WILA Interview Series: Life/Work Balance

image: iStock © alexsokolov
image: iStock © alexsokolov

The Women in Landscape Architecture Professional Practice Network (WILA PPN)’s focus for 2015 is an interview series developed around being women landscape architects, life/work balance, and mentors. The WILA PPN leadership team developed 17 interview questions, and then found willing landscape architects to participate in the interview process. The following is an in-depth look at responses to the fourth group of interview questions, focusing on how respondents felt their responsibilities outside of work governed their choices and how their work places reacted or set the stage for support.

Nearly everyone has responsibilities outside of work that stress our life/work balance. How have you dealt with the specific life/work tensions in your career?

Though none of the questions specifically asked for respondents’ responsibilities outside of work, i.e. children, spousal needs, extended family, etc., between one-third and half of respondents mention children in their answers. Most also referred to spouses, and one to the care of parents. There was clearly a variety of familial backgrounds, but some common threads.

Women give of ourselves at work and are often the primary caregiver or organizer at home as well. How do we survive and gain balance? Just one of our respondents said she had “None” of, I assume, these life/work tensions in her career! How wonderful is that?

Quotes: Priorities

  • “Family first, work second.”
  • “I try not to bring work home with me. Having kids has helped me draw that boundary a little more clearly.”
  • “This is an on-going investigation. At this point, I often prioritize work over life because I feel that, in so many wonderful ways, my life is my work and I am very happy for that. For now, I do my best to lead an active and healthy lifestyle outside of work to help stabilize and balance the stress. And I make time to go have fun and relax with people I love.”

Quotes: Achieving Balance

  • “Prioritizing, focus, and time management as well as having a spouse who is understanding of my career aspirations and willing to help share the load.”
  • “I honestly can’t say that I’ve ever reached that ‘balance’ completely! However, one of the best things I did when my daughter was young, was to hire a wonderful college student to take care of my daughter after school, before I got home from work. This eliminated a lot of stress about daycare. My daughter was happy to come home after school, and things were settled and comfortable when I finally arrived home. It provided me with more quality time with my daughter, and that was a stress relief. We kept this system in place, even while my daughter was in high school, and it worked well.”
  • “My career has been really important to me. I’ve probably put more emphasis on that than on my life outside of career goals. I try to take more vacations to balance that and I stay active.”
  • “The solutions to balancing life/work obligations (in academia) have changed as my career duties have changed. Each work/life situation required a different approach.”
  • “Trying to stay physically active and relying on a network of professionals as a sounding board.”
  • “I have no children but have a partner who has supported me through school and my career over the past 23 years…Work and landscape architecture really are at the core of who I am at this point in my life. I don’t have a great handle on balance.”

Quotes: Family

  • “I encourage staff to take time for themselves and what they need to do for their family. It’s hard to do this myself and I have to work on leaving work aside for my life.”
  • “The life/work tension came to me a couple of years ago not with children, but with my parents in very dire health. Luckily, my firm is very trusting and supportive of flexible hours allowing me to delegate time while getting my work done. It was not easy.”
  • “I have strong boundaries around particular things, so that I don’t grow old and bitter about not spending enough time with my son. But in order for those boundaries to hold strong, others have had to become looser, so I have very loose work hours. I may leave early to pick up my son, but I am working again after he goes to bed, often into the wee hours. My husband and I have the most equitable relationship I have seen—we share all childcare duties, and we are lucky that he is able to be more flexible in taking on more of the responsibility when I need to stay late for deadlines, or need to travel for work, which is often. Without him shouldering a lot of the childcare, I don’t think I could do what I do.”

Does your practice have a way to support employees in endeavors, such as familial responsibilities or personal enrichment outside of (or unrelated to) work?

The respondents were more unified in answering this question. It seems that firms/companies are supportive of family obligations and as you can see below, this is coming from employees and employers in private practices small and large along with university employees. The few that do not have supportive situations are in the minority, which gives hope that women can find supportive employment. It is evident from these responses that when women own or have major leadership roles in companies, they support employees doing what they need to do for family and to maintain work/life balance.

As editor of this portion of the interview series, I have chosen to rank these from the most supportive down to the least supportive. The bold emphases are mine:

  • “Our primary philosophy was that employees needed a work environment that supported their family responsibilities and outside interests so that they could be the best employees while working. We worked with employees needing time for their children and family responsibilities, and developed schedules that worked best for them and the firm. We supported and promoted employees in their bike races, marathons, hobbies, and encouraged them to do what they love to do. It created a wonderful energy in the office.
  • “Yes, we have flex time, and so long as project responsibilities are met, people are encouraged to do what they need to find that balance. Some people start work at 6 and leave at 2; others work 12 hour days to take a day off during the week, etc, etc. We have a lot of young parents in our office, and since the partners in our office are also parents, we all understand the need for flexibility. We also encourage people to use banked time to take time off to do the things that will replenish them and help them feel grounded.
  • “[My firm] is very understanding and supportive of family. They often include family in company celebrations and milestones. There are also opportunities for volunteer projects outside of, but related to, the practice. I think there is room to grow in their support and promotion of outside educational and certification (e.g. LEED) opportunities for their employees.”
  • “My firm encourages and supports volunteer time, offering the ability to take a certain amount of time each year as volunteer and a particular way of coding that time in time sheets. Part-time is hugely challenging if working on projects with clients. Clients want the project team, especially the PIC and PM, to be available daily. So it is challenging to shift to part-time and to not be available on certain days. I work part time but daily, so just a portion of every day. But I am in every day.”
  • “Currently, we don’t have anything specifically written, but the firm has been supportive of outside endeavors. As long as everyone is meeting their deadlines and goals, we aren’t a firm with a time clock that you have to punch. A work/life balance is crucial!
  • “Our practice gives each employee typical vacation/PTO for them to use as needed or desired. We do a yearly budget that includes financial support for professional development, but would not financially support outside endeavors. There have been special cases where leaves of absence have been granted.”
  • “Our office is very supportive on continuing education (by paying for one course a semester) and of participation in professional organizations (particularly ASLA)—by paying for membership and providing time off for elected officials and participation in meetings/conferences.”
  • “While I do not have a role in these policies, the non-profit where I work is very flexible in terms of schedule and leave. Generous vacation and schedule flexibility also contribute towards this freedom.”
  • “Yes, our firm is family friendly by providing insurance benefits for children and spouses as well as flexible schedules for employees.”
  • “The university is flexible at an official level—FLMA, modified duties—and gives men & women time off for a semester for family member requirements. Those on a 9 month contract have some more flexibility in some ways to arrange the school/work schedule. The service requirement at the university level can be valuable for following passions.”

Thanks to all of our respondents for the candid evaluations of their experiences as a professional woman seeking work/life balance. We hope that these stories remind everyone that women may carry additional family obligations but know that all folks function better in a supportive environment that allows them to handle family needs, volunteer activities, and other work/life balance activities, as this increases their own productivity in the office.

Stay tuned for our next installment on understanding how we chose landscape architecture and the other jobs held along the way. For more information, check out ASLA’s Career Discovery page.

by Emily O’Mahoney, ASLA, WILA PPN Officer and Past Chair

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