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How to hold onto a valued employee

NEW YORK — Ray Williams was considered one of the best young architects at BAM Architecture Studio in New York City. His bosses were giving him more responsibility and he was on a path to become a partner.

"He was doing very well with clients," co-owner Pamela Cole says. "We thought he had a very nice design eye."

So it was bad news when Williams announced last summer that he was leaving the company to move to North Carolina to be with his girlfriend.

Many small businesses are likely to face this kind of situation as the improving job market provides more opportunities. Like Cole, employers have to decide how far they'll go to keep a prized staffer.

BAM took a calculated risk and set up a satellite office in Durham. That meant an initial investment of between $10,000 and $20,000 for office space and technology. The company also had to figure out new ways of operating so a remote architect would still feel like he was part of a group. It created an electronic bulletin board and internal log to make communication among all staffers better. Cole says the company is still adjusting.

The venture hasn't been problem-free. "One of the things we found was that Ray was working extraordinarily long hours — 18 hours a day," Cole says. One reason was technical problems. The solution was to keep a tech support consultant on retainer.

But overall, the move is working well. Williams is doing more than designing — he's also working on bringing in new business in North Carolina.

A caveat for owners: When employees want to quit because they're unhappy or have been offered a better position or salary elsewhere, many human resources consultants recommend cutting the cord. Unless you can radically change their job or working conditions, they're likely to remain unhappy.