What is a ‘better normal’ for women, post-pandemic?
In 2021, Civic Engineers rolled out its ‘Better Normal’ working model — a hybrid practice of working from office and from home to provide post-pandemic flexibility in the workplace. Through conversations with staff and structured surveys, Civic learned that 60% of the team wanted to work from the studio 50% of the time.
The team used this feedback to develop a working model that maximises flexibility and provides a better work-life balance. The model enables easier concentration for certain types of work, requires less travel time to/from work, and strives for increased productivity, benefits to mental health, environmental benefits and flexibility around lifestyle constraints such as school drops/pick-ups.
In this breakfast networking session for women in the industry hosted early July, the all-seniorities Civic hosts sought to understand what a ‘better normal’ is for women, post-pandemic? Did our peers notice/feel the pandemic affecting genders differently? What aspects of flexible working has been most value? What measures have other companies taken to adjust, and has that had an overall positive or negative impact on work-life balance?
Guests and contributors included:
- Cheryl Tang, Plan-A Consulting
- Eliza Tieman, BGY
- Felicia Baily, City Science
- Fiona Petch, Fatkin Architects
- Lara Boyd, Avison Young
- Leila Gray, Sheppard Robson
- Lucy Atlee, Transport for London
- Marion Baeli, PDP
- Michaela Winter-Taylor, Gensler
- Penny Gowler, Elliott Wood
- Rachel Birchmore, AreBe
- Rachel Hoolahan, ORMS
- Sinead O’Conneely, Simple Works
- Sophie Thompson, LDA
Here’s what was shared:
The first observation in the room was the difference in experience of lockdown was life-stage dependent. That those with dependents start with an imbalance of additional stressors compared to those without these responsibilities. Even when responsibilities were shared relatively equally, young children tended to seek their mothers – so mothers ended up juggling more and taking more of the family’s emotional labour.
Male partners generally ‘stepped up’ at the start but social norms are slipping back. Having mothers on boards has helped push the flexible model; further, having equal – or equitable – parental leave, where men are encouraged and compensated for taking time with their children, could affect gender equity in a multitude of ways:
- Allow fathers and children to bond from an early age so a more equitable share of emotional labour is taken on by both parents
- Allow women to return to work sooner, keeping them in contact with the workforce
- Create opportunities for women when men in senior positions take leave
- Help shift biases towards more equitable pay
Overall, it was seen that spending time with young children was more of a positive, but that the pressures of both working during lockdown as well as home schooling/full time care, was too much for many in the room.
With the boundaries of work and home far more blurred, for those with dependents or not, seeing lives play out on screens makes colleagues ‘human’ and connect on a more personal level even if not face-to-face. Again, this differed between the sexes. What resonated throughout the room was the propensity for women to reach out and connect with their friends, whereas they saw some male partners endure the pandemic in isolation.
What our guests love about the new ways of working, is having the trust and control to get the job done in one’s own schedule while cutting down on commuting costs and time by working from home more often. The office space then becomes, primarily, a tool for social interaction as well as project collaboration.
However, not commuting can be a double-edged sword. That journey can offer time to decompress before or after a day, delineating work and home life and allowing the brain to ‘switch off’ which is critical to rest, recovery and ability to perform the next task. We’re also finding it more difficult to normalise sick days and take time to recover when someone can work as they’re propped up in bed.
Within teams, the flattening structure of all hierarchies being reduced to single Zoom squares online meant that junior members of teams had the opportunity for just as much physical presence over a digital platform as their more senior team members. Additionally, the cost reduction of attending online events meant they had the opportunity to access networks or attend training sessions more readily. The industry is known for being male-biased at the top, so we’re hoping that experience will see a carry-through to see more women reaching new heights sooner.
Overall, having relative autonomy over one’s own time and space through flexible working is great for feeling a better sense of empowerment. Being physically apart from teammates fosters a need (and allowance) for ‘getting on’ with taskwork in your own way. While this might breed a sense of efficiency, it is incumbent on junior members to find a solution themselves which does mean they miss out on the incidental learning so critical to training. What was clear was that no one from within the room has one single idea of what ‘normal’ looks like. It’s company-dependent, as is effective communication and flexibility around working patterns or shifts in culture. We’re in a time of constant tweaking and adjustment; and this is an era of self-governance.
And what feels right for one may not work for another. The longer terms impacts of our new working model are still largely undetermined, especially for younger team members who are finding different ways to progress their learning and careers.
We look forward to continuing these conversations as we all navigate our ‘better normal’. Please be in touch with us if you are a woman working in the industry and would like to contribute.
Contact: Katrina Davis, firstname.lastname@example.org