Collective Architecture – Our EO Story | Neal Whitaker

Collective Architecture has, for many years, placed staff wellbeing at the core of its ethos and has maintained a degree of flexibility around the way we work to facilitate this. What the pandemic has done is reframe our understanding of the extent to which this flexibility can be engaged as a tool to improve work/life balance, to the benefit of both staff and the practice.

Throughout the five years I have been with Collective, I have benefitted from this flexibility on many occasions. This has been particularly important to me as an architect who only began training at the age of 30 and as a result have been building the early years of my career – including the stresses of professional exams – whilst starting a family and being stretched thin in my efforts to balance both compelling needs.

I joined the practice in 2016 and immediately started work, alongside an experienced colleague, on a refurb project with a tight programme and challenging procurement structure. Having been a dreamy design-focused student, this was a shock to my system and I became consumed by the stress of it, leading to the decision to approach the practice with the idea of reducing my working week to four days, in search of better life balance. My partner was living on the Isle of Arran and this change allowed me to finish slightly earlier on Thursdays and travel to the island, returning on Monday mornings.

This arrangement worked well, and in 2017, we had our first child. My partner came to Glasgow for maternity leave, but our son had severe reflux and couldn’t sleep for more than forty minutes at a time for many months, leaving all of us completely exhausted. Collective, via my Team Lead, were supportive throughout, arranging for ad hoc compassionate leave during which I was able to take some time at home to give my partner a break. This really did save us at a very difficult time for us.

Once our son was ten months old, I took a share of my partner’s maternity leave and dropped down to a three-day week so that she could go back to part time work on Arran. During this period, I was spending more time on the island than on the mainland and we explored whether it may be possible to refine my office hours to enable us to base ourselves fully on the island as a family, with me working partly from home and travelling to the Glasgow office a couple of times a week. From the current perspective, this type of arrangement perhaps does not appear radical, but in the pre-pandemic paradigm it was a little too far ahead of the curve, so once my parental leave was finished, I went back to a four-day week and picked up my previous pattern – travelling to and from the island on a Thursday and a Monday. This still left a full day each week just for me and my son, when I could be a fully engaged dad – an extremely precious thing which may not have been possible with less flexible employers.

We decided to move to the mainland – which involved my partner leaving her dream job and life (another challenging time navigated with the help of compassionate leave) – and were establishing our new lives when the pandemic hit. The approach taken by the practice throughout this period has been exemplary and, backed by the flexibility and trust provided by Collective, we have been able to carefully navigate our way through the changing landscape of the Covid era so far.

As a family, we were fortunate in the first phase of the pandemic. For us, as for many others, childcare was a major headache. My partner, an essential NHS worker, couldn’t work from home, and we were fortunate that our childminder offered to continue caring for our son, so I was able to transition to home working quite smoothly. In some ways this arrangement was actually more satisfying than the normal routine – I could pick him up at five and be home again with him five minutes later, cutting an hour and a half of commuting from my day.

Towards the end of last year, though, our son was growing out of the childminder’s setting and was ready for nursery. The nursery we felt best suited to him only opens until 2.30 each afternoon, but we were able to choose it because Collective was open to me spreading my 30 hours across five days, working two full days and three short days, freeing me up to collect him three times each week. Seeing him thrive in an environment he loves fills me with gratitude.

We were, again, fortunate that during the most recent lockdown the nursery was able to open for children of NHS staff – but they couldn’t cover all the hours we needed. Collective took advantage of the flexible furlough, allowing me to drop from 30 to 25 hours a week to cover childcare for a few weeks until restrictions eased and the nursery opened fully.

All in all, we have been very lucky. Still, I have found that working from home, even with the major worries taken care of, brings with it some undeniable downsides, particularly as time wears on. Loss of human contact and even the commute, with the opportunity it affords to be amongst others and provide a buffer between home and work, brings a sense of isolation that it is important to counteract where possible. Collective recognised this early on, and a key principle, maintained throughout, has been that working hours are flexible. As long as a core number of hours are during ‘normal’ office hours, staff have been left to make their own decisions about when and how to work. This has meant that on sunny days I have been able to go out for a run or even a bike ride, safe in the knowledge I can catch up once our son is in bed. Contact between staff has been sustained through online coffee breaks and workalongs, communal yoga classes and so on – these have all kept us going.

This brings me up to date – with a second pregnancy for my partner and the various times I’ve gone along to scans and appointments during the working day with the support of Collective. The practice is busy refitting the new office, and discussions are ongoing over how we will use it and structure the balance between home and office to preserve the gains of the past year.

Collective has a culture which really does support staff to live the best life we can. It never feels inappropriate to approach Team leads to discuss personal issues which are impacting work, and they are skilled at balancing the resourcing needs of projects with the wellbeing of colleagues. There is an acknowledgement that work is important, but so is the rest of our lives. I don’t take this for granted, and this motivates me to bring my best to the work that I do, something which I am sure is also the case for all of my colleagues.