Flexible work is a key part of contemporary workplaces, but identifying the best approach for particular practices and individuals can take time. The Queensland Gender Equity Committee ‘Let’s talk about flex!’ event canvassed four approaches, with speakers talking directly of their personal experiences.
The Australian Financial Review recently published an article on the benefits and growing demand for flexible workplaces (paywalled). The article featured an interview with Lucinda Hartley, Landscape Architect and Co-founder of Neighbourlytics, who suggested that it was time for a recasting of approaches to inclusive workplace practices. Hartley argued that the concept of work/life balance – or that there is an imagined separation between the two spheres of work and life – was an outdated way of thinking. Instead, workplaces should be looking for integrated modes of working, where work and life can co-exist simultaneously. It’s a co-existence that most workers require from time to time for various personal reasons.
The article went on to explain that workplaces who wanted to compete for talented staff were striving to offer best practice in flexible work options. The article cited a 2016 study by Bain and Company, which found “that flexible work arrangements could boost productivity and retention, increase the representation of women in senior leadership positions and enable men and women to participate more equally as caregivers”.
The many positives attributed to flexible workplace practices are well known and have been implemented with great success by some companies, but there is still room for more architectural practices to embrace the benefits of flexibility. To support this conversation and increase knowledge about what is already happening in architecture, the Queensland Chapter of the Institute’s Gender Equity Committee (QGEC) hosted ‘Let’s talk about flex!’ in 2018. This discussed the challenges of flexible workplace arrangements from the perspective of the employees attempting to negotiate them.
The evening explored case studies of flexible working arrangements, with employees presenting very nuanced and personal solutions. Event chair John Price (Price Musgrave Architecture and Gender Equity Committee member) framed the discussion and introduced the four speakers, Jessica Farrell, Liza Ringdahl, Anissa Farrell and Linton Godden. These provide useful snapshots of the range of possibilities.
The work-share arrangement
The first presenter for the evening was Jessica Farrell from BVN who shared the experiences of her work-share arrangement with colleague Rachel Wardrobe. Jessica returned to work after 12 months maternity leave in 2015 and commenced her flexible working arrangement of three days a week in conjunction with Rachel’s 24 ‘flex time’ working week. While work sharing on a large and complex defence project, Jessica underlined that the key element holding their arrangement together was strong and consistent communication. Jessica and Rachel sustained communication throughout the week (including days they were not in the office). They emphasised the important of a mid-week overlap day to attend external meetings and undertake internal project resourcing. Jessica highlighted that the main challenge in coordinating the arrangement was ensuring consistency in the client communication. With two part-time project leaders, it was not only important to establish clear communication protocols and a strong client rapport, but also to ensure that the internal project team was sufficiently supported.
While there were some challenges, Jessica was quick to illustrate how and why the work-share arrangement was successful, and this included Jessica and Rachel’s complementary skillsets. They both had extensive prior experience in similar typologies, resulting in an equal capacity to pursue, follow up and make decisions on any given day. Both women abandoned competitiveness, ensuring that the project was broken down into smaller parts so each could take primary ownership of different elements of the project. Jessica and Rachel also had a strong willingness to be adaptable and to support the other when necessary. Both identified that through this process BVN enabled both women to continue to progress their careers while maintaining a manageable work life balance.
The flexible working week
The second presenter of the evening was Liza Ringdahl, senior education leader and architect at Hayball. Liza discussed the importance of workplace flexibility for health and wellbeing. She initiated her flexible working arrangement when she started at the firm in 2017, and her approach to flexibility was underpinned by mutual trust and respect. Her employer entrusted her with the responsibility of meeting project deadlines and managing client expectations on her own terms rather than relying on detailed contractual prescriptions for how her flexible working week is structured. With roles to play in her partner’s business and long commute times, flexibility is paramount in maintaining Liza’s health and general happiness. Liza’s presentation highlighted that happy employees were more productive, with practices that implemented flexible work practices experiencing a 12.9% increase in productivity. Liza explained that within Hayball she is one of five who take this unofficial approach to flexibility and for them winging it is working.
The part-timer with a start-up
Anissa Farrell is a senior associate and sustainability manager at Conrad Gargett as well as the CEO and sole founder of construction payments platform, Fair and Square. After experiencing extreme burnout and taking long service leave from her role at Conrad Gargett, she reassessed her career trajectory and decided to pursue a non-traditional path in an emerging industry niche. During her time away from the architecture and design industry, Anissa found a problematic gap within the structure (or lack of) construction payments and decided to focus her attention on fixing this industry-wide issue. At the time of the event, Anissa worked part time at Conrad Gargett two days per week and spent three days a week working for her startup enterprise.
Anissa was initially disappointed that she was yet another senior female leaving the industry and the external perception that her part-time role in architecture was ‘funding’ her own business venture. Ultimately Anissa was able to communicate the value and experience she provided at the practice. Rather than assume flexibility is only for carers, Anissa suggested that providing all employees with flexible options eliminates animosity and ‘clock watching’, which can lead to negative attitudes and toxic cultures within workplaces.
The supportive, adaptable workplace
Linton Godden, a designer at Reddog Architects, summarised his need for flexibility quite simply in that he is happier when he spends quality time with his family. Linton has tested three forms of flexible working arrangements during his time at Reddog, which have included reduced hours, alternating hours and reduced days, and finds that the key to maintaining flexibility is a supportive and adaptable workplace that provides trust and mutual respect. Linton embodied the research that Liza identified: that happy employees are productive employees. This can only be a positive for any company. For Linton, happiness is being able to dance with his daughter in the 15 minutes prior to her class starting; in Linton’s words, “it’s the highlight of both of our days”.
As with all flexible working arrangements, Linton had some lessons learnt, which he has taken away from his experiences. These included switching off phone notifications as well as allocating time to check emails and text messages instead of surrendering to constant immediate responses, which only reciprocated the cycle. Linton also suggested the trusty laptop/work from home required further consideration, as it can enable an unhealthy blurring of the line between work and home. Linton’s refreshing conclusion is that nothing is too important that it should pull you away from your family when they need you.
Among the diverse case studies presented at the Flex event were the recurring themes of clear communication, trust and respect from everyone in the workplace. If flexibility is not working for a practice, it may be because of a deficiency in these areas. What was absolutely clear was the immense value in flexible work arrangements to both employee and employer.
The Australian Institute of Architects Queensland Gender Equity Committee (QGEC) was established in early 2018 to promote and implement the Institute’s National Gender Equity Policy at a state level. It is chaired by Tiffany Molloy and members include sole practitioners and representatives from both small and large practices. The QGEC is always open to comments and feedback on how we can best support our profession to become more equitable, flexible, adaptable and progressive. Contact them at [email protected] and follow on Instagram @q_gec, which aims to provide an accessible, streamlined resource for women seeking support and information. On Tuesday 12 November the QGEC will host a panel discussion to compare top down measures to improve equity vs grassroots efforts at the individual level.
Photos: Alanna McTiernan