by Emily Grandstaff‐Rice AIA
Through recent research, work‐life flexibility has emerged as a key element of defining success for men and women in large and small firms. Flexibility is likely the most important and easiest concrete measure firms can implement. As both a workflow practice and employee benefit, firms have seen positive impacts on culture, employee satisfaction, and talent retention. While work life flexibility practices have become more commonplace, stigmas still exist about those who take flexibility options. As a female architect who has used flexible work policies (who is also married to a male architect that has also used flexible work policies), I can attest to both the advantages and drawbacks of this workplace benefit. While it doesn’t make life ‘easier,’ it does relieve pressure around needing to address somewhat competing obligations in the personal and professional realms.
Below are some of my observations and experiences:
Successful work life flexibility measures need buy‐in from both supervisors and employees. Even with the best policies in place, without direct supervisors having adequate training on the value of supporting employees’ personal lives, employees can feel pinched. Sometimes an arrangement negotiated with higher level HR or leadership can be derailed by an employee’s peer group and direct supervisors. This is where the rubber hits the road. Employees and supervisors need to be clear in communication about their expectations. Personally, I found posting my hours and my cellphone number at my desk went a long way about being clear about when and how I can be reached if I wasn’t physically in the office.
On the other hand, flexible work arrangements must also prompt employees to reconsider when and where they work. Working from home does not always provide distraction‐free time or there may be significant expenses related to upgrading technology to enable telecommuting or remote access, especially as architects deal with large files. (Can I tell you how many times I’ve had issues with VPN?) Employees who chose flexible work arrangements need to be flexible about the nature of work especially in incorporating an appropriate ratio of face‐to‐face time with independent working time.
When does work‐life balance become work‐life blur? Enabling access to technology for remote and ‘off‐hours’ work has a tendency to lead to both work‐life balance and its next iteration: work‐life blur. I find it difficult to be able to turn the office ‘off’ when I’m not working and the constant beeping of my phone does not help. This is a difficult issue regardless of work‐life flexibility policies. Understanding the need to have time to devote to one’s personal life also means that there needs to be a shut off value for all of our sanity. My newest strategy includes switching my phone on silent and using the visual cues to know when I have an incoming call.
Four additional things to consider about workplace flexibility:
1. Rethink time, location and mode of work. Flexibility in the workplace is not about imposing a set way of working on individuals, but rather developing a respect and trust for them to decide to work in the way which fits best for them. This requires an element of mutual agreement. Collaborative working arrangements recognize the difference between ‘working for’ a supervisor rather than ‘working with’ a team.
2. Remember that flexible arrangements do not necessarily reduce a full‐time load. In the case of reduced time, if you work less than 40 hours per week be mindful of the actual hours worked because it may be difficult to scale back responsibilities based on previous performance and expectations. Additionally, supervisors need to acknowledge that when employees are not in the office, they are ‘working’ in the other realms of their life—not relaxing.
3. Be flexible about flexible conditions. Flexible working arrangements should be reviewed a couple times per year. Since flexibility is often a need to fulfill other aspects of employee’s lives, situation can change seasonally. Checking in often encourages dialogue amongst supervisors and employees and good communication is always key to strong relationships.
4. Try not to make hard and fast rules about flexibility. Policies are meant to provide employees equal opportunity and protect the nature of the business enterprise, but sometimes there will have to be exceptions to the policies. Think of every employee and situation as unique. Focus on the outcomes of the flexible work arrangement, not just the impact of the details. Something that works for one individual may not work for another.
Ultimately, flexibility is everyone’s issue—not exclusive to men or women; parents or children; individuals or families; or even architects and designers. Ensuring the well‐being of the people we work with is a goal that helps both the organization and the individual and ultimately leads to success for all in architecture.
What's next for EQxD?
Join us in San Francisco at AIASF on June 11th for our next EQxD "U" Workshop "What's Flex got to do with Success?" (Win Win Strategies for Work/Life Flexibility) Meet the panelists, and participate in small group break-outs to "hack" what works for flexibility in the modern workplace. This event is relevant to all AEC professionals! 6pm-8:30pm.