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Insights Working as an environment engineering specialist

Meet Agnes Lautenschlager

Agnes Lautenschlager returned from a career break and joined Atkins, a member of the AtkinsRéalis group, in Australia as an Environment Engineering Specialist. She works part-time which allows her the flexibility she needs to balance work and an even more demanding role as a mother of two young children. Striking the balance wouldn’t have been easy for Agnes without the support from her line manager Damien Demunck. 

#InsideAtkins spent five minutes with Agnes and Damien to learn more about Agnes’ career, her experience as a working mother and what Damien can share as tips for other line managers to provide more support to foster an inclusive working environment. 

Agnes, tell us a bit about your career so far. 

After having worked in Aquatic Ecology Research in Victoria for several years, I transitioned into private industry by securing an on-site technical position at major LNG processing facility construction project in the Northern Territory. Within the project I moved into a site Environmental Advisor role, which exposed me to the spread of environmental work required at large industrial sites. When my partner and I started a family, we moved back to Victoria and I worked for AtkinsRéalis as a casual project-based Environmental Advisor in a part-time-like capacity at a large wind farm construction project. After the windfarm construction had been completed, I remained in contact with my regional manager Damien, while I had some time at home with my family. Thanks to his initiative, I am back now as a consultant, familiarising myself with another aspect of the company, this time as a true part-time employee.

What inspired you to start a career in the engineering sector? 

I just followed my interests. When I was young, I was fascinated by nature and all living things, and that took me into Life and Environmental Sciences. When I transitioned into private industry, I was motived by the chance to help protect the environment in the real world. 

Have you had any challenges as a female professional in our industry? How did you overcome those challenges? 

My first job in the construction sector was on a large-scale industrial project and the dominating male attitude on site there was intense and hit me like a freight train. Every day, there was everything from acts of chivalry to straight-out misogynism. Although I really struggled with that for a while, I persisted and found a way of doing my work as a woman, instead of trying to become “one of the lads”. In my role as an Environmental Advisor, I had to do a lot of negotiating, liaising and balancing, and I believe I was doing my work better because I was a woman. I did not feel an urge to establish a spot in the hierarchy and therefore I did not get entangled in any of the inter-personal battles. I simply kept my focus on the issues at hand and tried to find the most direct way to the solution, attracting only as little friction as needed. That way I got a lot done.

An even bigger challenge was the timing of having children and how to manage the life of a young family without giving up my career. My partner and I had found ourselves at a point in life where the decision to start a family had become a “now or never” issue. So I ended up falling pregnant at a point where my career in the private industry was just starting to gain momentum. Some months after the birth of my first son I wondered how I was going to go about entering the workforce again.

I initially applied for an Environmental Advisor role at the AtkinsRéalis wind farm project but ended up withdrawing my application when I realised what the work hours meant for my family life. Given that project-based roles are usually full-time positions with regular overtime, I couldn’t imagine “parking” my baby at childcare for long hours all week long, while returning to work. Fortunately for me, and due to a sudden staff shortage, I was offered a casual contract in a part-time-like capacity on the same site a couple of months later. To my surprise, I was able to nominate workdays and start- and finish times, so that I could still spend most days of the week with my young son. I felt very lucky then, but even more so after my flexible arrangement allowed me to take time off again to have my second child.
image of Agnes with his family on the beach
How important is a work/life balance to you to support both your career and family? What were the key areas of work life balance that you needed?

Work-life or work-family balance is everything for me at the moment. Having children has shifted my focus from essentially prioritising myself to putting them first. Because they are still little, one of their most primal needs is to be with their mum. So for me, being able to work part-time and spend a lot of time with them is the best thing about my current work arrangement. Also, being able to work from home means that there is no commute, which translates into either more time with them, or a little time for myself, which is also easily forgotten when you are in the tangles of motherhood. 
What was your biggest concern about re-entering the workplace?

Even after working in scientific research and on fast-pace construction projects, caring for small children is still the most physically and mentally demanding job I have ever had in my life. So naturally I was concerned about my mental and physical fitness when returning to the workforce. Also, I went from worrying about a myriad of small things, like the next meal, nap or clean piece of clothing, to dealing with proposals for industry projects, for instance. So the transition into that way of thinking was something I was nervous about.

Do you think Atkins as an employer provides a nurturing environment to female colleagues to progress and develop their careers? What do you like? What improvement would you like to see? 

The company’s workplace policy allowed me to return to work in a flexible manner which is very family friendly. I’m still new to the office so I don’t have an insight into the work life of other women in the organisation. I personally liked that all the managers that I reported to here had a very positive attitude towards families and their needs. They appeared to be acutely aware of the importance of women in their families and the pressures they are under, and therefore they were supportive of flexible arrangements. Also, working from home during this current COVID-19 crisis seemed to have even increased this understanding.
What advice do you have for other future Return to Work colleagues? 

I used to think that there was no part-time work or flexible hours in my industry, and that management would frown upon the mere idea. But this thinking diminished my self-confidence and could have potentially delayed my return. I was lucky, because the opportunity inadvertently fell into my lap. But if you are not so lucky, it’s always worth asking. 

Damien, what steps did you take as a Manager to ensure that Agnes was given a fair opportunity? 
Image of Damien
I took several factors into account when searching for new talent in the team.  We needed someone with technical skills and experience in a particular field (Agnes’ coastal and terrestrial ecology capability, at PhD level, no less) and the ability to take on generalist roles as required, including project management.  During the process of looking for a new team member, I weighed upon pre-existing relationships and knowing about a person’s past performance.  Each of the other options was an unknown quantity, however, I knew of Agnes’ future potential based on great feedback received from others, and her previous outputs.  She has a unique combination of strong academics and site-based experienced, which I think is invaluable when consulting and advising for clients who need tangible outcomes.  

When I looked at Agnes’ family situation, she was about to finish her second stint of maternity leave and was looking to return to the workforce.  With two young boys, I realised that Agnes needed flexibility to transition back to work and still provide care for her children.  I gave Agnes the latitude to choose her preferred days and times of working on a part-time basis throughout the week.  The COVID situation has accelerated a new mode of working (remotely), so I didn’t see this mode of working as an issue.  Her partner also works, whereby sometimes he’s away from home for extended periods, so I factored this into the support network that Agnes might need to enable her to work effectively. 

I also think that our team can benefit a lot from bringing back Agnes, and indeed other teammates who have been in similar situation. I have found that working parents (returning to work) are usually more time-task oriented, such that their time management skills are honed and their perception of task prioritisation is improved.

Tell us about some of Agnes contributions and why she is critical for business success / culture etc?   

I see Agnes’ contributions as both practical and tangible; and also symbolic. Her recent contributions include her role on the Stockyard Hill Wind Farm site, where she undertook ecological monitoring, managed the clearing of sensitive vegetation and was involved in other environmental monitoring.   Agnes is task-oriented and likes to see tasks to completion at the highest level of quality. She is also a busy mum, so I know that many things need to be juggled at once.  So we didn’t want to create a situation where family life and work life might contribute to unnecessary stress and anxiety for her.  Agnes’ working arrangements have in-built flexibility such that deliverables are achievable, there is time for training and professional development, and time for client interaction and business development.  I’ll be honest in saying there might be the occasional time that we need Agnes on her non-working days but generally, we’d plan to avoid this.  Agnes’ situation has helped us to set a platform for opening up opportunities for talented women (or working parents – that’s mums and dads) such that we can attract the best minds to AtkinsRéalis .  

Any other comments?  

I’m still learning about Agnes’ story, which is an interesting one.  Without giving too much away, Agnes was born in Germany and has lived in Australia since 2007, and has completed 2 university degrees. I would encourage everyone to ask her about her background, interests and what she is doing in the Environmental team.