Queensland architect Emma Healy reviews her positive return to part-time work, revealing the strategies she uses to make maximum impact in the workplace.

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I thought it might be worthwhile to give a small portrait of the positive return to part-time work that I have had since having my second child seven months ago. Every architect who works reduced hours does so for different reasons. While this may create complexities for both employee and employer, it also creates opportunities for both parties that might otherwise never have arisen. As the Parlour Guide on Career Breaks outlines, individual circumstances vary widely. I hope that a collection of stories outlining the creative and flexible ways that workplaces have adapted to staff returning from carer leave may bolster the confidence of other practices and people who find themselves in similar circumstances. These accounts would also provide a body of anecdotal evidence to support returning workers hoping to negotiate a non-standard arrangement. It’s sometimes assumed that larger firms have the capacity to better support flexible working conditions. However, my experience has been that the agility of a smaller practice has had different but equally fortifying benefits from the monetary incentives and care options that larger firms can provide. To get the ball rolling, this is my story…

Complexity and flexibility

With two young children, each with different carer arrangements, and a husband who works early shifts, my mornings are particularly complicated. Equally, as a single car family, getting home in time for ‘witching hour’ dinner, baths and beds is sometimes difficult. Late morning starts and early afternoon departures from the office are expected and, if not explicitly supported, they are tolerated. The understanding that these will be offset whenever possible by an hour or two of work outside the office and a general attitude of respect and trust make these circumstances less stressful. Younger staff have introduced us to technology for collaborating remotely, which I can see will have ongoing applications for the office outside my personal experience.

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Opportunities

When I’m expressing milk for my baby or travelling on public transport, I try to take the opportunity to undertake some research, writing or business development tasks that I may not otherwise have a chance to complete, and for which I don’t need to be seated at a computer or have both hands free! After seven years with the firm, my role at Reddog is primarily at the front end of projects, so design reviews and hardcopy markups are a perfect way for me to contribute while I’m outside the office in a way that doesn’t require any technical setup. Initial client briefing meetings are another way I contribute. Kellie McGivern’s recent article highlighted some of the acquired skills that parental leave equips you with, and I have certainly experienced a more meaningful connection with many of our clients and a more nuanced understanding of complex briefs since becoming a parent. Updating our social media platforms is another way I can fill in the gaps in my timesheet for the days that I have to leave early.

My part-time role has caused me to evaluate my ‘areas of genius’ (and yes, we all have them) in order to determine how I can make the biggest impact. I have really benefited from the resulting relationships with capable junior staff who have readily taken on greater responsibility when delegated tasks. Good communication between team members, an open-minded approach and a culture of mutual respect has often resulted in better outcomes when staff are exposed to aspects of the process they might not otherwise be and are comfortable challenging the status quo. Hierarchy is loosely applied in our office; however, I believe my role as a senior part-timer has prompted us to define our roles and acknowledge where hierarchical standards need to be challenged and where they should be upheld.

Culture

I have found the sole director of our practice (who is male and does not have children) to be one of my most loyal, flexible and empathetic allies on this journey. As the first staff member to ‘have a baby’ while working at Reddog, and the first to take extended parental leave, the experience has been a learning curve for both parties. It’s worth noting that management sets the tone for how these ‘resourcing events’ are accepted and supported. I have seen the positivity from our director (now directors) filter through to my colleagues, who have never shown any evidence of resentment towards my amorphous role and varying contributions to projects. The directors and I are hopeful that our positive experience can filter down to future parent employees at Reddog and be supported by myself as a mentor if required.

Internal challenges

While I was on maternity leave with my first child, I was ‘staying in touch’ with the office via discussions about the design of a new premises. I now realise that the elusive quiet space that I was complicit in ‘designing out’ of the scheme would have made the logistics of expressing milk and breastfeeding at the office a lot more comfortable and hygienic. In this era of democratic, open plan offices and ‘hot desking’, quiet, private spaces in workplaces are becoming an important element in providing dignity and support to staff who may have complex personal issues to attend to. Kellie McGivern’s article also touched on the trend away from multi-tasking towards mono-tasking. My personal experience has been that returning to work part-time has further diminished my capacity to focus attention on a single, complex task. Dedicated zones in the office for more focused work would also benefit staff who require less sensory input for various tasks.

The issue of continuing professional development is a contentious one that is often discussed among my architectural colleagues with infants and toddlers at home. While CPD events are a great way to ‘stay in touch’ while on maternity leave and online courses offer much-needed flexibility, the fact remains that many new parents are using their ‘spare’ time to shower, sleep or talk to their partners. It is my opinion that the need to fulfil your CPD obligations while on parental leave places undue stress on architects who are also primary caregivers. It would be useful for the registration boards to consider an alternative if it were legislatively viable.

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External challenges

Without becoming too political, it is worth acknowledging that the minimal parental leave allowance provided by the government diminished the options my husband and I considered when designing our return to work and parenting duties. While the profession has some accountability for ensuring women, parents and all those with caring roles in the community are afforded the opportunity to continue to pursue their career goals, it must be said that there is no leadership shown by the government in providing equitable parental leave to men and women. In my circumstance, if my husband and I had been afforded financial support equivalent to our incomes, or support that was transferable between parents, I may have decided to return to work more than two days a week and shared parenting duties more equitably with my husband. Or I may have extended my parental leave beyond the first six months and returned to work later but with an increased presence. There is a broader societal issue that needs to be addressed around recognising the unpaid workforce of carers in our community (not only parents but volunteers and children caring for elderly parents). Rather than individual practices addressing this, I would argue the profession has a role to play in persuading the government to take action on these issues.

While logic tells me that the skills I’ve acquired over the last three years will have positive impacts for my career in the long term, at this early stage it can feel like there has been a skills attrition as I relinquish more of my technical duties. Nevertheless, this feels like a natural progression of the role that I have been moving towards in the office. I wonder whether staff who are more immersed in the production side of the delivery process might find technical skill attrition more limiting. On reflection it seems to be an issue of tenure and seniority. Regardless of which stage of the architectural process you are most frequently engaged in, it would seem to be easier to review details produced by others, or undertake site inspections to fit with your own timetable than it would be to draft a set of drawings or produce and issue a progress certificate. Staff who are also in the midst of university studies or registration preparation may face greater complexities when trying to balance carer duties with their careers. As always, it is the marginalised minority who are most detrimentally affected by these issues. In these cases, it may be even more important for the employee to know their own skillset and be able to pitch creative solutions to their employer whose obligation is to be receptive if not always accepting of these ideas.

Mutual respect and commonsense have gone a long way in easing the inevitably messy experience of returning to work while also raising babies. However, my experience at Reddog has made me both grateful and uncompromising in suggesting that it is possible for all workplaces to benefit from supporting alternative working arrangements. Other Reddog staff (both male and female) have negotiated reduced hours to suit their personal carer commitments; while obviously more complex to manage, I believe the office environment is more healthy and functional for it. Before I had children, I went through phases of working part-time to pursue study, teaching and research commitments, and this was also encouraged. Many practices could benefit from allowing staff the time they need to manage their commitments, not just to their careers and families, but also their contribution broadly as citizens.

 


Emma Healy is an associate at Reddog Architects in Brisbane, where she has been the lead designer on a variety of institutional, healthcare and residential projects. Her particular interests are the interior experience of space and the intersection of landscape and architecture. She has worked as a project manager for Architects Without Frontiers, and written and spoken on topics as diverse as post-colonialism, subcultural urbanism, corporate social responsibility and transdisciplinary practice.