Flexible working is reliant on trust

by Helena Morgan
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It’s the buzz statement on everyone’s lips and symptomatic of a post-lockdown world – flexible working solutions. But some are still wary that flexible working will interfere with productivity, diligence and tarnish a strong in-office culture.

Brisbane-based Plus Architecture principal Rebecca Wright argues that offering flexible working solutions can only be a good thing, and with trust, understanding and openness, a break from tradition can contribute to enriched employee health and wellbeing. 

Many are excited to embrace flexible working perks such as optional work-from-home days, monthly breakfasts, beers after 4pm on a Thursday and a company card for Monday morning sweet treats with gusto and mirth. 

The enthusiasm of the interning students at Plus Architecture’s Brisbane studio is particularly palpable, as they approach crafting a charcuterie board for Friday afternoon knock-offs as they would approach crafting a kitchen – in a manner reflective of those with an aptitude for delivering meticulous and precise design. 

“We say that nobody leaves Plus as a student without knowing how to make a beautiful charcuterie board,” says Wright, who speaks to Facility Management during the first week of the Brisbane studio’s trial of the nine-day working fortnight.

The trial was spurred from a desire to enrich employee wellbeing, elevate the office experience and attract and retain talent without relying on remuneration as a mechanism. 

“We’ve been exploring several ways to improve the health and wellbeing and incentivise the team beyond remuneration,” says Wright. 

“Everyone can hand out money, but we are dealing with a different generation now, and it’s more about balance.”

Leadership means sharing problems 

Wright describes growing up “immersed” in architecture as her father was a bricklayer and provided insights and coverage into the built environment. As with many veterans and newcomers to design, Wright’s career journey has been non-linear and prone to bouts of improvisation, adaptation and capitalising on opportunities as they arise. 

She gives off the humble air of someone who is empowered to help people and make working experiences memorable and rich. Tallying 25 years of experience in private and government sector work, she has specialised in a vast array of typologies from singular houses to multi-storey buildings. Wright has worked at the Brisbane Plus Architecture studio since its conception in 2013.

Wright reports feeling drawn to leadership as she is both challenged and excited by the opportunities of leading people as a self-proclaimed problem solver. “I want to help people – I guide and assist others in what they do,” she says.

“I’ve been able to leverage from all of my experiences and I consider myself a leader committed to helping the team and making better processes for the business.”

She predicts a future wherein problems are shared between leaders and those following, and strength is gained from solidarity in struggle.

Plus Brisbane’s journey with flexible working 

Wright says balance was prioritised above everything else when the Brisbane team began strategising how to successfully roll out a nine-day working fortnight for full-time employees. The team conducted research, engaged with HR consultants and encouraged people to voice concerns and air grievances. 

“People were mainly interested to see how leave would work,” says Wright. 

Rigorous brainstorming and workshopping ensued before the trial was implemented in the week starting 8 April. Of the studios’ 32 core team members, 30 are participating in the trial. 

The first chapter of the opt-in trial will be three months, and after analysis, the studio will aim for the six-month mark. Wright was not in the practice of forcing people to adopt the nine-day working fortnight if a five-day week was sufficient.

“Each team member is still going to do the 76 hours they currently do in a fortnight, but have the flexibility to choose when they do those hours,” she says.

Rebecca Wright believes people should be able to complete essential tasks during the work week without judgement.

Wright explained that the team developed a fair roster that balances project commitments with team support to ensure the office has a ceaseless supply of skill sets even with people dipping out for their long weekend.

Maintaining fairness was also paramount, as the four groups participating alternate between either a Monday or Friday off work every month. 

Wright says the effective execution of a nine-day working fortnight is reliant on a willingness and openness to adjust, adapt and listen to the team. “It’s just a matter of understanding the skills of your team and when you need to deliver things,” she says. “You can change simple things like no presentations or client meetings on a Friday.”

The power of changing routine 

The pandemic-induced hybrid workforce made the Plus team realise the potential and power of upending routine and experimenting with a standard working week. 

“We’ve all adapted since the pandemic and it’s been fantastic,” says Wright. 

She has chosen not to trial the nine-day working fortnight, however, she gladly embraces a flexible working week. On the day she spoke to Facility Management, she arrived at the office at 7am, and she was ducking out at 4pm to take her son to a doctor’s appointment.

Wright believes people should be able to complete essential weekly tasks without hassle and judgement. “We’ve got a few parents out on the floor who really appreciate flexible working,” she says. 

Flexible working eliminates the chance of employees agonising over how they will juggle responsibilities and manage expectations. Wright underscores that successful roll-out is owed to a willingness to lend a hand, pick up the slack when needed and ensure deadlines are met. 

Changing communication styles and unlearning behaviours 

Wright says that flexible working increases in effectiveness when workplaces advantageously leverage technology. “We changed everybody up to a laptop – as much as we think it’s a no-brainer, it wasn’t something we did three years ago, and since then we have adapted quite rapidly and easily.”

She reflects on how the pursuit towards peak flexible working has been a process of learning and unlearning and changing communication styles. “We just encourage the team to come together and help each other,” she says. 

“You work together and grow together.” 

Plus’ Brisbane studio boasts a family-centric workplace culture grounded in camaraderie, collaboration and enjoyment. Studio gatherings are commonplace and cherished – monthly breakfasts, personal development seminars and Easter egg hunts. The seating plan is also rotated frequently to encourage interaction and engagement with different people. These instances of fun and delight avoid the development of a clinical and sterile workplace atmosphere.

Wright admits that providing this culture involves hefty amounts of planning, but change is easy to handle as long as “everyone is on the journey”.

Trust and understanding 

The Brisbane team are excited to discover what the trial will reveal about behaviours and rituals. “With the majority of the team doing it, we can really test it and see the robustness of it,” says Wright. 

For Wright, it’s simple – flexible working is indebted to trust and understanding. “You’ve got to trust the team that they’re not going to let you down, or the business and client down,” she says. Wight envisages a world wherein trust is placed on employees to devise ways to make up time-in-lieu. 

She maintains employees should have the agency and autonomy to develop their work-life balance and act maturely and respectfully to avoid abusing the privilege of flexible working. “I can give you the mechanisms to support a work-life balance, which is what this nine-day fortnight is – but I can’t create a work-life balance.”

If employees are kept on a short leash, then discontent, resentment and bending of the rules is inevitable, Wright comments.

She is careful to not label flexible working as a one-size-fits-all approach, or a reality that is governed by band-aid solutions and corner-cutting. She says flexible working will look different depending on the workplace. “You have to go back and reflect on the roots of any problems that arise,” says Wright. 

Are productivity and diligence at risk of being lost?

Some are apprehensive about implementing flexible working solutions such as the nine-day working fortnight or scrumptious in-office perks as they fear these privileges will lead to declines in productivity, diligence and focus. Wright confirms that the opposite is true, as flexible working solutions mean people are energised and recharged. 

“I think flexible working increases productivity because people are well-rested,” she says.

“We’re eliminating the carryover of life stresses by providing an extra day for life admin that cannot be accomplished over a typical weekend anymore.” Even before Plus’ trial was rolled out, Wright noticed employees reporting a clear and peaceful mind after completing life admin tasks.  

Longer periods of rest and relaxation alleviate stress and slash the chance of staff burnout. Wright says office feedback a week into the trial is encouraging. 

“This week, some people came in at 7.30 in the morning, other people came in at nine o’clock and worked through to seven,” she says. 

“They’re not tired. They’re still able to do their exercise. They’re just working it out for themselves. One of the ladies said on her first extra day she was happy that she did all her washing!”

The studio will also conduct monthly surveys to gauge changes in the office milieu and understand people’s preferences regarding the time they are the most productive and focused. “You have a lot of creatives that are creative in the afternoon or nighttime, or are switched on in the morning,” says Wright. 

A beacon of hope for architecture 

The flexible and stress-alleviating nine-day fortnight could be complementary to architecture – notorious for its demanding and intense workloads that begin at a tertiary education level. As former architect-turned-carpenter Sally Wills revealed to Facility Management, the industry glorifies all-nighters and encourages burning the candle at both ends.

Wright agrees with Wills’ statement, believing that onerous hours should not be deserving of praise and a rite of passage – it’s unhealthy, unattainable and deters people from remaining in the industry.

“I think we need to eliminate the stigma that’s associated with working long hours,” says Wright. “We need to emphasise effectiveness and productivity during normal working hours. Just because someone works longer doesn’t mean they’re working better.” 

She says that measuring an employee’s value should be results-driven, as opposed to measuring time commitments.

Wright believes that providing flexible working solutions for workplaces of varying sizes and scales is owed to creativity and thinking outside the box. She is hopeful Plus’ Brisbane studio can act as a pillar of guidance and a hopeful case study for other practices and even other industries. 

“We need to reflect on how to improve our mindset and change the way we think about how we work,” she says. 

“I think the time is here now,” says Wright. 

Photography supplied by Plus Architecture.

Lead image: Rebecca Wright and co-workers by Kevin Lee.

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