Light House Architecture & Science principal architect Sarah Lebner reviews her experience of maternity leave, and provides tips on how to prepare for a break from the office.
There seem to be many resources attempting to guide ambitious women through balancing motherhood and a career in architecture, but nearly all assume that the woman is an employee working under a principal architect. What happens if you are the principal architect?
This is the situation I found myself in – though our firm isn’t a traditional practice. Our interdisciplinary business is owned and managed by director and building scientist, Jenny. Through a series of unusual events, I found myself leading the Architecture team, and therefore becoming the principal architect, at 28 years old.
Two years later, I faced the challenge of taking maternity leave while keeping our team on track and our finished projects up to scratch. After realising how unusual my situation was, I wanted to document it for any others who may be facing a similar challenge.
There are five key ways I prepared for my maternity leave:
1. Collect inspiration and expectations.
Our baby was a long time coming, which allowed me to always have my ears open when listening to other parents. I would quiz them on their experiences and do my best to set realistic and flexible expectations for myself. I also asked an inspirational peer out to coffee so I could quiz her on her experience building a practice while on maternity leave. I also kept my director informed of my intentions so that she could plan similarly.
2. Have the right people on your team.
This is a no brainer, but worth articulating. Our most recent staff member was certainly hired with the knowledge that good team management and organisation/communication skills would be valuable in my absence. As it turned out, our other senior design team member’s paternity leave overlapped with my own leave, so this new employee has been vital to keeping things ticking over.
3. Automate and create systems to empower individuals.
Our practice is based on individual staff members having ownership of their own design in a collaborative and supported environment (as opposed to team members developing one leading architect’s designs). In order to do this effectively, we have developed extensive process checklists, templates, reference documents, office standards and quality assurance checklists.
In its infancy, our firm relied on the lead architect investing considerable time in each project checking, reviewing and prompting outcomes, but over the years our dedicated effort in creating these systems has empowered project leads to work more individually, freeing up the time of senior design team members. In addition, we have clear checkpoints throughout the design and documentation process where collaboration or Quality Assurance checking is completed by team members of specified experience.
I can be on leave and feel reassured that each team member is supported and prompted by these systems.
4. Clearly communicate staff responsibilities in your absence.
All of our projects have a collaborating team member, so that a second person is somewhat familiar with a project should the project architect be unavailable. These people would take over my own projects in my absence. They attended meetings in the lead-up to my leave, and we completed a thorough handover. As part of the handover, I provided a handover sheet (one of our templates), which highlights key project information, most recent actions, upcoming tasks, and any tricky points to note.
5. Be upfront with clients.
All of the clients on my own projects knew very early of my impending leave, and were presented with a timeline and expectations right from the start.
For the first six weeks of my baby’s life, I had requested emergency contact only from work. However, I ended up having an emergency caesarian and so ended up with my partner home for six weeks on carer’s leave. After a couple of weeks, I managed to sneak in a few phone calls and drop by the office for a visit and to answer questions a couple of times.
At seven weeks, bubba and I were getting the hang of things, so I increased my availability. Staff members would text if they had something they wanted to talk about, and I would call them at a time that was convenient. (Headphones are invaluable for phone conversation while holding a baby!) I also QA checked the occasional drawing set during naps or when my partner was home. Jenny also needed to hire a new staff member at this time, so I sat in on a couple of interviews, with my baby, and listened in remotely to a few others. This only worked because of the casual and family friendly culture of my workplace. I can imagine some workplaces where this wouldn’t be appropriate (though I still think we should really question this belief – childcare is a universal experience, after all).
At 12 weeks, I started popping in to the office for a few hours, with baby, on a Friday morning. By then I’d worked out that I was very lucky to have such a placid and happy baby, and acknowledge that for many babies I wouldn’t have been up to doing this. Recently, I’ve increased this to almost a full day on Fridays, as my partner has the afternoon off work so he takes our son and allows me a few hours of baby-free focused time! My baby also comes to site visits. This isn’t an issue on a residential build, as all architects, clients and kids are guests of the builder, but I do always check that the builder is OK with it (and follow a few safety basics like using a carrier so I can be hands-free, and bringing baby ear-muffs). The project lead from the office is always there running the meetings and I just sit in the background in a support/mentoring/baby jiggling role.
It’s handy to point out that you’re currently allowed ten ‘keeping in touch’ days where you can do paid work without it affecting your government maternity leave payments. Using these aligned nicely with the amount of work I did during the 18 weeks of paid maternity leave. (Head to Fair Work for more information).
I was careful to make all of these plans ‘pending baby personality’ and I’m thrilled that, for the most part, a little angel arrived and they worked out as I hoped. Staying in touch has allowed me to maintain my position at work and stay up to date. I want to stress that I’m doing this by my own choice. I don’t think anyone should be pressured into working in the early months of their baby’s life (or ever, for that matter). If I’m honest, there are some days that I drive to the office and think it would be nice to be a hermit, by a lake somewhere and just play with my baby all day long, but on the return trip I always feel reinvigorated, mentally stimulated and glad that I went in. I’m very grateful to have a job that I love, a very flexible and supportive boss, and sympathetic colleagues. I would encourage all architects to open their mind to the possibility of arrangements like this in their workplace if it’s what they want to do.
Sarah Lebner is the Lead Architect at Light House Architecture and Science – a multidisciplinary firm that aims to simplify the sustainable design process, to create comfortable, clever, energy-efficient homes. Sarah also tutors at the University of Canberra, sits on the Design Advisory Panel for Transport Canberra and writes advice for architecture students and graduates at www.myfirstarchitecturejob.com.