Progressive Work Policies with Aimee Hughes
With special thanks to Youngsoo Yang
Aimee Hughes, HR Senior Associate at Cannon Design, started her career in education before finding her way to the Architecture & Engineering Industry. Having lived abroad for years and being an avid world traveler, Aimee advocates for a well-rounded lifestyle. Aimee has worked at HR & Operations at Cannon Design, managing large international teams. She loves people as well as the nitty gritty business details in architecture projects. Learn from Aimee what are the ingredients to make a successful workplace.
How did you get to where you are, Human Resources Senior Associate at Cannon Design?
I have actually taken a twisty road. I did my undergraduate at Lehigh University in History and French and I got the chance to go to France after graduation to teach English for a year. I met my now husband and he was finishing his degree in the UK, so I got my Masters in the UK in International Relations and Business. Then we moved back and forth between continents and I did a combination of HR and Operations for an education company in both Cambridge and London. I love people, but I also love the nitty gritty details of the business side. We returned to the US after a stint in London, and I came to Cannon Design.
I began this job doing project coordination on a huge project in Saudi Arabia, which eventually grew into a split position between HR and Operations as the project wound down. At first, I was a little nervous - I knew nothing about architecture or engineering except what I learned from my roommates in college. I remember coming in on my first day, and the PM gave me the response to the RFP and I was like, “What’s an RFP?” I asked a million questions and ended up learning an immense amount about architecture and engineering - how projects function, how integrated teams collaborate, and how individuals execute their work. We had 15 offices around the world at the time and 7 were working on this project. There were three large medical and research buildings plus a full central power plant. I became the initial point of contact for all these people contributing to different parts of the project from all over the world. All of this knowledge has been very impactful in the way I carry out my work in Human Resources. I learned to love the A&E industry.
How do you balance motherhood and work?
I worked on the Saudi Arabia project up until I had my son. Many times during my first maternity leave, I thought that maybe I just wanted to be a hippie Mom for a while and stay at home. However, I realized that I needed to have some connection to the outside world. I was the first woman in seven years in our office who had a baby and came back to work. They were super flexible and allowed me to figure out what I needed to do to make it work for my family and for the firm. They understood that childcare is an immensely huge cost and after I had my daughter 18 months later, that balancing home and work was challenging. They also understood that it would have been difficult to pull myself out of the industry and spend x amount of years in the wilderness and then try to come back - it is a hard thing to do. You feel like if you stay out too long or aren’t pulling long hours, you might lose the connection with what is happening and it is more difficult to be involved in a project. I felt that I could no longer be on a deadline and balance my life outside work, so I moved strictly into the HR side of things and the firm absolutely supported me in doing so. I am lucky enough that I can do a lot of what I need to do remotely. I work with our corporate team on all the administration side of things and support our offices in Boston and Pittsburgh. I work part-time from home and spend 3 days a week in the office. It is really challenging to be a working parent because you are never 100% at home and never 100% at work. You constantly balance, but I work in an office that supports that balance.
What are some successful office policies?
We are lucky that this office is extremely flexible and supportive towards people and their families and personal obligations outside the office. We have core hours, but we also have a work/life balance program (including summer hours) for everyone – not just parents. We are in 2017. In my opinion, in today’s work environment in this industry if you do not have flexible work hours, and if you do not accommodate people for certain things, you are going to lose good people or you won’t be able to attract or retain the level of staff you might otherwise be able to.
It frustrates me because I feel like there are a lot of people in the industry who aren’t quite ready to adapt to this style of work environment. When I interview people, I ask what the biggest draw to working at a firm is for them. Over and over again, they say it is the people, the culture and feeling truly engaged in their work. When I first started, there was less flexibility in the industry as a whole. Before we formally introduced our work/life balance program we were lucky, our office was given enough leeway to figure out what we needed on the ground for our people. I think in Boston as a whole, we are progressive, and we are ahead of some of the rest of the country. Recently, there has been a huge shift in peoples’ expectations of the firm they work for; even recent graduates have expectations of the work place that people did not have five or ten years ago.
What is your observation on women in the A&E profession?
We have a strong female contingent in this office and across the firm, which is fantastic and that number has increased in the time that I have been here. When I started 9 years ago, I had to adapt - I had worked in education for a long time where I had many female colleagues. I was lucky to have an unbelievable mentor - Jess Smith - who brought me up in many ways in our profession. Jess has been in A&E in the city for 25 years and is a strong voice for all employees in the industry. I learned that people are by far our most important asset and that it is my job to support and advocate for them in any way I am able to do so. I know every individual and their challenges really well, so I can help to support them and figure out how to get them to the next level while balancing professional ambitions with learning goals and life outside of work. It is exciting to see a lot more women interview than when I started when it felt like a male dominated industry. I think that the industry is definitely moving forward. It is more open to having a real honest conversation.
What advice would you give to leaders & HR in different architecture firms?
If you don’t have a dedicated HR professional in your office, it is important to have your admin get training and/or talk to other HR people in the industry. Come to our HR roundtable at the BSA, for example. We are all happy to give advice and help others in small firms that don’t have a designated HR person. Then, it all starts with the people who are doing your recruiting. Make sure they know how to give a good interview and have a two-way conversation. They need to understand how to dig a little bit deeper and truly engage candidates. Figuring out how to make that personal connection with others is so important. Also for those offices without a specific HR Resource, it is important to establish a person who represents a “safe space” - someone employees are comfortable having a private conversation with and asking for help. In addition, if you are the HR person, establish yourself as that confidant who people don’t think twice about talking to. I think that it is important to understand your employees and what drives them. Every 18 months, for example, we do an employee survey across the firm. It is a strategic communication technique and we are able to take a temperature on how we are doing with certain initiatives, culture, communication, mentoring, professional development opportunities etc. Mentorship and recognition are always huge for individuals. This can take many forms – from organic mentoring to a more formal process, from thank you team lunches to an acknowledgment email. We try to do social events throughout the year like monthly staff meetings, Friday bagels, Design Shares, bake-offs, etc. We also encourage people to get out into the industry and take part in events or organizations that present learning opportunities and that mean something to you – ACE Mentoring, Construction, local AHRAE Leadership. Small things mean the world to people, and everyone can incorporate some of them into their everyday way of working!
Take the time to stop and ask what is the most important thing about the work environment? What creates loyalty to where you work? What keeps you where you are? People, culture, transparency, feeling that you are contributing to what you are working on and recognition for doing so. Whether doing red lines, designing a facade or doing CA, everyone wants to be part of a team and know that others understand an individual’s worth and are grateful for his/her contributions . There is such a human need for validation and encouragement!
How do you make sure firms stay progressive?
The longer you spend in an industry, or doing anything in your life, the more convinced you become that your ways are the right ways of doing things, the comfortable way. Change can be very difficult. To me, the best leaders are people who recognize that in themselves and understand that they need to push themselves and those who work for them beyond those boundaries. They are open to listening to people who come from a different point of view and from all levels within a firm. I am lucky to work in a place that really embraces that.
What flaw do you see with the A&E industry?
The industry makes you feel like you owe it something and while this is valid, in reality, the industry owes you something too. The A&E industry can sometimes demand long hours and dedication, which means everyone, should be able to take a break, and not feel guilty about it. Life should be balanced as much as possible. You should be able to say, “You know what, I will never get these three months of parental leave back, or these two weeks of an adventurous vacation back, or attending this family member’s wedding back.” If you are working at a place that respects that, which everybody should be able to, you should be supported in taking time off in and around deadlines. Loyalty is essential, but at the same time, you are going to find yourself burned out if you do not step back every once in a while to gain perspective and other experiences.
Any tips to young emerging professionals?
There is a major learning curve when you come into the industry fresh out of school. Part of me would love schools to give a little bit more of a glimpse into the real industry, to let students use REVIT. It is a bit of a rude awakening because you have worked so hard and spent so many years in architecture school, and you come out, sit down at your desk and realize you actually don’t know how to build a building. It is scary, right? One thing I always say to incoming people is, “You have to put your time in. The only way you are going to learn is by doing the work with people who are experienced and know how to do the work.” I see it as an apprenticeship in many ways. You need to come ready to ask questions and not be afraid to do so. Go to as many learning opportunities as you can. Get out in the industry and go to ABX, go on walking tours, and go to the BSA. Make connections with others across disciplines and typologies because the more you can learn, the better off you will be.