Is flexibility a cure for an ailing profession? Vanessa Bizzell argues that architectural firms must change with the times to meet the needs of their clients and staff.
A lack of flexibility in the architectural profession, in both employment and business practices, damages not just the women who work within it, but the profession itself.
Our business landscape has transformed over the last couple of decades due to the rapid change in technologies and working practices. Many other industries have struggled to adapt to the increasingly rapid rate of change but I was expecting architecture to be different. Architects have a vibrancy and courage in their design and theoretical practice that seems to be lacking in our profession’s approach to societal changes.
Many of my peers and I have been shocked to find promising careers compromised when we want to work more flexibly. For me, as for many parents, that change was driven by a desire to look after my children part-time but there are many reasons to want an alternative working pattern.
What I am still yet to understand is why flexible working is resisted so strongly in a profession that prides itself on flexible thinking. There is no need to be tied to a desk in a studio to be a good architect or team leader. New technology makes staying in contact easier. You need bums on seats for drawing work – days and days on end sitting in an office are normally reflective of more junior roles. As you progress and spend more time in meetings, on site and in front of clients you aren’t a continuous office presence. Smart phones, laptops, and high speed internet should make this easy. It doesn’t really matter if you can’t answer a query right now because you’re in a meeting or if you’re sat in a church hall singing songs with a toddler. Quite frankly, it’s easier to check an email in the latter situation. I’ve not yet found a situation where I can’t answer a query within an hour or two maximum, wherever I’ve been located, whatever I’ve been doing. That’s the power that new technology gives us all.
My parent-heavy social network includes many powerful women in more flexible-friendly occupations. Those women are often the financial decision makers both at home and in business. We put in a huge number of hours – they’re just not always within the traditional working day. Flexible working frees me to provide a better service, spend time with my kids and network effectively.
To deny career progression to staff members who require alternative working patterns is to risk losing skilled staff members who help grow business. There is no reason why part-time staff can’t run projects at a senior level. They don’t actually need to do all of the drawing work – they need an overview, an ability to pull a team together coordinating and managing workflow and external input. Client-facing skills are crucial to a practice’s success and to marginalise great communicators purely on the basis that they aren’t office-present five days a week seems short-sighted.
It’s also extremely silly in a profession where our clients could do with more flexibility. Architect’s clients are often builders, not end users or owners. They work early, finish early and will be seen on site at the weekend if that’s necessary. Construction sites are not 9–5 operations and many commercial clients would prefer to have architects available for meetings outside their core business hours. This leaves them free to make their money – I’ve won work on this basis.
My generation of women is one that was brought up to believe that we could achieve anything if only we worked hard enough. That’s resulted in an emerging trend of female professionals that are the major earner in their household. That makes the traditional choice to stay at home to look after children less of an option for many women. Faces and genders change in the school playgrounds and toddler groups, because in families where the woman is the major earner, a combination of both parents sharing childcare is more prevalent.
Rising numbers of women are controlling how money is spent, both at home and in business. In a world where more women will be paying for the buildings a mostly-male profession is going to start to struggle. We can see that already. Architecture as a profession is struggling to retain status and fees and that will only get worse as other professions get better at managing flexible working. As other organisations move ahead, more women will be commissioning architecture – we need to be credible and that won’t happen without more flexibility and equality.
Architecture in the UK is such a rigid profession, continuously whinging about fee scales, protection of role and other disciplines edging into our traditional territory. We fix and standardise our working patterns, binding ourselves into traditional outdated modes of practice that exclude large sections of society and seem blind to the progress in other industries. That progress doesn’t just produce a more diverse workforce – it produces profit.
The Agile organisation describes the goal of agile working practice as “to create more responsive, efficient and effective organisations based on more balanced, motivated, innovative and productive teams and individuals”. Unilever and BT are profiting from that and we need to start.
Stop marginalising good staff because they refuse to fit into staid, outdated working practices. Look again at what other successful industries are doing. I want to be able to tell my kids they can go and be an architect because it’s a great well-paid profession. We may yet see the rise of a flexible, vibrant and economically sustainable architectural profession if we can evolve fast enough.
If the current generation of architectural directors can’t make that happen, the next will. I’m part of a growing group of architects (mostly female, but not all) who aren’t content to see our careers die because we’ve had kids and want to spend time with them. If existing practices can’t accommodate those ambitions we will find a way to fulfil them ourselves.