Charged with maximizing returns to employers on critical but unpredictable human “assets” in a fast-changing professional services marketplace, design-firm human-resources chiefs last week shared key challenges and some innovations at a New York City conference on May 12, sponsored by EFCG, an industry financial management firm.

According to an EFCG survey, based on direct responses from 104 companies and public data, women fared somewhat better in firms with less than $100 million revenue, averaging 30.1% of staff, compared to 27.6% at those firms larger than $1 billion. The opposite was true for minorities, who made up 25.1% of employees at the largest firms but just 11.9% at the smallest.

Women make up 12% of executives and 16% of managers at surveyed firms, and project-manager compensation shows a “consistent” 10% gap between females and males at all levels surveyed, said EFCG researcher Joe Smetona. Nearly 60% of respondents said their firms don’t require managers to have specific diversity goals, and only 55% have a designated budget for diversity recruitment and training.

“We’re all in a tough spot with compensation,” said Brian Kundert, HR vice president at Arcadis. “There’s constant margin pressure, and payroll is the biggest driver.” After a review, the firm is altering its incentive pay program, adding quarterly promotions and adustment reviews, rather than “ad hoc ones based solely on squeaky wheels,” Kundert said.

Kevin Brown, vice president at Atkins North America, said the firm is turning to more flexible schedules and possibly assistance to employees in paying off college loans.

But in acknowledging client resistance to covering rising talent costs, “we have to round out our value proposition,” Kundert noted.

Mary Mosqueda, compensation practice leader at Lockton Cos., a large insurance broker, said that in a recent survey by the firm, said "learning and development" opportunities are a key motivator for millennial employees.

She said employers also are seeking ways to challenge productivity by "putting more pay at risk," noting that some now make 30% of employee compensation "variable."

While few firms had formally engaged reputation management vendors such as, Michael Baker HR chief Joe Bongiovi said his company encourages employees and prospects to engage the site but said firms need to better monitor negative chatter and clarify inaccuracies.

George Pierson, former CEO of Parsons Brinckerhoff, urged the HR chiefs to embrace a key role in firms as “consiglieres” to their CEOs, serving as a “mirror” to reflect the real environment of the workplace. "That's what distinguishes superior chief HROs from the also-rans," he said, urging them to “be in the CEO’s office every day.”