Balancing time at work with time at home is challenging especially when events in one or the other create additional stress. The Women in Landscape Architecture PPN had an opportunity to chat with Susan Hatchell, FASLA, PLA, and current ASLA President, about a work/life balance issue last month in response to a request from a member for information on maternity leave policies in the landscape architecture industry.
From a brief overview of the maternity policies the Women in Landscape Architecture PPN officers were aware of or had dealt with, there is a lot of variety in how firms deal with an employee’s request for extended time off for birth or adoption of a baby or other event requiring significant time away from the office. Given the range in both size and focus among landscape architecture firms, there is probably not a standard long-term leave policy. Starting the conversation with an employer can be intimidating and the timing can be crucial. Our conversation with Hatchell focused on what worked for her firm, but we’d like to hear what has worked (or not worked) in your experience.
According to Hatchell, the key to her firm’s successful maternity leave experience was flexibility. As a firm owner, she successfully navigated the arrival of a new addition to a key employee’s family by being open to the possibility and working with the employee from early on. Hatchell says the firm approached it as an opportunity to improve the business and came out stronger for the experience. Accommodating new schedules and making sure all duties and activities would be handled presented an excellent opportunity to record vital policies and procedures, create a backup and archive of what was working, and improve policies and procedures in some areas. Cross-training among the employees allowed key employees to take time off without bringing the whole enterprise to a stop. Starting the conversation early and planning for the upcoming changes in phases were both essential for the successful transition at the firm.
While this particular review of practices and procedures was precipitated by a birth, Hatchell points out that there are many reasons an employee might need to be away from the office for an extended period of time. Some events are much more unpredictable such as sudden illness or the need to care for a loved one and can result in employees who need flexible hours or significant time off with little warning. Assuring a depth of both expertise and information among team members and employees so a team member can step in during unforeseen events can help the business continue to run smoothly and keep projects moving forward. It can also mean the difference between losing a valuable employee and retaining a significant resource.
As an employee it can be challenging to begin the conversation with a supervisor about lengthy leave. Fear of being sidelined because of a change in family status or a perceived ability to dedicate both focused attention and time resources is common as is apprehension about managing expectations and perceptions of co-workers unfamiliar with the situation who might think the “special” treatment is unfair. Open communication about concerns on both sides can help in working toward a solution. Some common issues include concerns about ability to or interest in returning to work after extended time off; concerns of the employee about having work, projects, or opportunities taken away or not being included in projects of a certain status or size before or after taking extended leave; and an employer’s concerns about being able to fully utilize personnel because of project timing or other commitments. If these concerns are seen as liabilities rather than opportunities, both the employee and the employer enter the conversation at a disadvantage.
While leave of absence arrangements work in some firms and for some landscape architects, they don’t work for everyone. Some folks end up taking considerable time off from the profession either by choice or by circumstance due to an unforeseen illness, new baby, economic circumstances, or other event. Others try and are successful with some creative solutions such as employers offering short term disability insurance which often covers maternity and care of a loved one as well as injury, job sharing between employees, arranging to scale back to part time temporarily or permanently, or developing a network of people with similar schedules including the night meetings, project cycles, and tight deadlines common in design professions who can help juggle the childcare necessary at odd hours.
How have you dealt with long-term leave requirements? What has worked and why? What hasn’t worked? Could it be changed to be successful? What is the policy on leave for maternity or care of a loved one where you work? If you have any experience or ideas on taking extended leave to share with us, comment below or join us on the Women in Landscape Architecture PPN Group on LinkedIn for more conversation. Or send an email to Kristina Snyder, firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Kristina Snyder, PLA, ASLA, is the WILA PPN co-chair. Kristina is the owner of Giraffa Studio Design and works for Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS.