By William Richards

Last year, VMDO’s Michelle Amt, FAIA, wrote about the firm’s commitment to “radical transparency” on the road to 2030. She was reflecting on the prior year’s achievement: VMDO’s sixth time of reporting its project performance data to the AIA’s 2030 Design Data Exchange (DDx), whose results, she said, “contain victories and defeats that remain untold—untold because we are not even close to hitting our 2030 goals portfolio-wise.”

It seems potentially damaging to a business like VMDO to admit, “Hey, we’re not hitting our marks, even if we believe we’re doing the right thing.” But, Amt’s rationale was simple and compelling: let’s agree that the road to success is paved with failures, and if we can’t talk openly about those setbacks—and why they occurred—we won’t rise to the urgency of decarbonization. We won’t learn from each other if we keep secrets. 

Radical transparency isn’t anti-business, Amt contended. It’s actually pro-business development. 

In today’s architecture world, where performance data and the optics of practicing sustainably form a heady blend, firms that are serious about decarbonization must leverage both to differentiate themselves in a competitive market. The AIA and the U.S. Department of Energy launched DDx in December 2014 with 132 firms reporting project-level information about energy performance. Now it features a decade’s worth of data from 500 firms, which represents a potentially vital data set for the 2030 Commitment’s evolution. 

“The 2030 Commitment has spurred discussions about our role and responsibility when it comes to climate action, resilience, equity, and health [and] after three years of not seeing our firm-wide percent reduction number move significantly, we discussed whether we wanted to focus our business development efforts solely on clients who were already interested in or actively asking for climate action,” said Amt in 2023. “This made us look deeply at how we measure success and impact beyond the DDx.”

What’s so radical about transparency? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t just shine a quick light on data that was once considered, at the very least, uncouth for an employer to reveal about not hitting goals. In a company that practices radical transparency, advocates say it ensures everyone has the ability to shine that light. 

Once you consider net zero benchmarks and an earnest desire to hit them, it’s not too long before you consider the other dimensions of transparency that can push a firm forward.

That includes salaries, long the elephant in the room, but now more and more visible as the crucible of pay inequity between workers who do the same job, as well as between men and women who do the same job. Just Google “gender pay gap in architecture” and see what you come up with.

WPA’s Mel Price, FAIA (once the chair of the AIA Small Firm Exchange when she spoke about the principles of openness in an AIA National interview) has been a tireless advocate of transparency as evidenced by her Norfolk firm, co-founded in 2010 with Thom White, AIA—and an open-office plan pairs well with an open-books plan.

“Back then [in 2010], the economy was shaky and the recovery from the Great Recession was slow-going. It maybe wasn’t an ideal time to try something radical when it came to company finances, but in that moment of uncertainty it was critical to create a culture of trust,” says Price about WPA’s founding.

Today? The firm’s approach to openness appears to be both prescient and also sustainable. 

“The recent business climate hasn’t changed our approach to transparency at all and I really can’t imagine any economic situation that would,” she says. “I think the kind of trust between staff and management that true transparency creates is critical in the current moment as well. I can’t say if transparency is right for every firm all the time. But I do believe that if more firms tried, they would see what we have seen and they wouldn’t go back.”

Radical transparency in companies has been popularized in recent years as a function of equity—openness and visibility in organizational processes, decision-making, and communication. 

Advocates say, in the pro column, radical transparency fosters trust and accountability, and provides employees with a clear understanding of the company’s goals, strategies, and performance metrics. When employees feel informed and involved, they are reportedly more likely to take ownership of their work and hold themselves and their colleagues accountable for outcomes.

It also enhances communication. Transparent communication channels facilitate the exchange of ideas, feedback, and concerns among employees and leadership. By encouraging open dialogue, companies can identify and address issues promptly, leading to improved decision-making and problem-solving.

To Price’s point, it enhances learning and professional development, too. Transparency exposes employees to different aspects of the business, allowing them to gain insights into various functions and roles. This exposure fosters continuous learning and skill development, empowering employees to take on new challenges and expand their expertise.

On the cons side of the page, many observers see privacy concerns as the biggest entry. Radical transparency may infringe on individuals’ privacy, particularly when it involves sharing personal or sensitive information. Employees may feel uncomfortable with the level of exposure, leading to distrust of managers and bosses, and disengagement with the company whose Oz-like revelations are simply just too weird for most people because it’s such a different sort of experience to the vast majority of workplaces. 

It can also lead to misinterpretation of information. Transparent communication can sometimes backfire if not executed carefully. Employees may misinterpret information or jump to conclusions, leading to rumors, misunderstandings, and conflict. Effective communication strategies, such as providing context and clarification, are essential to mitigate this risk. If that weren’t enough, it can lead to the dissemination of information that puts companies at a disadvantage. n highly competitive industries, radical transparency may inadvertently reveal sensitive business strategies or proprietary information to competitors. While transparency promotes trust internally, companies must carefully balance transparency with the need to protect intellectual property and maintain a competitive edge.

Cons aside, at the heart of transparency is a propensity for sharing around the office, which extends beyond pay to more fully define collaboration for the benefit of the project teams. It’s the kind of “silo-buster” that organizations and companies strive, but often fail, to implement. 

For Price, that’s an attractive proposition for prospective employees. 

“Pay transparency has been an excellent recruitment tool. We have had many applicants who say they were attracted to WPA because of our open books policy and those who learn about it during the hiring process are intrigued,” she says—and it even extends to internal company outlooks about ownership. In 2020, WPA went from two owners to eight and, recently, upped that number to 13. 

“We found early on that our open books policy was resulting in an ownership mentality throughout the firm and it seemed only fair to reward that mentality with ownership,” says Price. “That ownership benefit is powerful and helps keep people invested for the long term.”

If you’re reading this and you are a firm owner or employee, what should you take away from WPA’s experience? 

Set salary aside for a second and focus first on the benefits of openness: When employees have access to diverse perspectives and data, they can generate creative solutions to complex problems and drive organizational progress. That holds for any firm across the Commonwealth or, really, anywhere. 

Companies known for their transparency and openness can be seen as desirable employers. Potential recruits are drawn to organizations where they feel valued, respected, and informed about the company’s direction and culture. Radical transparency, it stands to reason then, can help companies attract top talent and retain skilled employees.

Then consider salaries—not as an extreme version of transparency, but as a way to accelerate a real quality of equity within your firm. Once you do that, it’s hard to imagine why radical transparency is the exception and not the rule. 

“We don’t believe anyone in this industry should be underpaid,” says Price. “Firms that are transparent help build awareness around compensation in a way that makes it more likely that architects are being paid what they are worth.”