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Back to work: mums can succeed in architecture

When it comes to flexible working and childcare arrangements, ‘there isn’t a right or a wrong way’ said the panellists at the AJ’s Back to Work seminar

Instead, a highly bespoke and personal approach tailored to each member of staff was recommended as best practice by the panel, which included AHMM director Susan Le Good; Christina Seilern, founder of Studio Seilern, Peter Murray, director of Stanton Williams; Hannah Lawson, director of John McAslan & Partners and Tamsyn Curley, director at Place Careers.

‘Communication is very important,’ said Le Good. ‘We make sure to have meetings with women returning to work about their preferences, and follow-up to see how it’s working.’

Lawson said, ‘There isn’t a right or wrong way to do it. I wouldn’t pre-determine until you’ve had the baby when you’re going to come back or for how many days a week. Don’t make promises about what you can do. Letting people down is worse than being very honest.’

Flexible working was heralded by the panel as the way forward in retaining women in practice.

Lawson said: ‘Even new mums will work long hours if it is flexible. Working seven days a week is not good for anyone. So we need to encourage greater flexible working. Architects do it because they are passionate about architecture not because they want to make money or have a short working week.’

The issues of flexible working and taking career breaks to have children aren’t just affecting women, most of the panel agreed that new fathers requesting flexible working are on the rise.

Lawson, who has a number of men who work part-time on her team of 18 staff, said: ‘Men now have the confidence to ask for it.’

On negotiating a pay increase as a flexible worker AHMM’s Susan Le Good added: ‘It is absolutely ok to ask for a pay increase if you are a flexible worker. You demonstrate your value in the work you do, not in the number of hours you work.’

But Seilern, whose office is 12-strong, admitted that accommodating flexible working can be difficult for a small practice: ‘In a small office one person missing is a big deal.’

And recruiter Curley said that it is trickier to request flexible working when interviewing for a new job, as opposed to coming back - but that it’s getting easier: ‘The market has picked up quite dramatically in the last three to six months. Everyone seems to be making a concerted effort to welcome mums back after maternity leave.’

Speaking about managing staff Peter Murray of Stanton Williams, commented: ‘The first few weeks coming back to work can be very disconcerting for anyone. Making it work is about being flexible, about good communication and about being accommodating as an employer. Helping your employees to regain their confidence is important.’

Confidence when coming back to work is key

Le Good agreed: ‘Confidence when coming back to work is key.’

The breakfast seminar was hosted at John McAslan & Partners’ office in London, and was sponsored by Place Careers and Roca UK, both proud sponsors of the AJ Women in Architecture campaign and awards since its inception.

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