“I was gutted.”
Those were the words of one architect in the United Kingdom back in 2010 whose son had reached 10 months of age and who wished to return to work on a part-time basis but was told her employer was able to offer full-time working hours only.
Her predicament was not difficult to understand. Due to her family’s financial situation, the mother in question – whose situation was described on the ‘working mums’ website – needed employment yet simultaneously required adequate time to attend to the needs of her son.
As for the industry she worked in, the mother lamented that “architecture is not kind to part-time work.”
A similar predicament confronts many within the profession in Australia. Indeed, when asked about issues such as the need to attract and retain more women within the architecture profession, many industry leaders to whom Sourceable has spoken in recent years speak of the profession’s seeming inability to accommodate flexible working hours. Those leaders also decry cultural issues within the sector whereby those who work long hours (often necessitated by unrealistic deadlines) are perceived as ‘commitment’ and rewarded.
Furthermore, whilst women and mothers are almost certainly the most affected, the need for flexible working arrangements extends to other sections of the workforce as well. Part-time work, for example, facilitates efforts on the part of those approaching retirement age (women and men) to remain engaged within the workforce. Moreover, as participation of women within the workforce grows, so too do expectations about family commitments of men and, on occasion, the portion of men who act as primary caregivers.
Beyond individual benefits however (and benefits to the wider profession), an embrace of flexible working hours delivers benefits for employers as well.
Krista Shearer, managing director of the Sydney office of architecture and design recruitment firm Bespoke Careers, says these benefits fall into several areas. In a tight marketplace, employers who embrace flexible working arrangements are able to unlock and access a segment of the talent pool which is unavailable to firms who do not. More immediately, flexible firms are more able to retain existing skill sets even as the personal circumstances of their workers evolve.
Furthermore, embracing flexible work practices and workforce diversity does wonders for a firm’s reputation in the marketplace. This helps them not only to attract and retain the most suitable workers but is also beneficial for their overall brand.
Moreover, Shearer says, flexible working is congruent with a more contemporary approach toward managing projects and teams, a broader move toward activity based working and the uptake of technologies such as cloud computing.
Whilst room for improvement remains, Shearer is encouraged by an increasing awareness about the importance of skills, output and project delivery rather than simply rewarding the number of hours worked – a trend she says is conducive of greater acceptance of flexible working hours.
Nevertheless, she says barriers remain. Some practices may not have had prior experience with those who have made flexible hours work successfully on prior occasions. Misconceptions about those working part-time being less efficient or less hard-working remain in some parts of the sector. In order to work, meanwhile, flexible hours necessitate a need for a different approach to managing projects which some firms may find challenging.
Melonie Bayl-Smith, director of Sydney-based Bijl Architecture and a board member and Convenor of Pathways at the NSW Architects Registration Board, agrees that embracing part-time work is good for business.
Speaking of her own practice, Bayl-Smith says the employment of two of experienced staff on a part-time basis enables her firm to retain the skills of these people even though the individuals in question have commitments in areas of their lives outside of their employment.
In addition, Bayl-Smith says part-time workers can bring advantages to design teams in that those who spend more time within places such as hospitals, schools and swimming centres often have greater personal interaction with the types of spaces for which teams are asked to design. As a result, these team members may bring a greater conscious awareness and appreciation about how users ‘experience’ certain spaces, which may be reflected in their ideas for design strategies.
Bayl-Smith says the number of workers who desire flexible working arrangements will grow as our population ages and workers need to accommodate commitments to aging parents and older family members (for instance, assistance with attending medical matters and appointments). She has evidenced a growing number of architects who have not only commitments with their children but also with their parents – a challenging scenario even with a part-time work arrangement.
As a result, she says, firms will need to become nimbler in the way they work.
Bayl-Smith acknowledges that a number of practices are making efforts in this area. A growing number of firms, she says, now realise that they need to offer greater flexibility or risk losing valuable workers who either drop out altogether or take up alternative employment at rival firms who are more accommodating of their needs. Indeed, at least on paper, she says the number of firms who offer flexible working arrangements on paper is growing.
Nevertheless, she says many larger practices do not do this well. Part of the problem, she says, revolves around a broader culture of long hours and late nights – practices Bayl-Smith says stem from issues relating to fee structures, unrealistic deadlines and ineffective management practices.
“We make out that we are very creative and that we think around design problems,” Bayl-Smith says, referring to the profession as a whole.
“But I do think that the design problem that we really haven’t turned our minds to enough is being most inclusive of our staff and of people working in the profession.
“It’s one thing to offer part-time work and give someone the opportunity to do that on paper, it’s another thing to change the culture across the profession as a whole.”
Beyond cultural issues, Bayl-Smith and Shearer say barriers toward part-time work are evident in other areas. First, Bayl-Smith says, a number of firms fail to appreciate that projects can be managed in different way and are reluctant to change the way in which they operate or manage projects. Furthermore, a number are fearful of assigning greater responsibility to those who work part-time amid concerns that those employees may not be available when needed. There are also concerns, she says, about those working part-time simply walking out the door at the end of the day and leaving tasks unfinished.
Shearer agrees that some firms may find a change in approach toward project management to accommodate flexible hours difficult. Moreover, she says, some practices may lack prior experience with making flexible working arrangements work in practice. Finally, she said, perceptions about those working part-time being less efficient or hard working persist in some parts of the sector.
To make it work, several strategies are needed. Decisions regarding recruitment and personnel, Shearer said, need to be based around skill sets and requirements for the role in question rather than availability of hours. Some roles such as site architecture, for example, may indeed be ideally suited to flexible working arrangements as these people do not need necessarily to be on site at all times. Part-time arrangements, she said, could also be entered into on a trial basis with a review period (say, six months) to ensure that these arrangements are delivering mutually workable outcomes. Firms can also implement policies which are friendly to part-time workers by, for instance, specifying that meetings be scheduled at times during the day which would not preclude those with commitments such as school drop-offs and pick-ups from attending.
To address concerns about part-timers and their lack of accessibility/potential for incomplete work, Bayl says effort is needed from both sides. On the part of practices, she says it is important that the part-time nature of the arrangement is respected and that firms avoid efforts to contact the individuals in question outside of their work hours.
Nevertheless, she says that individuals who work part-time need to understand that it is a two-way street and that they need to play their part. This may entail, for instance, adopting a more proactive approach toward their time management or communication in order to ensure they do not unduly impact their employer by being less available than full-time workers.
In her own firm, Bayl says she had one case in the past where a worker struggled in this area and thus the arrangement did not deliver an acceptable outcome for the practice.
Meanwhile, both Shearer and Bayl recommended one particular arrangement in which part-time staff at a more senior level are paired up with less senior full-timers. As well as project continuity and a point-of-contact even during hours where the senior person is not available, this aids the development of the junior employee, who can not only receive mentoring but can also assume greater responsibilities on the projects in question.
Shearer says perceptions about part-time workers being less efficient or less hard working are false. Time spent in a chair, she says, bears no relationship with productivity or outcomes delivered.
As for fears about assigning responsibilities to part-time workers, Bayl-Smith says this represents hierarchical and dated perceptions about roles and responsibilities. If you pursue a collaborative and team-based model of project delivery and responsibilities, those who work flexible hours will still be able to lead projects – albeit in a less traditional way.
Shearer says acceptance of flexible working hours is growing. Firms who embrace this way of working, she says, will reap rewards.
“We are in a very busy market,” she said. “Firms who take on people with different working hours including part-time are the winners because they are tapping into a part of the workforce that some of their competitors may not be.
“We have had lots of practices now over the past four years who have embraced part-time. Eight years ago when we set up our business (recruitment), it was impossible to place someone part-time.”