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To retain talent give your staff the freedom to choose their hours

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AHMM is doing it, John McAslan’s is doing it, you should ‘just do it’ too, says Christine Murray

‘Just do it.’ Those were the words of Rafael Viñoly to Christina Seilern, when she questioned whether she could run his London studio as a mother of two, now of three.

‘Sometimes you just need someone to believe in you,’ Seilern said to the audience at last week’s Back to Work seminar.

It was an inspirational morning with the 60 people who came to John McAslan + Partners’ London offices to hear the AJ panel discuss returning to work after maternity leave or a career break.

Seilern, who left Viñoly to found her own, now 12-strong, studio and Hannah Lawson, director at John McAslan + Partners, a mother of two who manages 18 staff, described the challenges and rewards of being a high-flying mum, from changing nappies in the boardroom, to doing your school run with Viñoly in tow. ‘There is no magic formula,’ Seilern said. ‘It’s all about having the stamina.’

Lawson agreed: ‘And luckily, stamina is something architecture school prepares you for. I was pleasantly surprised – sleepless nights as a mum are nothing to an architect. All those late nights really paid off.’

Also on the panel, Tamsyn Curley of recruitment agency Place Careers discussed the growing trend in flexible working – ‘most employers are looking at this, especially now that the jobs market is bouncing back’ – while Susan Le Good, director at AHMM, and Peter Murray, director at Stanton Williams, two major AJ100 employers of architects, said they accommodate flexible and part-time hours to retain talented staff – both women and men – after they have children.

Women in Architecture seminar

Part-time working, where employees are paid for a limited number of contracted hours per week, and flexible working, where they are paid full-time, but work unconventional hours, were the two most-discussed options for parent-architects.

‘Some prefer working from an early start every day until 3pm, while others opt for a three-day week,’ Le Good said, adding that it was important that employers take a personal, bespoke approach to each parent, and to continue to communicate with employees regularly to track how the arrangement is working.

Le Good also poo-pooed the myth that it is harder to get a raise if you are a part-time worker.

‘It’s absolutely OK to ask for a pay increase if you are a part-time or flexible worker. You demonstrate your value in the work you do, not in the number of hours you work,’ she said.

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

But Lawson said she would switch her whole team to flexible arrangements if they could convince her they could do their existing role in alternative hours: ‘Two of our dads work four days in the office, but are paid full-time and pick up extra hours where needed, whether its a few hours at the weekend, or emails during nap time.’

‘Even new mums will work long hours if it is flexible,’ Lawson continued. ‘We become architects because we are passionate about architecture, not because we want a short working week. If there’s a competition, it might involve spending a couple late nights in the office. It’s not about less work, it’s about working flexibly.’

One thing was clear from the discussion: architects are not afraid to work hard or extra hours, but once they have families, they may need the flexibility to get the work done when and where they can.

Giving your staff the freedom to set their own hours can go a long way when it comes to retaining talent – architects who might otherwise leave to set up on their own.

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