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Communication, Trust, Transparency: How The Culture Of A Contracting Firm Can Impact Project Outcomes

Swinerton employees

When developers set out to choose a general contractor, the first things they look at are cost, schedule, past projects, safety measures and a contractor’s overall ability to handle the job. While these are fundamental things to consider and essential for success, one key factor that shouldn't be overlooked is a company’s culture. 

“When choosing a GC, you should look beyond the fundamentals and explore the company culture and how employers treat their people,” said Lauren Nunnally, chief talent officer at Swinerton, a national contracting firm. “Culture is more than just the values and beliefs a company lists on its website; it's how those values and beliefs drive actions and decisions and ultimately influence the experience developers have when working with them.” 

Nunnally said that there are several things developers should take into account when evaluating the culture of a GC firm. They include how the firm interacts with its community, interacts with its partners and treats its employees.

On that last point, Nunnally recommended developers do a little digging to find out what the firm’s employee experience is truly like: How are employees recognized and rewarded for their work? Are they even rewarded at all? How does the company invest in employee development? What efforts has it made to drive diversity and inclusion? 

“A lot of research has shown that having happy employees who feel empowered and a strong sense of belonging tends to lead to happy customers,” Nunnally said. “So I think understanding how employees are treated and feeling about their organization is really important.” 

Swinerton employees formed a volunteer team for She Builds, a subgroup of Rebuilding Together, to transform a community play yard.

She added that communication is key; how a firm communicates with its employees and business partners can go a long way toward ensuring the success of a project. Some questions developers should be asking of their GCs are: How do they practice transparency and sharing information openly? How are they proactive with their communication? Are they frequent or infrequent communicators, and what are their preferred communication methods?

Construction projects require a lot of transparency and communication to succeed — and that includes communication among GCs, subcontractors, architects, clients and more. Often, there need to be uncomfortable conversations about costs, schedule and unforeseen issues, which is why it is so important to work with a company that has a culture that encourages having uncomfortable conversations and trains its employees on how to effectively do so. Otherwise, a team’s members may be prone to not disclosing important information or delaying communications in a way that hinders collaboration and the team’s ability to get in front of issues before they cause major problems.

“When people are open and effective with their communication, it really contributes to positive outcomes in a project,” Nunnally said. “They're collaborative and transparent and, importantly, they make an effort to connect with their partners on not just a professional basis but really get to know them as people and build positive, long-lasting relationships based on trust.” 

Another key aspect of a company’s culture that Nunnally recommended developers investigate is its hiring processes and philosophies, particularly its intentionality in building diverse teams. She said that it is essential for a company to demonstrate diversity in both the traditional and nontraditional senses to ensure a range of ideas and voices are heard. 

“Diversity of perspectives, styles, backgrounds, experiences, skill sets — the more diversity you can have on a team, the better off you're going to be,” Nunnally said. “If everybody thinks the same or approaches a situation the same or agrees all the time, then you're probably not finding the best solutions. And it’s important to note that it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to fully achieve nontraditional diversity without traditional diversity.”

She added that diversity is especially important at the entry level because those employees are the future of the company. At Swinerton, for example, 50% of the company’s 2020 interns identified as people of color.

“At Swinerton, we have a strong promote-from-within culture,” Nunnally said. “So we put a heavy emphasis on entry-level recruiting and then focus on developing talent and providing internal career opportunities from there. Swinerton provides both career and financial opportunities for all of its employees. As an employee-owned company, every member of the staff can own company stock."

An example of a local informational community outreach event.

Swinerton also considers itself a community builder. Nunnally said that how a GC interacts with its community shows its commitment to building projects that will improve the environment and the locations in which it operates. Swinerton employees have performed more than 6,500 hours of community service, and in 2020, 16% of the company’s subcontractor and supplier spending was with small local and diverse firms across the country.

The company also puts on workshops for subcontractor partners, minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses that want to learn more about how to work with a big GC.

Swinerton partners with community-based organizations and workforce development programs to increase diverse craft representation as well. Part of the mission of The Swinerton Foundation’s Tony Williamson Building Better Futures Scholarship is to increase diversity in the construction workforce. The scholarship is awarded to outstanding individuals who are pursuing a career in the skilled trades and includes a monetary award that can be used to purchase tools or pay union dues, as well as a three-month paid internship with Swinerton.

A Swinerton helmet featuring the company's "YFNY" slogan

Safety is also a top priority at Swinerton, Nunnally said, as it should be at all GC firms. The company’s coronavirus safety plan was so impressive, its clients were asking for copies. You will hear the phrase “YFNY,” which stands for Your Family Needs You, daily at Swinerton. But Swinerton goes beyond caring for the physical safety of its employees and is focusing on their mental well-being as well.

“Psychological safety on our job sites is something we are really focusing on,” Nunnally said. “Anyone coming to a Swinerton office or job site should feel not just safe but also comfortable being at work and being themselves.” 

She added that the company is also expanding on its definition of “You” in its YFNY motto. 

“We know our employees’ families need them — but they don’t just need them to be physically present; they also need them to be mentally present as well,” Nunnally said. “We’re trying to create work environments where people can leave at the end of the day and truly be present with their families, not exhausted and overworked.”

At the end of the day, Nunnally said, one of the most important indicators that a GC has a strong, positive company culture is the presence of passion. Are employees passionate, enthusiastic and excited about what they do? And does this attitude permeate throughout the organization, at all levels, in all roles? If so, that is a great indicator that a company is creating a positive work environment, and that the work their employees perform is going to be a reflection of that passion. 

“As a team, we're competing together to push ourselves and be better every day than we were the day before,” Nunnally said. “I think it comes from the fact that we're a passionate group of people who love the work and the company we represent. If I had to distill down our culture and what makes it unique, that would be one of the top things I would pick.” 

This article was produced in collaboration between Swinerton and Studio B. Bisnow news staff was not involved in the production of this content.

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