Architects have family lives too

To remain successful, architectural practices need to be able to retain their talent. That means keeping on top of new employment legislation and thinking harder about how they can support hard-working staff who are also carers and busy parents outside work, argues Ben Black, Director with employee benefits specialists My Family Care

Architecture is often perceived as an industry that demands long hours and utter dedication to ensure a project is finished on time and clients are happy. Historically, the industry was largely male dominated and little thought was put into the concept of helping staff achieve a healthy work-life balance.

Today, thankfully, the situation is different. Last year, flexible working was introduced which, while it challenged a number of firms, also opened the door to a range of opportunities and in many cases improved employee engagement. We’ve also seen the emergence of the so-called ‘sandwich generation’ – workers who are carers to both their children and their ageing parents. They have more responsibilities than ever before, and it’s a challenge to maintain a happy medium that ensures goals are achieved at work and everybody is happy at home.

Sharing the caring

Clearly, times have changed and as a result, some architectural firms are evolving with them too.

Take Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP). They’re already leading the way with a superb employee benefits package, which includes a generous maternity package of a whole year on full pay.

Most recently, they’ve taken a leap of faith to invest in further help for their caring workforce.

RSHP employees now have free access to a bespoke online portal with a number of helpful features, including a database of childcare providers searchable by area, a zone dedicated to helping dads in the workplace, and regular webinars enabling employees to ask questions and get tips on balancing work and family care.

The portal also provides information on clubs and activities to fill childcare gaps during the school holidays.

Amanda Darbon, HR Manager at RSHP explains why the practice has gone down this route:

“We have the best employee benefits package in the industry but we became aware that we could improve on policies for our caring workforce. Rather than just looking at our working mums, we’re providing more support for our working dads and those members of staff who are carers for elderly relatives – or who are both and part of the sandwich generation.

“We based these implementations on focus groups we ran across the organisation to gauge what our staff think and feel. “Architecture is a profession dominated by passionate people who have invested a great deal into their careers, so it’s only right that they should be able to come and talk to us openly about creating a manageable balance between work and family life.

“My advice to other architecture practices is to listen to your staff, look at each case individually and be flexible enough to provide tailored solutions.”

Amanda says that, after introducing such measures, she’s seen a huge improvement in employee engagement and staff retention:

“We, and all architectural firms, invest a lot of time and money in recruiting top talent and we don’t want to lose those people through lack of flexibility.”

Sharing the caring

But how does an architectural firm go about introducing family-friendly working practices? There are three parts to the mix:

• Concentrate on culture. You need your chief executive on-message and then concentrate on the management level. Make sure you showcase a couple of senior men who are happy to hold up their hands as dads – it will work wonders. Organise a lunchtime seminar from a work-life balance expert and get everyone who it’s relevant for involved.

• Look at the maternity transition and see what support you can provide – emotionally and developmentally – to make that transition successful. Remember, coming back to work after a lengthy maternity leave is never going to be easy, so support staff as best you can – and that counts for fathers too!

• Consider practical support. There are many different services you can take advantage of. The most stressful time for families is when childcare breaks down, luckily there are fantastic emergency childcare schemes out there. Employers could pick up the cost if there was an important work deadline that would get hit as a result.

You can also invest in regular webinars for staff, and provide access to a bespoke work and family portal where they can log in and get advice when they need it. Ensure you facilitate flexible working because it’s not all about putting in ‘face-time’ in the office. If someone can go home, look after their child and get the job done remotely in time for the deadline, everybody’s happy.

With big changes ahead in parental leave legislation and extra caring demands placed on today’s employees, it pays architectural firms to be ready to meet the evolving needs of their workforce.