Pandemic effect: Equity in architecture firms

An event run by Building Equality in Architecture (BEA), a volunteer-run organization that promotes equality in the profession through advocacy, mentorship and networking.

TEXT Betsy Williamson, Principal, Williamson Williamson

The atomization of architecture offices during the pandemic presented an immediate and profound change that no one could have anticipated. It’s come with immense challenges, but also opened new opportunities for equity in our workplaces.

Like firms across Canada, Williamson Williamson closed its physical offices in mid-March, and was quickly up-and-running remotely. As offices embraced a new workflow, there was a universal acceptance of flexibility. Everyone would be working from home, albeit with deep concerns about health, family, and economic uncertainty. We were home with partners, children, parents, pets, chores, and every other pleasant—and not-so-pleasant—distraction that exists in our personal spaces. 

For women in the workplace—now balancing roles as the default parent, head-of-household, and a productive team member—the pressures became even greater.

Years ago, as millennials entered the workplace, they called for changes to the prevailing office culture. Ironically, this was buoyed by the widely circulated perks at the tech campuses, whose main purpose was to keep their staff at work as many hours of the day as possible. But at the core, recent architecture graduates sought greater flexibility in the way they approached and completed work.

In a service profession where time at the office seems inextricably linked to both design excellence and profit margins, leaving one’s desk to care for a child or an aging parent (or simply to “have a life”) often makes an employee feel excluded from the office culture and impacts their perceived dedication to the team.

In 2014, I co-founded Building Equality in Architecture Toronto (BEAT) to help advocate for change. I posited that a shift in workplace culture would especially benefit women as they moved through their careers. Once flexibility was not something offices reluctantly accommodated—but part of our culture—it would allow women to thrive in their careers as they worked towards leadership roles.

Now, months into a new work-from-home paradigm, we can start to assess the challenges and successes we have experienced so far.

Pressures on leadership are enormous as we work to maintain high levels of design integrity, fulfill professional responsibilities, and craft our economic viability during a downturn. Everything about the workings of an office—especially in-depth modeling, drawing, and material reviews—is more onerous and time consuming when remote. Encouraging staff to be optimistic, to maintain excellence, and to learn and grow is harder. Learning by osmosis and organic teamwork is impossible when everyone is at home.

Despite all this, we have avoided the total collapse that so many other sectors have faced. Our firm has managed to rehire past summer students who now live out of town and accommodate staff who work part-time while they share childcare with their partners. We’ve found that office culture is not only social, but is ultimately about the way each person sees their role in the work collectively put out by the office.

While we look forward to returning to our physical office, like many firms, we’re also contemplating how we can retain some of the upsides of allowing staff to work from home. I believe that while women in particular will see this accommodation as a move towards equity, everyone in offices will see it as a benefit. Work-from-home should not be about taking work home in order to put in extra hours late at night, nor should it signal that someone is lacking dedication if it is used for personal or family reasons. Design excellence, diversity and equity must be achieved together, and each of us must contribute to our fullest—and have the tools and resources to do so.

 


This article is part of our Pandemic Effect series. Our complete list of experts in this series includes:

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