Urbanworks, a 13-person, woman- and minority-owned design firm founded in Chicago in 1993, has seen its best earnings yet in the past two years, and principal Patricia Saldaña Natke credits the gain to a contented office. “It shows to clients if your employees are happy,” she says. “If they’re not happy, they project that in meetings, and then it trickles back to me. For us, it’s all about the people working.”

UrbanWorks and three other Chicago-area architecture firms—Hutter Architects, Ross Barney Architects, and Primera—were examined last year as part of a study, “Diversity in Architecture Firms: Finding a Work/Life Balance.” Karen Rust, a second-year master’s candidate in the architecture program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, wanted to see what these firms were doing right (and wrong) to foster an inclusive, woman- and minority-friendly working environment. As part of her research, she interviewed firm employees and talked to focus groups composed of members of the nonprofit Chicago Women in Architecture. Rust’s study was guided by Professor Kathryn Anthony, author of the 2001 book Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession.

Rust’s findings identify changes in an office’s physical environs that can substantially improve the comfort level of all employees, but especially female employees. Put in architects’ language, these are simple programmatic requirements: safe and accessible siting; open space; designated nursing areas; and remote access. Rust’s study is small and her findings are localized to Chicago, but she’s pointing to something big—a changing office landscape that welcomes a diverse workforce. In this economy, success depends as much on how well you work as it does on how much you work.

Safe, accessible siting

Rust cites studies that show working parents add an average of 28 minutes to their daily commute to drop off and/or pick up a child at day care. New firms often look to less expensive up-and-coming neighborhoods for office space, but an out-of-the-way location might deter a large swath of potential employees—parents of young children and also those dependent on public transit (read: young, green)—from working there.

Safety is a major concern. Women in Rust’s study reported that they feel safer in buildings with a secure entry. Proximate transit and designated parking areas are also desirable for female job seekers and employees. Firms can make employees feel safer by offering to pay cab fare on late nights.

Open space

In her visits to Chicago-area firms, Rust found that an open floor plan encourages collaboration. A lunchroom gets people talking. Doorless offices loosen a traditional sense of hierarchy, which may be alienating to younger and female employees. Just a few weeks after joining UrbanWorks, designer Melissa Mazariegos brainstormed with her colleagues who share the same open office. “There have been times when I start thinking out loud, and my co-workers will build on the ideas, and then all of a sudden we will be drawing and developing a more coherent idea.”

In founding UrbanWorks, Natke wanted to duplicate the experience she had working at Ross Barney Architects, where she learned the ropes by listening to principal Carol Ross Barney talking to clients. Now, in her own firm, “everything is transparent,” Natke says, including the sliding walls of the conference room. Thursday’s “Look-Ahead” meeting is attended by the entire staff (one employee comes in with her infant twins and nurses them during the meeting). Natke adds, “I even tell them what we’re going after. It’s how the culture is here. Frankly, I have nothing to hide.”

Noise is the downside of an open office, but chatter seems to be going out of style. In the past year or so, Ross Barney has noticed a hush descending over her office, a three-level space centering on an open atrium that was designed by the late Harry Weese. Most communication—even interoffice—is via e-mail. Employees take personal calls outside on cell phones.

Designated nursing/private areas

Federal law allows parents up to three months of leave after having a baby, but the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that mothers exclusively nurse their infants until at least six months of age. Women wanting to do right by both their employer and their baby may become well acquainted with a breast pump, but finding a place to use it is problematic.

Women in Rust’s focus groups described sitting on restroom toilets—not just uncomfortable, but far from ideal in sanitary terms. One mother in Rust’s study described working in an office with only one bathroom and having to forewarn other employees that she needed to use the restroom for an extended period of time. Similarly, women in Rust’s study who used conference rooms to pump described the awkwardness of coordinating nursing time with meeting schedules. At Ross Barney, nursing mothers can use a computer server room, private but chilly.

Primera, an engineering and architecture firm, offers a forward-thinking solution in their 100-person office: quiet rooms, furnished with a comfortable chair, which can be used by anyone who needs a private place to nurse, pray, or otherwise retreat from the activity of the office.

Remote access

Gone are the days of the 9 to 5 schedule, if those days ever really existed. In the firms Rust examined, core hours—usually around 10 to 4—ensure that everyone is on hand for key hours of the day but allow flexibility to care for children, teach—or in the case of one architect at Ross Barney, perform ballet. Employees can make up the difference by coming in earlier, staying later, or, with laptops or remote access, logging in from home.

UrbanWorks is experimenting with flexible work-at-home options. Natke herself works from home on Mondays to spend more time with her daughters. Maria Pellot, a project architect at the firm, works six hours a day from home, fitting in the time when her twin babies sleep. It makes sense for UrbanWorks because Pellot is a valued project architect; it makes sense for Pellot because, while the demands of infant twins are high, “I want to keep working. If you stop working, you become obsolete.”