How HKS is unleashing the power of diversity to take the firm to new heights
HKS is a global architecture firm with a global vision to match.
At first glance, a global vision seems to imply that they have an international presence, with projects ranging from healthcare to commercial and everything in between.
But there’s another layer, which is their commitment to be just, equitable, diverse, and inclusive. For short, it’s a formal program with a “force”ful acronym: JEDI.
Even before the pandemic hit and inspired companies to hire employees living anywhere in the world, HKS was investing in the JEDI program, helmed by director Yiselle Santos.
Creating the program wasn’t simple. But as Yiselle describes, it’s all about the long-term vision. Here’s how you can get started.
Define a shared vocabulary
As mentioned above, JEDI stands for Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.
To incorporate such practices at your company, you first need to agree on what broad terms like this mean.
“My biggest challenges have been solidifying the common language. So that when we talk about justice, we’re all talking about the same thing,” Yiselle said.
“When we talk about equity, we're talking about access to resources, about a framework that provides access to those resources. When we talk about diversity, we're talking about representation. We're not talking about the token person. We're talking about what representation means to have agency at the table. And that's very different.”
Yiselle drew on the AIA’s guides for equitable practice as well as her firm’s four pillars of business to outline JEDI. HKS’ four pillars are as follows:
- Equity: how the firm structures support and access to resources
- Workplace culture: how the firm builds a sense of belonging, celebrating and leveraging differences to promote innovation
- Designing for inclusion: how the firm acknowledges all employees and recognizes who’s already at the proverbial table - and who still needs a seat
- Advising for inclusion: the firm’s long-term goals to advocate for equitable and inclusive practices.
Tying together these existing threads and resources allowed her to map out a formalized understanding of these big concepts.
Get buy-in at every levelNext up is the process of getting company-wide buy-in. That includes executive leadership, but is not limited to it.
“My role was generated by leadership and it needs to have that leadership buy-in. But also at the grassroots level, you need people in every office to want to do this work, to want to engage in this work,” Yiselle said.
That’s why the JEDI program formed a council comprised of employees across the spectrum, one that is diverse in rank and title as well as gender and race.
JEDI leaders at each main office take the lead on identifying challenges and initiatives based on what they’re seeing and hearing at each given location.
“What does it look like? How do you build belonging in your offices? What I wanted to do was create a structure that could leverage what was happening in the offices,” Yiselle said.
One way to get initial buy-in for a JEDI-style program? Present leadership with the statistics showing that diverse, well-managed teams are more effective than homogenous teams, hands down.
“If you have greater diversity on a board, you become part of the top cortile of organizations that deliver the most profit,” Yiselle said.
Increased profit and innovation are an enticing prospect for any firm that needs encouragement.
Anchor your program with a mission and visionOnce you have support, you can begin to formalize your program.
For best results, ground your strategy in a clear vision and mission that is aligned with your company’s existing philosophy.
“It took a long time for even myself to be comfortable with articulating: this is a strategy, there is a vision,” Yisells said.
It proved easiest to make the JEDI mission parallel to the company mission, and center her vision for the program around that.
“It anchors you consistently, and it empowers you to do the work that you need to do. Because you don't feel like you exist in a vacuum. You're constantly going back and referencing the big picture, and acknowledging that this is a strategy that is firm-wide,” Yiselle said.
And all you're doing is championing and moving that forward.”
Focus on business outcomesTo further tie your program to firm initiatives, try to speak in terms of clear outcomes that resonate with business outcomes whenever possible.
“There are people that are saying, of course, ‘why are we investing in JEDI? We're a design firm. We're an architecture firm. That's a lot of time and energy that we're focusing on something extra.’ So pulling it always back to the business case,” Yiselle said.
At the core, it’s all about value. What values will the program bring to the table? How will you consistently push that messaging forward?
At the end of the day, you want to think in terms of community outcomes.
Set metrics for social justiceThe best way to see if your initiatives are bearing fruit is to look for metrics that you can track.
Currently, Yiselle is choosing to focus on micro-projects. Sometimes it’s helpful to focus on small areas where you can truly get a handle on what you want to measure, and how you’re going to analyze the impacts.
After you set metrics that you can track, take the time to understand what the data is telling you. Once you see what’s working, you can start making it repeatable.
“In the future, we can recognize that our top projects internally look like this. The teams that achieve those projects look like this. And this is the kind of leader that embodied the set of values that enabled those teams that enabled that project,” Yiselle said.
As mentioned earlier, this undertaking is a long game.
“I would like to focus on the next few years to really delve into the data. Partner with people that are leading in this space. Then define maybe what we have historically called high-performing teams,” Yiselle said. “Then, set goals for maybe greater profit.”
Look at the long gameIt’s hard to reprogram your head from billable hours to projects that have less tangible benchmarks. But with JEDI programs, you need to be able to accept fuzzier goalposts.
“I was working on projects for 14 years. All I did was sit in front of the computer and think about deliverables. So pivoting to thinking about strategy, about initiatives. Yes, they may seem finite, but the goal is for them to be sustainable and long-term. It's about the longevity of the firm. There's no timeline to that,” Yiselle said.
You may not have an immediate deliverable to share that shows impact or profitability, and that’s OK.
It doesn't always start and end with profit, either.
“Maybe it starts with people feeling like they have greater agency. Maybe we come to find that it's not more meetings, but it's more reporting, or better reporting, or quicker check-ins. There's so many ways to unpack that,” Yiselle said.
The important part is to create that vision, set what benchmarks you can, and start the deliberate process of unpacking.
Join us on Thursday, January 14th for Best Practice, a virtual fireside chat series dedicated to practice operations at architecture firms and beyond. From pain points to potential, hear how leaders in the architecture and engineering industry are innovating through new business models and managerial techniques.
We’re chatting with Yiselle Santos Rivera, AIA, NOMA, LSSYB, WELL AP, LEED AP. Yiselle is a medical planner and the Firmwide Director of Justice, Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion at HKS. With national and international experience on a broad range of projects, she thrives on building belonging, equitable practices, and designing for inclusion. Seeking to empower the next generation of leaders, she co-founded the Latin American Interior Designers, Engineers, and Architects (LA.IDEA) DC Committee and founded the “Women Inspiring Emerging Leaders in Design” (WIELD) event, recipient of the 2019 AIA Diversity Program Recognition Award. Yiselle serves on the AIA National Board, the AIA DC Chapter Board, and is a DC NOMA Board Advisor. She is a member of the AIA Equity and the Future of Architecture Board Committee, the New Urban Agenda Taskforce, and the AIA COVID-19 Health Impact Taskforce.
In this 45 minute chat, we'll talk to Yiselle about equity, diversity, & inclusion within AEC firms.
- How can firms design for inclusion?
- What does an equitable practice look like?
- What can firms do to empower the next generation of leaders?
- and More!
HKS is an interdisciplinary global design firm, whose team expands beyond architects and interior designers to include researchers, urban designers, nurses, anthropologists, graphic designers and more. HKS views design as a process of discovery, and design research enables them to experiment, improve, and design smarter solutions for a more resilient future.