Women, well-being and work: AEC professionals in Charlotte gather for the annual Women in Architecture event

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Women, Wellbeing and Work: The theme of AIA Charlotte’s Women in Architecture (WIA) Fourth Annual Mimosa Breakfast in April centered on these ideas that have become so pervasive in the architectural, engineering and construction (AEC). This fantastic networking and learning event, organized in partnership with the Society for Marketing Professional Services (SMPS Charlotte) and the Urban Land Institute (ULI Charlotte) Women Leadership Initiative, gave professional women in the Charlotte area the opportunity to celebrate what it means to work in the AEC industry.

The presentation panel included Sarah Francis, director of planning, design and construction at Atrium Health; Vickie Breemes, National Director of Advanced Building Technologies at Little Architecture; and Jennifer Sulak Brown, senior vice president of People + Culture + Brand at Barton Malow Builders. The panel was moderated by WBTV presenter and author Molly Grantham.

The morning started with a question that we often ask and answer several times a day: “How are you? This question is usually answered with a “good” or a “good,” although there may be a fire burning in our heads, spinning with all the things on our to-do list. What if instead of asking “How are you?” we asked, “How are you, reallyAnd what would it look like if we responded with our authentic, vulnerable selves? Perhaps the responses would be hopeful, excited, overwhelmed, tired, or a myriad of other adjectives that truly represent our mental states.

We all juggle a lot. How do we have work-life balance or, perhaps more realistically, work-life integration? How do you juggle all that? This challenge comes to us only as women. Women often take care of children and aging parents, which adds much more stress to our lives. Flexibility is key, and having the support of a boss, a team, and an organization is imperative for success. In response to this act of juggling, women are effecting a change. While statistics show that during the pandemic more women have left work than their male counterparts, more women have also changed jobs in search of a role in a more supportive and flexible environment.

These flexible environments that have sprung up in response to the “great resignation” are not limited to the decision between working from home, in the office or both. Flexibility is reflected in the design of the new office spaces. As employees return to work, some after two years at home, wellness has become central to office design. Employees are used to taking calls while walking around the block, engaging in video calls with their teams from the couch, or heading to their home office for some quiet time with their heads down. The same is desired in the workplace. Companies are renovating existing office spaces to allow for more collaboration spaces as well as cozy areas. Designs include couches, outdoor spaces, and secluded rooms for meditation or quiet time. Designers are seeing WELL principles and certifications being discussed with customers more than ever.

Sarah Francis of Atrium Health noted that employee wellness spills over into the clinical space. Although hospitals are always designed with patients in mind, the health and well-being of doctors and nurses is also important. Providing access to quiet rooms to get away from noise and stress, providing access to outdoor spaces separate from hospital entrances, and ensuring natural lighting is integrated into interior spaces are some of the considerations employee well-being that is reflected in the design of healthcare facilities.

Consideration of employee well-being requires buy-in at all levels of the corporate structure. As companies have embraced the flexible working model and have teams working in the office and remotely, it is essential that leaders are aware of their bias towards those who come into the office versus those who work remotely. Employees working remotely need to be visible and part of the culture. As a remote employee, it is essential to speak for yourself and keep track of successes to discuss during review time. As a manager of a remote team, it’s important to provide visibility to remote workers by assigning them high-level projects.

Finally, the past few years have taken their toll on many, and mental health is increasingly being discussed in the workplace. Most companies have employee assistance programs and anyone who needs help should take advantage of these benefits. As we all return to work and everyone adjusts to the “new normal”, I encourage you to genuinely ask how people are doing and really listen. Sometimes all it takes is having someone to listen.

So take a deep breath and exhale slowly. As we all adjust and juggle, reach out and ask, “How are you, really?”

About the Author – Sara Downing is Director of Business Development for Clancy & Theys Construction Company. Founded more than 70 years ago in Raleigh, North Carolina, the company has maintained its headquarters there with additional offices in Charlotte and Wilmington, North Carolina; Newport, Va. News; and Orlando, Florida.

Main photo Clancy & Theys Construction team (L) to (R) Cameron Winseman, Sara Downing, Natalia Cichocka, Carla Jackson and Paloma Alvarez-Perez.

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