Wojciech Zasina

Traditional firm culture can be challenging for architects who are also primary caregivers. Rigid schedules, restrictive leave policies, and a studio culture that values long hours in the office can hinder those with personal responsibilities to children, the elderly, or the infirm. Increasingly, however, architecture firms are recognizing the importance of work–life balance and company policies that help staff tend to loved ones.

Accommodate Flexible Work Schedules
Some firms allow employees to determine how best to allocate their hours during the week. At JG Johnson Architects in Denver, staff members work a 40-hour week and are generally expected to be in the office during its core hours, but individual schedules are flexible and can adapt to a four-day week or shorter days during the standard five-day week, according to Carrie Turbow, an associate at the firm.

Reduce Hours When Needed
A shorter workweek can help transition an employee back in after a long absence. Cannon Moss Brygger Architects (CMBA) in Sioux City, Iowa, has employees who work 20- and 32-hour weeks, including one designer who downshifts to 16 hours during the summer when her children are out of school. The firm is respectful of her time: “We have other designers to tackle the workload and try not to overload her,” says Brian Crichton, AIA, CEO of CMBA.

Pay is typically pro-rated for those on a lighter schedule, while benefits may or may not be reduced, as firms define full-time status differently. Thirty hours or more is standard but at TowerPinkster, in Grand Rapids, Mich., employees who work at least 25 hours a week receive full benefits, says human resources manager Carrie Hoch-Mortlock.

“We need to support people in their personal lives, so they can come to the office, focus, be creative, and do their best work.” —Boora Architects principal Amy Donohue, AIA

Offer Short-Term Disability
Although the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants 12 weeks of job-protected absence for maternity, care of a family member or personal illness in the U.S. is not mandatory for companies with fewer than 50 employees. The leave time is also unpaid. Some firms offer short-term disability insurance to buffer the loss of income; a handful of states mandate it. In the case of childbirth, TowerPinkster’s benefits typically pay 60 percent of the employee’s salary for six weeks, which  may be extended to 12 weeks with a doctor’s recommendation, Hoch-Mortlock says.

Implement a Paid Family Leave Policy
Insurance isn’t the only way to provide financial relief to employees on leave. Last month, Portland, Ore.–based Boora Architects, which has about 65 employees, instituted a paid family leave policy where the firm covers 60 percent of an employee’s salary for six weeks due to reasons specified by the Oregon Family Leave Act, which mirrors FMLA (and is also unpaid) but includes bereavement. Staff members not fully vested are paid less than 60 percent; the amount is based on their number of years with the firm. The new benefit is funded by an annual allowance added to the firm’s operating budget with the understanding that “some years, we may spend all of [it]; other years, we may spend little to none,” says firm principal Amy Donohue, AIA. Because the cost of implementation is “surprisingly affordable,” Donohue thinks similar-sized firms that don’t already have a paid family leave policy should consider establishing one or at least conduct a feasibility study. Implementing a policy can boost employee retention.

Grant Paid Parental Leave
In June, Perkins+Will began offering four weeks of fully paid parental leave to all of its U.S. employees who are new parents, whether biological, adoptive, or foster. According to the firm’s chief talent officer and principal Meg Brown, the four weeks are in addition to the six weeks minimum granted for childbirth for biological mothers under short-term disability, which employees also receive.

Provide Additional Support
Beyond formal benefits and financial assistance, firms can show their valuation of employees by offering extended benefits and leave or more direct financial assistance. TowerPinkster sends food to the home of staff caring for spouses who are seriously ill and helps defray the costs of travel for medical reasons. The firm also gives its associates six floating, work–life balance days a year for them to “refresh and clear their heads,” Hoch-Mortlock says. Similarly, Boora has a beachhouse for employees and their families to recharge. Such perks may seem excessive but as Donohue notes, “We need to support people in their personal lives, so they can come to the office, focus, be creative, and do their best work.”