Wellington-based architect and mother-of-two Linda Wong remembers her transition back to work for an established practice after a decade away.
One valuable perspective I have learned from my transition-back-to-work experience is that, as architects, we need to actively plan how we want to work throughout the stages of our careers. For women in particular the time between graduating and when one chooses to start a family is a formative, but relatively short, period of our potential working lives.
Many initiatives can be implemented by the architecture community to support architects – both men and women – transitioning back into employment after a break away from the profession (for whatever reason).
Transitioning to large practice – choosing the right time
Women architects often enter into solo practice as a way of staying involved in architecture while juggling the demands of young children and family life. Often limited to smaller residential projects, this path is not without its challenges, including isolation and an increase in individual professional risk. The flexibility of being a sole practitioner is excellent, but what if you’re like me and wish to return to work in an established practice for the opportunity to work on large commercial projects?
At the time I’d decided this was the right career direction for me, I had two children, aged three years and eighteen months old. It had been ten years since I’d worked in an architectural practice in New Zealand. As hard as this transition appeared to be, I felt that if I waited any longer the opportunity to return to work in a larger practice was going to slip away and my future practising options would narrow.
I felt the excitement and anticipation of working on projects of scale and being part of a collegial office environment again, but I also feared the outcome of my efforts to find a job. Confidence and time were inversely proportionate – the longer I waited for the ‘right’ time to re-enter an office, the less confident I felt in doing so. This continued to the point where the best foreseeable work option available appeared to be to continue working as a sole practitioner.
Leaving the profession – the erosion of confidence
Recent research shows that there is a sharp increase in the number of women architects leaving the profession in their early to mid-thirties, right around the time that women decide to start a family. These women would have typically acquired five to ten years of work experience in that time, gaining significant professional skill. The research also shows that fewer women architects return to practice after this transition out of work. The numbers of women choosing to leave work and not return to the profession are pretty high for architecture, but this disturbing trend is also seen in other professions, including engineering and law.
Organisations such as Parlour and Architecture + Women NZ are rapidly building awareness and championing discussion of the issues facing women in architecture. However, at the time I was planning to return to practice, I struggled to find women architects with young families who had successfully returned to work in a large practice. They were simply not visible.
Some women who had established sole practices expressed surprise and support for my decision to seek employment in a larger office. Some expressed regret at not being able to do the same – they found it hard to see a viable way back into working in an office. Some had already decided, once they started a family, that they had no desire to go back to working in a larger practice. They had seen the difficulties faced by other women working part time, their struggle to be valued, and their disappointment at the lack of career progression.
Young women architects are quietly observing the challenges of returning to practice and absorbing each other’s negative experiences. Rather than focusing on our potential to contribute our expertise to the profession in a part-time capacity, we are at risk of perceiving part-time commitment as inferior to how we once worked. This continues to erode confidence. It is a tragedy for the profession to lose the expertise of these architects, in the prime of their careers, because the bar has been set unrealistically high, and the roadmap back to practice is peppered with difficulties.
Flexible part-time hours – making it work
So, what does a flexible part-time work arrangement look like? How might it balance the needs of an employer with the needs of an architect transitioning back into practice? This will vary depending on the type and scale of projects a particular practice undertakes. It also requires a regular dialogue between employee and employer. In my case, choosing to run large commercial projects presented different challenges to managing smaller residential projects, but these challenges were not insurmountable. Employers running a business want their employees to be efficient, reliable and available to fulfil project requirements. If an employee requests too few hours or too much flexibility in their work schedule, it can be detrimental to the perception of their ability to provide adequate project oversight. Stress develops due to uncertainty as to when an employee is available and in the office.
For me, as a senior architect leading a team on commercial projects, a four-day, 30-hour week worked well. I opted to take a day out of the office mid-week, rather than at the end of the week. I found that working longer days greatly added to the momentum of the work I could complete, as compared to splitting my working week into five days of shorter duration.
I front end loaded my week, working Monday to Wednesday, ensuring that for the day I was out of the office, queries had been answered and team members I was managing knew what they were continuing with. I was always upfront with clients, consultants and contractors about what my weekly schedule was and it was never an issue. One contractor would regularly call me Wednesday afternoon with site queries so as not to bother me on my day out of the office. Being back in the office on Friday allowed me to resolve any urgent issues prior to the weekend. I considered being granted extra flexibility in my work schedule as a privilege. On my day out of the office, I was able to occasionally monitor email and step in to attend to emergencies that couldn’t wait a day, so the continuity of project service was maintained.
With my working day bookended by family commitments, I noticed that part-time employees like myself could fall into the trap of becoming invisible. Opportunities for informal discussions in the office are limited, reinforcing the need for setting up regular discussions with my employer to stay in touch and talk about improvements or tweaks that could make the flexible working arrangement better.
For women considering returning to the profession after a break, it would be great to establish a forum or network of architects with members who will relate to their situation. Being able to talk to others who have gone through a similar career experience is incredibly valuable. It’s an important way to gain perspective, restore confidence and strategise about what future career options may be.
Personal strategies – coping with the transition
Caring for young children is a test of mental and physical endurance. Rather than being able to devote all my time to my career, as I had prior to having children, my work was now rigidly bookended with the responsibilities of family. This initially affected my confidence in being able to execute my work effectively, which was influenced by my preconceptions of the perceived lower value of part-time work. Developing more formal, visible part-time / flexible work policies is one way that employers can help reframe this issue. It helps to reinforce that employees who work less than the standard 40-hour week can contribute as efficiently and effectively as someone working full-time.
Initially the stress and guilt parents (and perhaps women in particular) feel when leaving young children to go to work can hamper their ability to find joy in their work. If the burden becomes too much, they’ll eventually give up. Having experienced the silent torture of sleep deprivation, and the hormonal changes of breastfeeding, I believe that if a woman is able to delay their return to work until their children have met these milestones, the transition will be easier. Employers should also bear this in mind if they are putting pressure on employees to return to work early, as these factors can have significant effects on an individual’s physical and mental energy levels.
The stigma of taking leave to have a family still exists. I think many women do fear that once they take a break, they will not be as valued or offered such challenging, interesting projects to work on when they return. Employers can provide greater support by proactively discussing options to return to work with staff who they know will be transitioning out of practice for a period of time. Establishing the expectations of the number of hours or minimum days of work, plus the role and type of projects one would be likely to work on, helps employees and employers understand what a successful transition back to work would look like.
Another observation is that couples are more likely to achieve balance when each partner recognises the value of a career in fulfilling individual potential, and supports their partner in the pursuit of their career goals. This is successful when the commitment to work and family life balance is shared as evenly and equitably as possible, irrespective of the relative value of salaries or seniority in the workplace.
When I was returning to an office my husband’s job was incredibly demanding too, as he was the manager of a successful project management office in Wellington. For him, working fewer days a week or working more flexible hours was not possible. Apart from child daycare drop-offs on the way to work, I knew I could not regularly rely on his help during work hours, but if I needed to be in the office to meet a deadline, he was really supportive in helping with our family routines so that I could get to the office earlier or stay later if necessary. I also still desired to have the greater primary carer role, so my day off was precious time with our children. Acknowledging I wanted to pursue meaningful work, but also wanted to be at home with the kids one day a week struck a good balance for me.
We also jointly decided to simplify our lives to remove sources of stress. We traded a larger house in the suburbs for a small cottage in central Wellington. This meant that work, school or daycare were all within a 15-minute walk from our house. With both of our commutes being very short, we knew that either of us could get to a child emergency very quickly. Building redundancy into our regular schedule also helped to reduce stress – for example, having the option of additional day care days if a deadline was looming, or knowing friends that could pick up a child from school if needed.
Interestingly, my husband’s experience of a two-career family enhanced his understanding of the challenges facing his own staff. This understanding aided the success of his office, as his staff knew they genuinely had his support and empathy for their family situations. With time, the work and family life balance certainly became much easier. My children are now four and seven years old, and I feel they understand and support the concept that both of their parents working means a happier, more fulfilling life for everyone in the family. The initial guilt and worry I felt in choosing a more demanding role was temporary. I can now look forward to continuing to work in the profession with fewer barriers to what my future in architecture might be.
Linda Wong is an architect, writer and avid maker of things. Over her career she’s worked internationally in Hong Kong, the United States and New Zealand, most notably for Marmol Radziner in Los Angeles, California and Tennent Brown Architects in Wellington, New Zealand. She enjoys exploring cities and writing about her deep interest in the intersection of architecture and the urban landscape.