Flexible working for all staff, including a smooth return after maternity leave, will result in more content and productive employees

Francesca Harrison BW 2019

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Starting a family is a big milestone in most people’s lives and is something I have always wanted, so when last year I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I was elated. My thoughts then turned to how having a family would affect my career, something I have worked hard to achieve and want to continue to progress.

Having a family can put a lot of pressure on parents as they find their time stretched between home and work, trying to get the right balance. Employers have a responsibility to help them find that balance in a way that works for both parties. If they don’t then they are effectively penalising people who want a family life. 

Many people feel they must choose between spending time with their families or progressing their careers – but why does it have to be one or the other?

To sustain diversity and employ the best people regardless of age and gender, the industry needs to evolve to better support parents and not penalise those who choose to have a family. There are many initiatives that companies can introduce that would be invaluable to their people’s commitment and development. 

I am very fortunate that Ryder Architecture offers an excellent maternity package (six months’ full pay) and have been very supportive, offering me reassurance that my role will be unaffected on my return. I don’t believe this is standard across the industry, with many people I have talked to confirming they have been offered the minimum statutory maternity package and little support, which can be financially very difficult for young people. I feel construction is behind on this front compared with many industries, and with more women entering the industry than ever before, something needs to be done to accommodate the changing workforce’s needs. Many other industries offer much more supportive packages to ensure parents feel valued.

These changes are long overdue in an old-fashioned industry that favours a convention of extended hours rather than wellbeing

Returning to work after a long absence can be a daunting prospect and something many friends have told me can be a difficult process. My concerns were that after my months of absence I would have become an outsider, and feel as though I must start again in some respects. But Ryder has an “onboarding” process to streamline the integration of new colleagues and this is also being adapted for people returning to work. I have been able to help shape this process by voicing my concerns and hopes for when I return. The aim of “re-boarding” will be to help people get up to speed quicker and settle back into their roles. It includes elements of training, meeting regularly with the team to discuss any issues and briefings on any changes which have occurred. Crucially, there is buy-in for the process from the practice’s leadership. 

This idea is something I had never heard of before in the construction industry. Without a plan for a re-boarding, many people may take a confidence hit at a time which can be already unsettling. The introduction of re-boarding across the industry could revolutionise the return-to-work process and benefit countless people. 

Flexible working can also offer significant benefits for families – something which still seems to be a taboo subject in the industry. The outdated view that people should work extended hours for no reward as standard is still prevalent, particularly in the architectural community. This is something I was particularly concerned about when I became pregnant, as an ambitious young architect I worried I would struggle to maintain my career and family life, and if I decided to work fewer hours would not be taken seriously, being passed up on high profile projects and promotions in favour of someone who works full time. Many people face this scenario, feeling they must choose between spending time with their families or progressing their careers – but why does it have to be one or the other? Surely businesses who allow people to adapt their working hours to better balance home and work responsibilities – and so be more productive and focused during the hours in the office – would benefit from more satisfied people who they are able to retain. 

Ryder already has a flexible working policy in place, allowing colleagues to choose when they complete their weekly hours and enabling any additional hours to be taken back when required. Many people find this system invaluable, allowing them to work around aspects such as childcare and to easily take time off for eventualities such as their child being ill. 

I have also been able to negotiate a flexible working strategy with Ryder which allows me to reduce my hours, working some days in the office and some hours from home, providing me with the best opportunity to balance having a young family while developing my career.

This is something that several colleagues – men and women – have already taken advantage of, which gives me confidence that I won’t be singled out as part-time due to the culture already put in place. This type of flexibility requires businesses to think differently about how their people can work and requires trust but is something that could work in many – if not most – companies.

These changes are long overdue in an old-fashioned industry that favours a convention of extended hours rather than wellbeing. I hope that we begin to see companies taking a responsible view on these issues to create a better working culture across the industry. 

Francesca Harrison is a senior architect at Ryder Architecture and one of our guest editors this week