parochial view of our culture and a monolithic view of other cultures, but it behooves us to begin to recognize that both our own culture and that of others are multi-varied and constantly changing. Cultures reflect the compilation of the individual stories of its members as well as its traditions and history. If we embrace our differences, we discover new meaning and create new knowledge, an invaluable process that moves us toward innovative ideas and solutions. While it is important to maintain our uniqueness, it is equally important to find common ground.

 

Fisher ARCHitecture is an example of the firm of the future–one that embodies the ideals of diversity and creativity and seamlessly manages cross-culturally. The fact that it is a small firm makes it easier to accomplish this, but it is also abundantly clear that the leadership of Eric Fisher and his staff sets the tone and models the behavior they want to see in their interns. They have been able to transcend the stereotypes and welcome differences–indeed, they seek them out. The result is a relaxed, comfortable, and collaborative environment that produces quality and innovative designs and enables interns to further their careers in architecture. They should be the envy of the industry.

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