Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The physics of a work-life balance for architects: it doesn't require calculus

WAD reader Rob (from St. Charles, MO--what up!!!) emailed me to ask about the quality of life as an architect. In his late 20s and already working no less than 50 hrs/week as a restaurant manager, but as he puts it:

I've always said I would rather put in 70 to 80 hours of my own time into a career I love than 50 to 60 hours of someone elses structured time. I've been setting myself up to step down from management so that I have more time for school. This will inevitably lead to a pay cut while I go back to school, but I'm prepared for it. I'm aware I will spend much of my early to mid 30's just getting into the field as well, but I'm all for it!! - Provided the quality of life exists anyway. Working long hours all the time is great for me provided it's balanced with being able to enjoy life and spend time with friends and family. So any insight you care to share would be much appreciated! We all have our own perspective of what a quality of life balance is. What is that for you and your husband and do you feel it is met with your career?

While I reckon every profession has issues of finding a work/life balance, Rob's question is still a good one with regards to Da Biz. Architecture is a profession that easily swallows its followers whole, as if the difficulties of flashing details and punchlists as well as the finer points of using classical proportions in modern building types sucks architects with the gravitational pull of a collapsed star. It's easy for architects to spend lots of time day after day and night after night and weekend after weekend; there's always so much to do on a project, and sometimes you're the only person willing or available to do the work. And there's something about architecture that is all-encompassing: even when we're not at work, architects do nothing but talk about about architecture to their friends, who are all architects as well. When we go on vacations, we take 947 pictures of buildings and construction details and no people. All the magazines we get are about design and architecture. All the books we read on our shelves are about architecture and famous architects. It makes us boring, boring people, as this writer described. But the sadder version of this story are those who don't. do. anything. When all a person does is go to work for just the 40 hours a week (and by God no more than that), and then they go home and do nothing--no hobbies, no interests, no interesting experiences--then that's just as sad to see. No, you're not working 100 hours a week, but you're not exactly doing anything quality-ish with your time. And laundry doesn't count as a hobby.

What I've noticed is that architecture work tends to ebb and flow. You'll be crazy busy for one or several weeks, then you'll be barely busy for one to several weeks, and then the cycle recommences. As you get better at your job, you'll need less time to do certain tasks, which will allow you to both do more in the same amount of time and go home at a decent hour. Sometimes you'll do the former, but sometimes you really need to do the latter. As I've said here many times before, when I worked on the Wheatlands Hospital project, I worked 56-60 hrs/week (at least 7 8-hour days a week) for eight months straight while studying for, taking, and passing all nine sections of the ARE. I was in a position where there was way too much to do and not enough people in the office available to do it. So I did it. But having done it, I will never do it again. There was (and generally is) always something else to be done, but if I follow that logic to its conclusion, then I'd never leave the office doing that "something else." My husband Guy has worked his ass off before as well, and while he's worked a fair amount of weekends lately, he knows when to say when. Guy and I decided after my experience on Wheatlands that we were going to be more conscious of our work time and not let the office be our default position for more than a month at a time.

The point I'm trying to make here is that as an architect, you have to make the conscious decision to turn off the computer, leave the office, and go do other things. While there are times that you'll have to work longer days and on weekends, you don't have to that week in and week out. The good news is that the latest generation of interns entering our workforce are insisting on work/life balance and will more fiercely defend it than my Generation X brethren, so I think it's going to be easier to insist on 55 hour weeks being the exception and not the rule. However, once you've walked out the door for the day/weekend, you still need to make an effort to have a life. Get a hobby or two, and meet some people. It's a very insular profession, so you'll need to make an effort to make non-architect friends (who will vastly enrich your life). Guy plays in a pool (billiards) league twice a week, so he has a group of friends that includes appliance repairmen, accountants, videographers, and parole officers. I teach communication classes several times a year, write, and do yoga. In short, in order to have a good quality of life, Guy and I have to have a good quantity of life--not just time outside of work but also a body of things to do during that time that isn't work-related.

How about you, WAD readers? How do you ensure your quality of life in terms of work/life balance?


paul mitchell said...

Since the ridiculously short forty hour work week is something that a very new concept, I have never held myself to that in any capacity. Sixty hours is a normal work week for me. I enjoy what I do to make a living and still have plenty of time during the week for a round of golf or a good night out on the town.

Less than 100 years ago, ten year old children worked twelve hour days, six days a week in factories. I guess adults should be able to at least handle that load.

BaxtersMum said...

dude. So much to say, so much PTSD to avoid.

Its hard. For everyone, I think.

Must make life a priority, but there are some jobs (I used to have one) that the expectation is that you are there ALL the time, for every hiccup, and so forth and so on. It worked out that most of the managers had stay at home spouses if they had kids because they knew that they could not be counted on as a full parent due to their work committments. Many liasons occured between male and female people at this place due to the hours put in.

One of these obnoxious bosses basically told us one day he expected us there for any thing, and work hard, not smart. WTFE.

he laid me off. No doubt because I didn't walk the talk.

am much happier now. f@#$ him. My life is my own, and I have time to work to live, not live to work. My existence is not my job, asshole.

The other observation made during htis employment - those managers that retired, often quickly declined in health - depressed due to having nothing to do anymore. The job prevented them from having other outlets, and with out the job, they were at a loss and felt they had no more value.

Stay away from the paper industry. From everything I've experienced, that is the norm and expectation, regardless of company.

Chris said...

I have to respectfully disagree with Paul. Americans are working more hours than ever before. According to the International Labor Organization, Americans are the only industrialized country where work hours are actually increasing. And to boot, we are the only advanced economy that does not federally mandate a minimum vacation/holiday policy.

If a study could be done I would bet that burn-out is in the top three for issues affecting architects/designers. Most design firms battle this problem regularly attempting to bandage it with a smorgasbord of perks (monetary, social, etc.). The one thing you won’t see though is any attempt to reduce vacation stigma. Employees feel guilty (we’re talking the whole, not the individual) about taking any time off. We’re all at fault too, people love to point out, “oh look, Joe is sick again. Third time this year.” Or “Didn’t Jen go on vacation last year. Must be nice.”

Work/Life balance is hard. Everybody wants it but if you talk about it you sound like a slacker. For example, we too are closed/furlowed over Christmas and still more than 70% of our office was working. I actually got an email from another architect dated Dec 24th saying he tried to call but it seemed our office was already closed. Really? I tried to get others to join me in a work boycott over Christmas but they just gave me unsure looks and questioned my logic when I told them the work would still be there when they returned after the new year.

paul mitchell said...

Chris, you can certainly disagree with me, but you would be disagreeing with facts. Forty hours of work a week is working less than a quarter of the time. I have no clue how anyone could get "burned out" when they have over 75% of their time to themselves. Seems really wasteful to me. But, I guess I have what is known as a "work ethic." Being self-employed, you must work more than a quarter of your time if you want to succeed. If success is not your desire, stick with the forty or less, as the case may be.

Again, less than 100 years ago, ten year old children worked 72 hours a week in factories, which is still only 42% of your time. Just saying.

You can disagree all you want with what I stated, but work is a noble thing and very rewarding.

Mile High Pixie said...

Paul and Chris: i figured Paul was speaking at least partially tongue in cheek with the line about kids in factories, as I presume that while Paul is very hardworking, he wouldn't necessarily advocate child labor. And as Paul points out, being self-employed (as you are, I think, Paul?), you are required to put in a great deal of time to help your business not just survive but thrive. I also presume that because Paul has his own business, it's much more rewarding to work 60-70 hrs/wk at something he likes instead of 40 hrs/wk at something he hates. The activity makes a difference--a wise man I knew as a kid once said that if you do what you love for a living, you'll never work a day in your life again.

However, I do fall a little more into Chris' camp. Just because we all used to work a whole lot more than we do now, is that how we should still do it? Is the only definition of "work ethic" one which includes spending the majority of one's waking hours at work? Is the price we pay for the time benefits granted us by technology that we try to cram more and more work into our waking lives every day? Those are some of the questions I've been wrestling with in the past two years. This is a great discussion, and I think I'll be posting further on it.

paul mitchell said...

Seriously, kids used to work twelve hour days, six days a week. Of course not a Carnegie's steel mills, they only hired adults of 14 and older for the full shifts. I am not kidding.

Granted with the increased production you would expect to decrease hours, but to 24% of the week? Seems silly to me and that is not simply because I am self-employed. Government mandated forty hour weeks are ludicrous from a financial standpoint. If they would abolish minimum wage, then we could talk about mandating a forty hour work week, but until the MW is gone, all it is doing is reducing capital and decreasing production. Not to mention, making importing illegals even more lucrative.

Nothing is mutually exclusive.

paul mitchell said...

Not to hog the comments, but I would prefer someone working for me that really had a vested interest in the business doing well, so my employees want to work as much as I do.

Mile High Pixie said...

I do recall that children worked long, dangrous hours in mills during the late 1800s and early 1900s, which is why the child labor laws of 1914 and 1916 were put into effect. While that's a dramatic example, it's along the lines of what I mean by "just because we used to do it, should we still do it." And you make a good point about your business--you want to hire people that will support your firm doing well, in the hopes that they will see how your success is also their success. I'll be posting more on this topic soon.

Miss Kitty said...

The internet and e-mail aren't helping us be any more productive, but they're certainly making us less inclined to truly REST when we're not at work. I've had students get upset that they couldn't get an e-mail reply from me during the holidays, or at 3am. And so many people can't seem to do without some kind of electronic stimulation--TV, iPod, radio, computer, gaming system, etc. They'll tell you "oh, I watch TV/play games/listen to music/whatever to relax," but 95% of the time, those people complain the next morning about how tired they are. REAL relaxation isn't what they're accomplishing; all they're really doing is putting themselves on "pause." Add this to long work weeks and...well, you know.

As for me: I once taught at four different colleges, 70-80 hour workweeks. If I can help it, I'll never do it again. It was great to have the extra money to cut down on my debts, but I wasn't a good instructor. With my one current job, I now bring home 50% of my former combined salaries. It's worth it for me.

Chris said...

I agree Paul, that if you do what you love then working 60+ hours per week would be easier… maybe even enjoyable but it doesn’t mean that it is healthy and it certainly doesn’t create a balance (the topic of the blog post). I am more passionate about my hobbies then I am my job and I can get completely engrossed in my hobbies spending most of my free time on them but in the end it just makes my family resentful because I haven’t honored the need for balance.

Your comments about people today not wanting to work as hard today as child laborers of the 19th century is concerning. Of course they don’t and they shouldn’t. Unfortunately that’s the sort of talk that breeds guilt and fear prompting people to work crazy hours to show their bosses how “dedicated” they are.

Good work ethic is not defined by how much time and energy an employee expends at their job. I think most of us recognize who our coworkers are who are efficient and productive (and maybe even go home on time) from those who spend every night and weekend at the office. The latter may get recognition initially for their “hard work” but eventually any good manager will recognize that they aren’t productive employees. Every office has these people. Unfortunately they can do a lot of damage to the rest of us when they decide to work their vacation away to impress the boss.

cathryn said...

This topic is so interesting. I wrote a similar blog post not too long ago and people definitely have their opinions on this! I tend to agree with Chris. It seems as if a person in this country is not overworked, stressed out or burnt out they are immediately labeled as lazy and unambitious.

I have also noticed that folks in my office make snide comments about those who seem to take vacations more often, or who actually take care of themselves when they are sick, or leave early to pick their children up from school.

There was an article I read recently proclaiming the happiest countries in the world work far less than we do and maintain an equally high level of productivity. If that's true, what are we doing wrong?

paul mitchell said...

Miss Kitty makes the great point of why we work. It is for the money. I agree that if you decide to take the salary hit to work fewer hours, that is your choice. As a business owner, someone that tells me that they value their hobbies more than their work would be of little service to me. The people that I employ should possess the same desire that I have, to make our business as profitable as possible. Then everyone gets rich, which again, is why we work.

And of course no one wants to work as hard as those kids did one hundred years ago, those kids didn't either, but their parents made them do it so the family could eat. Today, there is a mentality that there are personal rights to food, vacation time, clothing, shelter, medical services, etc.

In other words, no work ethic.

Chris said...

PM- I think most people value their hobbies more than their jobs. (That's how entrepreneurs are born.) You are obviously passionate about architecture and made that your primary focus. Other people are passionate about other things and will either eventually make that their career of will work to pursue/pay for their passions.

As for your employees, it is their job to make you profitable, as it is my job to make my boss profitable. There is a difference between taking your job seriously and being desperately passionate about it. Chances are you have employees who take their job seriously but aren't as passionate as you are and that is perfectly normal and acceptable. Everyone has their own agenda.

paul mitchell said...

But, Chris, your concept is kinda lacking. If you read my comment, you see that I say it is my employees' responsibility to make OUR business profitable. Your comment is almost diametrically opposed to mine, "to make ME (or my boss) profitable."

You see when I hire someone rarely do I have a good predictor of their value to our business. As we work together to build our projects, I get a better understanding of their value and can direct them to areas where they excel. The profit does NOT get to stay with me, government makes sure that I cannot pocket an increasing amount without penalty. I must direct that profit to building the business. I can do this in the form of bonuses to my employees. So, THEY pocket the profit for their effort.

That is the nature of all business. If someone comes to work for me and tells me that their SCUBA diving is more important than turning out the model medical clinic, then they diminish their own importance.

Such is the nature of ideology and work ethic.

BaxtersMum said...

I think we need to make a distinction...

those of us who work to live, and those who live to work. Paul I would put in the later category (being rich don't mean a damn if all you're doing is spending time at work), Chris in the former.

Most people are NOT passionate about their jobs. And there are many many MANY people who put in the hours to make enough money to put food on the table and pay health care for their kids. Yes, the US has become a country of entitlement and "Super size" life style. But I would point out that the Europeans who work far fewer hours are also doing just fine wiht the food, shelter, and health care issue. They just have priorities of a more economic lifestyle and some protected wages.

I resented like hell the implication that I needed to be at my job 60 hrs a week, like a peer. I worked more effectively but she couldn't - much of her time was spent fixing her own mistakes. Yet, the visibility of her "committment" was enough to get her adoration by management. And Paul, you may be an awesome manager/owner, but many of these folks who bought into her "committment" were NOT stupid people.

I love my job - I am committed to the success of my organization but NOT at the expense of my family, my health or my happiness. Does that make me an unattractive employee to you, Paul?

Not everyone will be passionate about their work - certainly most menial laborers aren't - and using your rubric, Paul , you would not want them as an employee. Must be nice to be able to find 100% of your staff willing to sacrifice every thing in their life for your company. You must not hire single parents, either.

I'm not saying anyone is wrong here. I am saying that NO ONE OF US IS RIGHT. Do what you gotta do. But I do think that some jobs are abusive to employees (e.g. those kids in the factories during the industrial age). We're more aware of different types of abuse - mental and social - and we shouldn't be punished for asking for protection from employers who specialize in wholesale misery.

That said, in some economys, you take what you can get. Sometimes the purpose of the government is to protect those who have no voice, who have no choice.

Its all a philosophical perspective. Fortunately at this time, we have the choice (usually.) Me, I made the choice (it was made for me, actually) and I will NEVER go back. There is such a thing as a self perpetuating mythos of "time committment = financial success." Especially in the white collar industry.

that's my two cents (or actually 1.5 cents since as a female I automagically get a pay decrease for the same work as a man...)


paul mitchell said...

It is obvious that I am in the minority in this debate, but BaxtersMum points out some salient points that solidify my side perfectly. Government has already caused this conundrum by limiting work to forty hours a week without overtime pay, forced vacation, in the future, forced employer provided medical services, and the list is endless. It is certainly NOT the purpose of government to ensure the safety of the citizenry at work. And only in our country did everyone have a choice. A very few people persuaded our federal government to remove that choice from us and you see exactly where that ideology has led our country.

By the way, as a percentage, architects lost more jobs than any other industry in the government caused debacle. With the doubling down by the government on labor issues since January 2007, look for even more serious repercussions. Maybe we can absorb the three years of wage increases to the least of our employees (that made everyone's salary making more than minimum wage worth much less), but it will probably be 2015 before that happens.

This spring, watch as building material costs escalate because of the reduced production caused by the very policies instituted by the fed in the last three years. Lumber alone shall increase in cost by 30%. Squat and watch.

By the way, construction is only ten percent of our economy and pretty much all that is being built right now is government buildings. And have all of your medical projects been put on hold? Wonder why?

Mile High Pixie said...

While I've appreciated the generally civil tone of this discussion, I'm stepping in as moderator of this blog. I don't think any of us are going convince anyone else of the rightness of our positions. I'll be doing another post on the various philosophies that one finds regarding the nature of work and effort in the field of architecture--they are at least as varied as the comments we've had here.

And to answer Paul's question (which is a good one): yes, we've seen a great slowdown in medical construction due to various factors, including but not limited to:
-many hospitals invested their money in bonds, and when the bond market went to crap, they had no money with which to build.
-non-profit and community-owned hospitals can pass tax or bond initiatives, and when the taxpayers vote down such an initiative, the facility cannot afford to build (or to build just yet)
-some facilities are waiting to see what the health care bill will become so that they know what to plan and build for, both in terms of services line/patient population changes and in terms of the funding for those improvements.
Note: those who are choosing to build now are finding good labor prices and even better service. Folks are dying to work and keep their employees and families above water.

Again, I appreciate the thoughtful comments here, but I don't think anyone is going to change anyone's mind here. We can all find statistics and information on each side to support our point of view that refutes the other. Many thanks to al for making this an interesting topic.

Chris said...

Really fun topic to debate MHP. Love the blog and think it's really cool that we work together (in the same industry) but all have such unique and varying viewpoints. It goes to show ya that designers are as diverse in opinion as they are in their practice.

Robin said...

One thing I noticed about Paul's breakdown of time in a week is that he's counting total hours in a day, not waking hours. For me personally, I need to count my available working time in terms of waking hours of the day. I NEED 8-9 hours of sleep every night. That's almost 60 hours a week of sleep which leaves another 108 hours for work, play, eating, family, etc. If you work 40-50, that's about half of your time devoted to one thing with everything else being split between the other half. Makes sense to me if you can do it and be happy with your life, that's what really matters to me.

paul mitchell said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
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