Sam Harvey, Architect at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, talks to me about his Shared Parental Leave #eldorado

[Part of a series of interviews I’m conducting with other professionals taking Shared Parental Leave]

This week, I caught up with Sam Harvey to talk about his experience of taking Shared Parental Leave with his second child in 2017.

Sam’s insights on men being able to battle their own perceptions, and the workplace skills acquired through taking parental leave, are enlightening.

I want to actually draw out one particular quote because I thought it was so brilliant:

“I also think that there is the inertia of changing men's perception of themselves i.e. that men are the breadwinners and that any time they are not at work progressing their career or earning as much as they can, in some way they are not providing for their family.

Men are less alert to the fact that they can provide for their family emotionally and psychologically, as well as in pure financial terms.”


Great stuff.

Enjoy folks!

++++







Basics


Brief description of family setup:

I’m Sam and, together with my wife, Alice, we have two children - Sebastian (or “Seb”) who has just turned six and Arwen, who is almost three.

When both of our kids were born, we were living in Hackney – but last year we moved out of Central London down to Tunbridge Wells, which is closer to my parents.

Brief description of your job / partner’s job etc:

I'm an Associate at Allford Hall Monaghan Morris. AHMM is an architectural practice based on Old Street. When I joined the practice, straight out of university back in 2002, we were 35 people; we are now over 500 with offices in London, Bristol and the slightly random location of Oklahoma City, US.

We're actually sitting in a building (The Bower, Old St, London) that AHMM refurbished – and opposite another big AHMM project, The White Collar Factory.  We work across a lot of sectors including housing, offices, and healthcare and back in 2015 we won the Stirling Prize for one of our education buildings.

Partner’s job and role.

My wife is a lawyer at Sidley Austin. Most architects don’t have a clue about which law firms do what, so if I’m talking to another architect I just tell them that Sidley was the firm where Barrack Obama met Michelle when he was working as her intern!

Alice specialises in corporate restructuring and insolvency but is also now also doing an Msc in Organisational and Social Psychology at LSE.

How did you structure your Shared Parental Leave?

We took SPL with our second child in the summer of 2017. I took a bit of time off immediately after the birth and then took 7 weeks off when Arwen was around 6 months old and Seb was coming up for his 4th birthday. I took about 3 months SPL in total.

During the main part of my SPL we went travelling around the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico [more on this below!].

Work

Did your employer provide enhanced pay for your Shared Parental Leave?

Yes - I received paid leave – and although I had nothing to benchmark it against, I felt that AHMM were very fair on that side of things.

You need both parents’ companies to talk to one another when you are taking SPL. I remember things were a bit more bureaucratic at Sidley Austin than at AHMM. In the end, it was a really brilliant member of AHMM’s HR team who ended up leading the coordination and giving us some really clear advice.

AHMM has a full set of HR documents that are available for all employees which set out the SPL policy – but I still needed some of the intricacies explained to me!

Did you feel that Shared Parental Leave was encouraged informally within your firm and did you feel supported by colleagues / managers in taking SPL?

The answer to this question is a bit trickier... AHMM’s HR team were very keen to promote SPL, and I found them immensely supportive. However, within the architecture profession generally there is a long-hours, vocation culture – and if you are working on a long running project, taking a big chunk of time out of the office can be difficult.

AHMM has always promoted a sensible work-life balance and actively discourages excessive overtime and weekend working (because exhausted architects don’t make the best decisions or perform at their best!). That’s actually quite rare in this profession.

But even with a supportive structure around you - you're battling your own in-built perceptions about being seen as a “part-timer”. An attitude of almost fanatical commitment is drummed into architects from your first year at university – you’re doing long hours, all-nighters in the studio with a really close knit group of people. Breaking down those self-expectations and changing the culture of a profession takes a long time.

There are voices saying “yeah, you should take SPL”…but it’s still seen as the exception rather than the norm. That’s part of why I’ve agreed to be interviewed – I’d like to help promote SPL within the architecture industry.

Had anyone else in your team/company taken SPL before you?

They may have done, but I wasn't aware of it.

How was your return to work; was it daunting?

I think because I split it up into a couple of smaller blocks – rather than one long period – the return to work was a bit easier.

I’d seen Alice go back to work after taking a full year’s maternity leave with our first child. I’d seen her have to manage the trepidation of going back into the office after an entire year out, whilst also feeling the wrench of no longer spending as much time with Seb - so it’s really a double whammy when you come back to work.

I think I avoided the worst of this as my longest period out of the office was under two months.

Have you inspired others to take SPL?

I wouldn't want to claim that I've ‘inspired’ anyone! I have had a few conversations where people have said to me “It’s great that you did that…great that you felt able to take that time to bond with your children.” - which is a positive sign and is hopefully visible to other people in the office. Also, since I took my SPL, I’ve seen more new fathers in the office take SPL and, whenever I’ve had the opportunity, I’ve tried to be as encouraging to them as possible – to reassure them that they won’t regret doing it, in fact quite the opposite.

Has the uptake helped a change of attitude towards SPL within your firm?

I don’t think any change in attitude was caused by me taking leave - I just think it's part of the momentum towards greater equality. For example, at roughly the same time that I took SPL, there was the #metoo movement gaining traction and the gender pay gap reporting requirements came in. AHMM now has a gender pay gap working group to try to eliminate it. So, I think myself and others taking SPL is just part of a broader conversation.

Are you proud of your company's SPL policy and do you talk positively about it to people outside your company?

Yes. For example, roughly once a year I act as an RIBA part III professional practice examiner at UCL (think of it like the Bar Exam for architects). We have what are called “meet the examiner” sessions for the students who are going to be interviewed as part of the final examination process before they get to use the title ‘Architect’. I've used these opportunities to talk about where I am in my career, which included talking about taking SPL. As a group of examiners we are also comparing notes because we’re coming together from a huge variety of different architectural practices… large and small, and a lot of my fellow examiners have said “wow, it sounds like AHMM are really setting a high standard”.

Having worked at AHMM for 17 years, it takes those type of situations for me to sit back and be able to benchmark where AHMM is against our competitors.

If moving job, would a prospective different employers’ parental leave policy affect your decision about moving company?

I think it might affect my decision in two ways:

Firstly, if we were considering having another child, it would be a consideration from a totally selfish perspective…as in ‘how would it benefit me?’.

Secondly, in a broader sense, how a company sets out its Shared Parental Leave policy is going to tell you something about a firm’s ethos. Although Alice and I have no plans to have more children at the moment (!), if moving companies, I think I would look at a firm’s SPL policy as part of assessing how the management team was prepared to put its money where its mouth is in terms of treatment of its staff.

When instructing professional service firms - does your company consider a provider’s values - and would an SPL policy play into this assessment? Or, in other words, does having a good SPL policy give you a better impression of a company?

I tend to work with quantity surveyors, structural engineers and services engineers – and sometimes you get a say in who you work with, and sometimes you don’t. I like working with people I can trust – and values do have something to do with that, but to be honest I don't think I've ever interrogated a firm on its Shared Parental Leave policy before using them.

However, several years ago I did query whether AHMM could become a “living wage employer”  - and because AHMM has certain values, the company acted on that. None of our direct employees were affected, but it made us look at our suppliers more closely and how they were paying their staff. In a similar way, I think there should be an onus on people working in professional jobs - who are more likely to benefit from Shared Parental Leave - to see that access to SPL isn’t just limited to a privileged few.

Your SPL / Fun stuff

What did you get up to during your SPL?

So we did something a bit different and went backpacking in the Yucatan Peninsula in Southern Mexico!

I have to give all the credit to Alice for this. I’m not an adventurous traveller - whereas Alice has backpacked around China and did a gap year in Brazil.

I was quite tentative about the Mexico idea. We looked around and we were restricted because we couldn’t go anywhere with a young child where they might contract malaria. I kept saying “can’t we just go to North America??!”. I had to be prodded to go to Mexico, but I'm really glad we did.

It was huge fun - though it wasn't all plain sailing. Arwen was 6 months old – so she was pretty portable. However, Seb was almost 4 when we set off  (he actually had his 4th birthday in Merida – with a revolting ‘Paw Patrol’ cake from a Mexican supermarket!). At that age, kids like stability and regularity. He struggled with the heat and moving from place to place every few days - and because he’s pale and fair haired, we had to slather him in factor 50 sunscreen wherever we went! But the fact that we swam with sea turtles and scaled Mayan pyramids buried in jungle has given us memories we will have forever.

I tried to get Seb ready for the trip by watching episodes of the Mysterious Cities of Gold…[this led to a hilarious tangential discussion about this cult children’s TV show from the 80s that DadonSPL also remembers very well!]



Back in the UK, did you do any baby classes etc.?

From our first child, we already had a close group of parents from our NCT group – and I think Hackney was going through a mini baby-boom at the time… so there seemed to be loads of young families around.  I don't remember doing many classes but there was a lot of meeting other parents in parks or on the Marshes and doing social stuff with them.

In terms of parenting, was there anything that you felt, as a Dad, you couldn't do? Or vice versa?

I have no problem doing the prosaic manual stuff. I’ve changed my fair share of nappies – in fact I was probably chief nappy changer at points because our kids both wriggled like crazy and I find it easier than Alice to grab both feet in one hand and change nappies with the other!

However, cajoling the kids into eating when they are in “I'm not gonna eat” moods has always driven me up the wall!

There's a lot of “tag teaming”. Having children is exhausting - especially after SPL if you're juggling kids and both parents have full time jobs. You get quite stressed and you need to “tap out” and let your partner take over sometimes. But over the years, Alice and I have spent a lot time discussing this… although the ‘tapping out’ can avoid one of you blowing up, it leads to a lot of lone-parenting which can be really lonely. This actually continues when the kids get older: “you take that one to nursery and I'll do the school run” etc. So finding things that you can all do together is really important.

After your SPL, did you feel more confident about your own childcare abilities, even given you took SPL with your second child?

That's a really interesting question - and I honestly don't think I've ever stopped to assess whether SPL affected my parenting skills.

However, I have definitely noticed how being a parent has improved my patience and abilities as a manager of people in a much broader sense. I’ve not always been the most diplomatic person or the calmest person; but having kids (who are essentially tiny, irrational maniacs) forces you to just slow down and have a reduced expectation that the people around you will behave rationally! It’s made me analyse and adjust how I respond to people in general – calmer, less judgemental, and hopefully more constructive.

A couple of years before I had my first child, I had a long conversation with an older gentleman who was working as a consultant for CBRE (a Real Estate firm)  - who made the point that bright professional men often marry bright professional women. The professional women then take potentially long periods of time off work having and looking after children – and whilst they are doing this, the women are learning a huge array of new skills and developing in ways that are hidden because it’s happening at home instead of in the office. As men, we then get surprised when these women come back into the workforce and they are immensely skilled problem solvers who excel at managing people and reading difficult situations. Having kids is not just a rewarding and lovely experience: it's also immensely educational.

Can you see any reason, other than financial impact, why a dad shouldn't take Shared Parental Leave?

No.

My wife repeatedly says that people never get to the end of their lives and say “I wish I’d spent more time in the office”, but they do sometimes say “I wish I’d made more time for my family and friends.”

What would your top tip be for new Dads?

My boss gave me some good advice before my first child was born: don’t take all of the paternity leave at once at the start when the baby is born. I took his advice for our first child and it probably also influenced my decision to split up the SPL into smaller blocks when our second child came along.

To explain…when the baby is born there’s the thunder and lighting of the birth, but that settles down quickly and the baby sleeps 80% of the time so there’s a lot of waiting around. Best to keep your powder dry for when your partner gets totally exhausted a month or so in…and you really need to be around to support them then!

Why do you think take-up of Shared Parental Leave is so small?

I think that there are obviously issues with money. I’m mindful of how I talk about this given that I'm a moderately successful architect who is married to a very successful lawyer. However, even we watch the pennies - so for people who aren't in the position that we are in financially, anything that means your income takes a knock can mean taking SPL would be quite precarious. There are an awful lot of people who don't have the income or savings to take SPL - so until the time comes when making this choice is entirely costs neutral, there is always going to be a drag on uptake.

I also think that there is the inertia of changing men's perception of themselves i.e. that men are the breadwinners and that any time you are not at work progressing your career or earning as much as you can, in some way you are not providing for your family.

Men are less alert to the fact that you can provide for your family emotionally and psychologically by being there and engaged, as well as in purely financial terms.

Quickfire qs:

What is the longest you've looked after kid/s on your own?

That's a tricky one! I think probably a couple of days though not through a lack of confidence on my part - Alice just has a very strong belief that we shouldn't leave the kids without both parents for too long... an interesting question though… I've never put a stopwatch on it!

Worst childcare task/job?

Trying (and failing) to get Seb to stop watching television!

I'm quite a logical person and I always fall into the trap of trying to engage my children in a logical debate - whereas Alice's more oblique “smoke and mirrors” diversionary tactics are far more successful!

Best childcare task/job?

Just playing with them and being silly. I have a healthy sense of the absurd and the surreal!

In your view, who would make the better Dad:

Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson?
  • Has to be Jeremy Corbyn. Boris doesn't even know how many kids he's got!

Prince Harry or Prince William?
  • I'm not a Royalist - I’m a Republican actually - but I've been really impressed by Harry's determination to address the issues that are important to him rather than just play it safe.

Jonny Wilkinson or David Beckham?
  • I'm an ex rugby player who was terrible at football -  so Wilkinson without a doubt.

 Finally, would you recommend SPL to other dads?

 Absolutely and unconditionally!

+++

© Joe Young / www.dadonspl.co.uk

+++

Comments