Something that’s good for working moms can be good for everyone.

By Courtney Casburn Brett (President & Creative Director, Casburn Brett Architecture)

Family? Or career? “The big choice” is having big effects on how many women we see in leadership.

With Elizabeth Chu Richter’s recent appointment to president of the American Institute of Architects, my industry is more open than ever about the topic of women in our field. It’s widely acknowledged that many female architects invest a solid 10 years in their career track, then make “the big choice:” family or career.

This either/or choice is apparently much less prominent for other professional women; the balance of men and women in law and medicine have hovered near equal for years. As a result, our industry is faced with two distinct gaps in leadership — a lack of role models for young women architects, and a lack of practice models that lessen the impact or eliminate the power of “the big choice.”

Time to Make a Change

Only 18 percent of licensed architects today are women, and far fewer are firm partners or owners. As the president of Casburn Brett Architecture, I am one of them.

So I decided it was time to remove “the big choice” from the equation for women at our firm. In efforts to create an environment that permitted balance and flexibility, I instituted a flex time policy.

Large firms have started to pave the way for the more expensive policy changes such as paid maternity leave and specially designed lactation rooms. Small firm owners will quickly tell you not all of these are possible in small and medium firms.

For example, we can be openly supportive of breastfeeding, but don’t have a spare room in our office to dedicate to it. Naturally, the strategies for small firms are much different and arguably critical in advancing our field.

The pursuit to create a flex-time policy at my office was (I should admit) selfishly for my future self. But I researched and implemented the changes to support it, my eyes were opened to the dramatic changes in project efficiency, as well as unrivaled access to global consultants and contributors that were also available through an untraditional firm model.

Three critical components in the successful flex-time staff policy have thrust our practice forward. We saw company-wide improvements that made life easier for all our employees — not just parents.

1. Improved Access to Information

We moved all of our company files to a secure remote file storage system. This allows all of our employees and contributors controlled access to the files they need to use or share from anywhere in the world with a reliable Internet connection.

Keep in mind that this can be a time-consuming and costly process — we had to build some of the system from scratch with our IT service, as there are very specific challenges associated with the layering and linking of CAD and BIM files in a remote storage condition.

For us, and our goals as a firm, this expense was worth it. The remote file storage promotes a seamless experience. Our employees are no longer hindered by slow remote access, file loss during a power outage or even unplanned snow days. My staff can work as quickly from home or an airport Starbucks as they can from their desks.

2. Better Communication Between Teams

Building a flex-time policy into a small firm requires extremely clear policy and job descriptions. The entire team needs to know the availability and reliability of their associates, whether working from home or in the office, and there are plenty of tools that support and encourage this transparency even with remote contributors.

We have a plethora of ways to connect with our staff and contributors: an internal corporate instant messenger, a phone system that automatically forwards certain extensions to cell phones, screen sharing and advanced remote conference capabilities. All support company-wide teamwork.

3. Highly Efficient Project Management

An ever-evolving work in progress, our team scheduling is the most lacking (but fastest improving!) component of our transition. Using a mixture of traditional project scheduling tools, and a few newer, user friendly applications, our project managers now have access to real time task management data and timelines on the projects and tasks they are responsible for overseeing, as well as a window into the overall staffing of projects at the firm.

This slightly complicated system has a serious “wow” factor with all of my team members, helping both its adoption and an increasingly unrivaled efficiency – remote and office based staff alike feel completely plugged into task priorities, teamwork opportunities and can set their schedules based on task deadlines (instead of the traditional 9-to-5 office hours).

I had two overwhelmingly gratifying realizations after I researched and implemented the tools and policies that would make flex-time a realistic option for my firm.

First, that every implemented decision improved the seamless experience, company-wide teamwork and unrivaled efficiency of the entire staff (not just the minority of possible future mothers.)

And secondly, I smile at the wonderful irony that the first person to put the system into practice for the benefit of early childcare and work/family balance is one of the men.