To Work or Not to Work? The Part-time Question
Melonie Bayl-Smith argues that flexible work arrangements may be the best option for an architectural practice to retain its corporate knowledge and for the profession to retain its talent.
In 2008 the Productivity Commission released the working paper “Part-Time Employment: the Australian Experience”, which noted that “Australia ranks fairly highly among OECD countries in terms of part-time work for “prime age workers aged 25–54 years” and has “a high proportion of its working women in part-time work compared to most other OECD countries – 51.5% of the female workforce by the 35 hours cut-off, which is well above the OECD average (33%).”
Taking just these two extracts from this fairly long and comprehensive report on part-time employment, it is clear that part-time work not only forms a significant part of the total productivity of the nation, but that the Australian workforce expects part-time work to be available and accessible.
Given this, it seems unrealistic for large sections of the architectural profession to continue to ignore the increasing demands for more flexible working hours and part-time roles. And if we do ignore it, we will find that more and more people, male and female, will leave the profession – a ‘brain drain’ of sorts. This is simply because expectations of flexibility and career continuity are no longer restricted to full-time workers. And, without wishing to be preoccupied with age or gender, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the increased participation of women in both architecture and in the general workforce over the past 20 years is key to this demand.
Nonetheless, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that many architectural practices, small and large, profess an inability to create, manage and/or sustain part-time positions – particularly for more experienced persons.
So how should this sticky question be approached?
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that the needs of part-timers are usually exactly the same as those of persons working full time – regardless of whether they are students, parents, carers, or older workers.
Of particular importance is that, mostly, part-time workers want to do meaningful work; to be included in practice-wide meetings and decisions; to receive fair and equitable compensation; to like the people they work with; to have their opinions valued; and to be recognised for their efforts. Their salary package and collateral should also include the benefits that full-time employees might enjoy, including an appropriate job title, business card, professional memberships, CPD allowances, architectural registration support and the like.
Building on this, it is important to create meaningful work because for many people part-time employment is not a long-term career ‘choice’. It is often the only solution for starting or maintaining continuity in their career while dealing with various life situations – for example, completing studies, raising young children or caring for an elderly parent.
Practically speaking, several management strategies can help, including the following:
- Making a part-time employee responsible for a specific part of a much larger project or, in the case of smaller projects, giving them ownership over one or two specific projects.
- Pairing a more experienced part-time employee with a graduate. The graduate will benefit from being mentored as well as having guided opportunities to act directly in the absence of their senior counterpart.
Of course, each of these approaches has its challenges. Nonetheless, they encapsulate the idea of the part-time experienced person being the key responsible person, thereby imbuing that person’s role with a measure of respect and regard concomitant with their experience.
It is also important to engage with individual part-time employees about the management and selection of projects or the project work to be undertaken. This is especially important with more experienced employees. This provides job autonomy and ownership of the work. In the long run, this approach will retain good employee engagement, create self-directed learning opportunities, and result in a better overall outcome for the clients, employer, employees and fellow workers.
In relation to architecture students, many practices express concern that casual or part-time students place an ‘unaffordable’ burden on the practice – for example, in relation to the ‘cost’ of training and checking work completed. However, much anecdotal evidence suggests that with patience and good practice management, the part-time student can readily become a highly profitable, flexible, loyal and enthusiastic employee who brings with them new skills, personal networks and ideas to the practice.
So, although meaningful part-time work may ask more of the employer and business owner with respect to practice management and the resourcing of projects, the dividends in the long run are potentially immeasurable – retaining a valued employee, training a new one, increasing expertise in the office at a lower cost to the practice. Considering the investment made in any employee, providing flexible work arrangements may very well be the best option for any practice to retain its corporate knowledge and for the profession to retain its talent.
Can your practice contribute further strategies and tips on how to make the most of part-time work opportunities and the effective management of part-time employees? The ACA would like to hear about them. Email us at [email protected]u
 J. Abhayaratna, L. Andrews, H. Nuch and T. Podbury, Part Time Employment: the Australian Experience, Australian Government Productivity Commission, p. 21.
 D. Thomas and W. Xue, What are the Best Practices for Creating Meaningful Part-Time Roles and How can we Better Support This Type of Flexible Work Arrangement? Cornell University ILR School, ILR Collection, p. 1.
Melonie Bayl Smith is director of Bijl Architecture and Adjunct Professor, UTS School of Architecture. This item was first published in ACA Communique, November 2013.