Balancing Act
Illustration: Michael Kirkham

When Zach Wideman, AIA, architect and senior medical planner at Perkins+Will, checked his work email one day, what he found was an announcement about a new parental leave policy offered to employees. “I literally had to read the PDF twice because I wasn’t expecting this,” Wideman says, whose wife was pregnant with their third child at the time. “My first reaction was, ‘Really? Okay, this is great.’ ”

Last summer Perkins+Will implemented a new paid parental leave policy that includes four weeks of paid leave for new mothers, new fathers, and domestic partners in their U.S. offices. The policy also applies to employees who choose to adopt a child or provide foster care. “I wasn’t surprised that Perkins+Will offered this,” Wideman says. “We’ve always been at the forefront of innovation through the AEC community. I found it really exciting.”

In the first six months of Perkins+Will rolling out the new policy, 44 employees took advantage of the benefit. Within this group, new moms represented 54.5 percent and new dads 45.5 percent.

The policy also allows employees more flexibility in how they use that time. In Wideman’s case, he chose to take two weeks off immediately following the birth of his son, and then stretched the remaining two weeks’ time over the course of 12 weeks. This allowed him to leave work early to pick up his other two children from school and spend the afternoons with his family.

Meg Brown, chief talent officer at Perkins+Will, says that their approach in implementing the benefit was rooted in providing work-life flexibility. From the firm’s standpoint, it makes sense to offer a benefit wherein an employee can enjoy paid time off to care and bond with a new child. “When firms have to do anything involving a benefit that’s going to have a cost associated with it, they have to look at what the hard dollar cost is, but also the return on investment,” Brown says. “If it’s part of your talent brand, and your recruitment and retention proposition, that value is going to outweigh what the cost is by far.”

An Issue Across All Professions

In February, The New York Times Magazine published a series of articles on work-life balance policies nationwide. The articles addressed issues large and small, like the dangers of always eating lunch at one’s desk or the challenges of single parents with full-time workloads raising children. One key argument rings throughout: It takes more than a single policy to change the status quo; the whole office and work culture must change.

Although companies across many industries have experimented with creating a results-oriented office culture, implementing flexible work policies, and offering generous or unlimited time off, struggles with work-life balance still exist. For instance, in a nationwide survey referenced by that same New York Times Magazine issue, 96 percent of employees said they have some flexibility in their work schedule, but only 56 percent felt they were supported in that option. And in a survey conducted by the Families and Work Institute, 40 percent of respondents felt that, in their current work environment, people who asked for time off or flexible schedules were less likely to be promoted or considered for career advancement.

And architecture is no exception. In February, the AIA released the survey findings of an executive summary titled "Diversity in the Profession of Architecture." The top three reasons listed as factors for an underrepresentation of women in the profession were a general concern about work-life balance, the long work hours that make it difficult to start a family, and the lack of flexibility to work remotely, job share, or work flexible hours.

Every benefit or policy implemented with the intention of supporting employees’ personal lives comes with a counterargument for why those benefits or policies will fail. And those failures are often rooted in preconceived notions about productivity and, ultimately, success.

The Small-Firm Philosophy on Balance

Jason Winters, AIA, principal and founder of Kezlo Group, a small firm in Pennsylvania, admits that a major reason for starting his own practice was to create a flexible work environment for himself and others. “I wanted to have more control over decisions and how I wanted to plan my day,” Winters says. Shortly after the birth of his son, he realized that his work environment at a large firm would not allow him to play the kind of role that he wanted in his son’s life.

Kezlo, which now has six full-time employees, has adopted a remote work environment, but the staff meets regularly for lunch and often rents startup flex space, as needed. “The initial impetus for not having an office was more financial than anything else,” Winters says. “There was not a need and we could not really afford it.”

After the firm established itself and hired more employees, Winters noticed that not having an office became beneficial for the clients, the business, and employees. “It’s worked twofold,” Winters explains. “Not having an office forces us to always be physically there, on [the client’s] turf, and going to them provides a better service and level of engagement. But it also has become an advantage, allowing better work-life balance and flexibility in employees’ weekly work schedule.”

Kezlo employees also do not have titles on their business cards. “I don’t want to pin someone into any particular designation,” Winters explains. “I’d rather they be a designer, and let that role evolve based on where their interests are and how they can contribute.”

Tom Chung, principal of Leers Weinzapfel Associates Architects, a 30-person firm located in Boston and the 2007 recipient of the AIA Architecture Firm Award, explained that his office culture is highly collaborative, as reflected in its physical space. “We have no [individual] offices,” Chung says. “It’s one large open area. All 30 employees are in one big space, and the desk for our founding principal is the same [as] for our interns.”

What Chung and Winters are describing is a trend gaining traction quickly across many professions. Open office environments, the abandonment of titles, and other initiatives often reflect a new philosophy about the relationship between employers and employees, an understanding that performance and productivity at work is closely tied to happiness and satisfaction in one’s personal life. For perhaps the first time in history, employers are beginning to see their employees as humans who may dedicate most of their time each week to work, but shouldn’t be all about work.

More Than Children and Marital Status

Work-life balance extends beyond flexible work hours and parental leave policies. Innovative health and well-being initiatives also contribute to the growing workplace trend. Supporting employees’ health through medical coverage plans is hardly a new concept, but what about offering yoga classes in the middle of a workday? Or hosting regular discussions on diet and exercise? Or compensating employees for a full night’s rest or to participate in community service? All are the latest indications that companies are gaining greater awareness of the workforce’s newest demographic: Millennials.

Alongside flexible work options and leave policies, the interesting notion behind employers supporting employees’ mental well-being, retirement, or health goals is that, in return, employers expect and receive optimum performance from employees.

Recognizing the diverse lifestyles of its employees, HGA Architects and Engineers' headquarters in Minneapolis, Minn. launched the Whole Wellness Program. Focusing on a different topic each month, employees are encouraged to participate in discussions, volunteer activities, and attend educational presentations on physical, mental, and even financial well-being.

Kailey Lietzke, a Millennial and entry-level engineer at HGA's Milwaukee office, admits that programs like Whole Wellness are one of the top three qualities that she looks for when selecting a firm. “Are they volunteer-oriented? Do they allow me to spend my time in a manner that I think is important? And does the company put its resources into that?” Lietzke says.

Whatever the benefit or policy, a tension exists between what we do for a living and the living we all must do to be better people and workers. The key for employers and employees is to openly acknowledge that tension, with the mutual understanding that all things can be—and should be—a win-win for both parties.