Leading With Purpose In Construction and Beyond

This article is included in the Great Things: Issue 7 edition of the DPR Newsletter.

A woman walks up an escalator next to a wall that says "We Exist To Build Great Things"
DPR’s purpose, “We exist to build great things” is featured prominently in many of its offices, including its Pasadena, CA, location. Courtesy of Andrew Leeson

In an era of mass resignations, some companies are going strong. Their secret? Take care of people. When a company embodies purpose, values and beliefs that include respect for its workers, its clients and humanity in general, business thrives.

“Business units with engaged workers have 23% higher profit compared with business units with miserable workers. Additionally, teams with thriving workers see significantly lower absenteeism, turnover and accidents; they also see higher customer loyalty.”

Jon Clifton, CEO of Gallup, June 14, 2022

This story focuses on the roles purpose and values play in companies and explores how these factors influence the way organizations navigate challenges.

A man laughs while holding a winning raffle ticket
Cultivating an environment that actively reinforces company values and encourages the right action improves loyalty, provides a framework for navigating challenges. Courtesy of Matt Pranzo

Articulating the Why

Purpose is the basis of who an organization is, and how it works internally and externally. From construction to life sciences to healthcare, a unifying vision provides common ground for those involved—promoting a shared understanding, increasing trust and fostering collective action. It is fundamental in attracting and retaining workers and in building successful customer relationships.

Employees and customers alike demand more than an attractive bottom line when evaluating prospective organizations. Both groups seek out companies whose purpose resonates with their own ideals. Surveys from Porter Novelli and Aflac found that 88% of employees believe it is “no longer acceptable for companies just to make money” and 70% of consumers believe large companies have a responsibility to make the world a better place.

To continue operating at a high level, organizations must be able to define and articulate their values authentically and to demonstrate their commitment to those ideals through action.

“Welcome to the new American workplace, where having a positive impact and embracing a sense of purpose are mandatory for attracting younger workers, who demand that employers demonstrate purpose beyond profit.”

TIME, May 13, 2022

Embracing a purpose sets the tone for the culture, establishes an identity within the community and sets a framework for decision making. But what is ‘purpose’? According to Jim Collins in BE 2.0, ‘purpose’ is the fundamental reason for a company’s existence. A company’s purpose never changes. Consider the following:

  • Kaiser Permanente “exists to provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of [its] members and the communities [it serves].”
  • Merck says, “We use the power of leading-edge science to save and improve lives around the world.”
  • Meta’s mission is to “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.”
  • White Lodging’s vision is to “Provide incredible value and genuine care for associates, guests and owners.”
  • DPR’s purpose is “We exist to build great things.”

Each of these organizations has considered and articulated who they are, what they do and why they do it in a way that makes sense to their employees and those who need their services.

A man stands to ask a question in a crowd
DPR’s “Culture Con Roadshow” invites all employees in each business unit to create a deeper cultural connection to the company and ask questions of leadership. Live, simultaneous Spanish translation is available at every event so employees can listen and speak from the “language of their heart.”. Courtesy of Matt Pranzo

Purpose works hand-in-hand with a set of core values and beliefs that provide guidance for all decision-making. At Mark Cavagnero Associates, an architecture firm based in San Francisco, designers focus on making great places for their clients and the community at large. Their core values emerged and grew through their work. Understanding the client's vision, the site specifics and the needs of the program drives every design.

As Paul Davison, senior associate at Mark Cavagnero Associates said, “When approaching a problem, we’re synthesizing a lot of different factors and requirements and trying to understand which is most important and how it connects back to what our client is trying to achieve.”

Values represent who the workers are as people and drive how a company chooses and works with clients. They influence how an organization interacts with the community and reflect the type of people a company wants to hire, as well as help to attract talent. According to a survey conducted by Porter Novelli, 69% of employees polled said they would refuse to work for a company that doesn’t have a strong purpose and 60% of employees would take a pay cut to work at a purpose-driven company.

Stating a company purpose and core values is not enough though. As the saying goes, “proof is in the pudding.” As Kaushal Diwan of DPR said, “DPR relies on a strong foundation for culture. If we say that our purpose, core values, and mission are just something that we put on the wall, but then our people don’t live it, breathe it and feel it every day, then it’s not going to happen.”

Employees must process the vision, purpose, values and mission, then take action. Purpose-driven companies that empower their workers to act are better placed to attract the right workers who will, in turn, strengthen and promote the values that attract purpose-driven customers.

A team of workers stand in a circle next to the steel structure of a building.
The construction industry will need to attract nearly 650,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2022 to meet demand, per ABC News. Courtesy of David Cox

Navigating Challenges Purposefully

Companies are better equipped to overcome obstacles when their culture is grounded in a purpose—they already have blueprints in place.

As anyone in the industry knows, the conventional process of designing and constructing a building can be fragmented. Forbes acknowledged the gap between architecture and construction, which has been a historically siloed process, in a recent article. This sometimes-counterproductive relationship is fueled by traditional procurement delivery systems. By contrast, collaborative delivery methods—including contractual mechanisms like design-build and Integrated Project Delivery (IPD), and non-contractual approaches like the “Big Room,” Lean construction and design-to-build—work best when there’s common purpose.

Sally Whiteley, clinical planner at integrated design firm SmithGroup (whose company purpose is to “Design a better future”), recalled working on a recent project: “The big room environment is invigorating because passion is catching. That [passion] helped resolve so much at the project team level. The client saw value in how the team came up with dozens of solutions to find best value, because we all wanted the best for this project. This notion of integrity and respect became part of the big room culture, as did understanding how your work impacts others.”

Beyond the interpersonal benefits of creating a workplace where teammates respect each other—and may even reap greater levels of enjoyment at work—collaboration makes sense. The efficiency, timeliness and profitability of a project are highly dependent on the coordination and cooperation among the stakeholders involved, per ENR. And the trend toward greater collaboration has been increasing: The Design-Build Institute of America estimates that design-build contracts may account for nearly half (47%) of construction spending by 2025.

Purpose, as the foundation for collaboration, may be one way to boost hiring and retaining quality workers. ABC News reports the industry will need to attract nearly 650,000 additional workers on top of the normal pace of hiring in 2022 to meet the demand for labor. “The workforce shortage is the most acute challenge facing the construction industry,” said ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu.

“The construction industry hasn’t done the best job of articulating the purpose of what we do,” said DPR’s Atul Khanzode. “When in fact, what each of us touches contributes to the betterment of our communities, whether it's in healthcare, life sciences, higher education or advanced technology. The facilities that we build are the backbone for a lot of things in our society, from hospitals that heal the sick, to data centers that store, process and disseminate information and applications, and connect the world we live in.” In other words, construction has a direct connection to improving people’s lives.

Scientists work in a lab
The Weill Neurosciences Building was conceived as a place to marry scientific research into afflictions of the brain with a care facility for patients. Courtesy of Kyle Jeffers

Moving Forward with Common Purpose at UCSF

The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) has a mission to “advance health worldwide.” DPR, in partnership with SmithGroup and Mark Cavagnero Associates, brought to life a first-of-its-kind facility at UCSF: the Joan and Sanford I. Weill Neurosciences Building, conceived as a place to marry scientific research into afflictions of the brain with a care facility for patients.

Suzanne Napier, SmithGroup’s science and technology leader and the project’s architect of record, said, “The best types of projects benefit humanity as a whole and this project directly focuses on curing terrible diseases. It was easy for everyone involved to see the value the project held because nearly everyone knows someone who has been affected by diseases of the brain.”

“This project was a great responsibility,” said Davison. “We were there to support the researchers, clinicians and staff who do work that will improve society. Imagine what happens when we can cure Alzheimer's. Imagine what happens when a child that can barely walk, can run.”

The project was not without its challenges. The pandemic hit in the middle of construction. Along with most businesses, the project was temporarily paused for nearly two months due to a local shelter-in-place order and UCSF safety restrictions. When the state of California classified construction workers as essential personnel, the restart effort centered around the monumental logistical task of bringing a large workforce—more than 300 people on any given day—back safely. They did so under newly developed protocols that dramatically changed the way in which workers performed their jobs, while maintaining a high degree of excellence in construction.

“We had to protect their health, and treat [a restart] with a level of seriousness that we would treat any other high hazard activity on a construction site,” said DPR’s Jack Poindexter at the time.

DPR and the entire project team drew from the larger foundation of a common purpose, core values, and a strong culture to devise a plan that balanced worker health, recognized the schedule, and produced a project that successfully mitigated jobsite transmission of COVID-19. Focusing on the larger vision that the university had for the building, and the patients who would receive care, created a connection that drove the team to deliver a high-quality, transformative building. The project was awarded the 2022 Real Estate Deal of the Year by the San Francisco Business Times.

A crane stands in the middle of an active construction site.
When the state of California classified construction workers as essential personnel, the restart effort centered around the monumental logistical task of bringing a large workforce—more than 300 people on any given day—back safely. Courtesy of Barry Fleisher

Creating Direct Links

People and their actions are the culture of an organization, so the only way to manifest values is to attract, hire and retain workers. Cultivating an environment that actively reinforces company values and encourages the right action improves loyalty, provides a framework for navigating challenges and benefits the greater good. And it helps the organization to survive financially so that it can continue to do great work.

“When you work in design and construction, the impact of your work is tangible,” said Whiteley. “You can see, touch and experience the buildings you create. There’s a very direct link between what you're doing and how you will affect an ill person, for instance. And that's a very authentic thing.”