Friday, January 8, 2010

Work-life balance for architects: further thoughts

The last post on this topic certainly sparked some interesting debate about balancing work and life in the architectural profession. I appreciate everyone keeping it fairly civil, though I did feel the need to put some denouement on the comments lest they traipse into yo-momma territory. The points that all the commenters brought up are well taken, and I think to address them we need to return to a portion of Rob from St. Charles' original email and questions:

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?

"We all have our own perspective of what a quality of life balance is." Never were truer words spoken, Rob. Commenter Paul was comfortable with 60-hour workweeks, and he appeared to be in the minority amongst the commenters. Fair enough. There are people in Colorado who consider a life balance to be working as little as possible and living on barely anything--one usually finds these folks working odd jobs during the warm months and working at ski resorts during the colder months. And you know what? More power to them. I find that way of living to be as alien as working 60-hour weeks for years on end, but if it truly makes you happy and you're not using it to mask other unpleasantries in your life, rock on.

I described the comments from Wednesday's post to my husband, Guy, and I asked him for his take on work/life balance and what it means to him. His response was this: "Well, there's a firm environment for everyone. Not everybody would do well at this Paul's firm, but some people would be drawn to it and do really well in it." And there, Rob, is the first thing to keep in mind when starting out in architecture: there is a place for pretty much everyone. People have actually left Design Associates, the firm for which I work, because it was too informal and loosey-goosey. Other folks have left my firm only to realize what a great environment it is for them. I am aware that I am paid slightly less than my comparable colleagues at other firms because I work at DA, and while that pisses me off that good coworkers and a friendly atmosphere are considered perks and not a given, I also know the corollary to the "there's a place for everyone" rule: No one is keeping you where you are. Even in a shitty economy, you can leave. I know people who have left their jobs in this economy--in this economy--and have been all the happier for it. I know people who have left their jobs and realized it was a mistake. Either way, it's a choice.

The second thing to keep in mind, Rob (if you're still even reading, God love ya), is a point that commenter Chris brought up: it's not just the hours you work, but it's also the work in your hours. A couple of years ago, one of the old timers in our office was telling us younger folk about Howie back in the day, all while standing at Howie's desk. "Yeah," said the old-timer, "man, when Howie first started at DA, he was just a couple of years out of school, he was in here right at eight and outta here right at five, boy." Howie didn't even look up from his computer where he was typing up a project proposal, but with a very faint smile he said, "Yeah, but I got a lot done in those eight hours." Howie is about gittin' it done when he's at work, and according to Guy's coworkers, so is he. Guy gets a helluva lot done in his 40-50 hours a week, and that is why he's just been given construction administration duties on the CDs he's working on now--they know he can get things done, correctly and in a timely fashion, and he now has job security for the next two years. What's also amusing about the exchange between Howie and the old timer is that Howie is a good 20 years younger than that fellow but he outranks him. That old timer is in the office at 6am or 7am and leaves around 6pm each night, but he's always the one chatting about skiing or what he and his brothers used to do when they were kids or some project he worked on thirty years ago.... You get the picture.

The fact that Howie now outranks this old timer brings us to the third important thing to remember, a fact that Paul Mitchell brought up: you do have to put in the effort. I occasionally meet an intern who, when faced with having to work for more than 40 hours a week now and again, will act like they're about to invoke the Geneva Convention. And I want to smack them. Sometimes, you have to put in the time. The workload or the particular part of the project will require that you do that. So do it. Also, what some of these interns (and even some folks who have worked in architecture for a long time) don't seem to have learned is that pitching in when needed is a form of job security insurance. If you can never be counted on for more than the bare minimum, then when it's time to thin the ranks, your name might be at the top of the "To Get Rid Of" list. (I also realize that this isn't fair to people like my aunt, a single parent with a severely disabled child--she can't always stay late and do x,y, or z because she has to take care of her son, but that is our present reality in the workplace.)

I can only presume that the old-timer who failed to effectively heckle Howie does in fact pitch in and do a good job when needed, but here's the funny thing: he's also the least bitter person at my office. He's not a part-owner in DA, and he seems pretty okay with it. And that leads me to the final thing to remember: decide what quality of life means to you, define what success means to you, and then find and make the life and work that allows for that. The old timer at my office decided that the level he reached was far enough, and he still wanted to do other things outside of work, and so he does. Let's go back to the example of my aunt with my disabled cousin. While she works 40 hours a week, her hours outside of work are not all hers: she cooks and does housework, runs errands, sleeps, tries to get some exercise, and does certain types of physical and cognitive therapy with her son. Oh, and she sleeps some. While the exact list of activities may differ for you, I wager that your life is somewhat similar. Guy works, then he comes home and cooks a little, then he likes to watch sports on TV and plays video games on his computer. That's what he enjoys. I work, then I come home and cook and clean a little (the mess bothers me more than it does Guy), and I read and work on my presentation that I'm doing later this year or write or talk on the phone to my mom or sister.

On paper, I look busier, maybe even "better". I look like I have more of a work ethic, to borrow a phrase from the last post's comments. But do I? My aunt with the disabled son, Guy, and I do our jobs to the satisfaction of our employers, and we live our lives outside of work to the satisfaction of ourselves. There is no one path to success--the definitions of success are as manifold as the people who go for success. And what that definition is for you, Rob, is up to you. That definition is ultimately up to each of us.

1 comment:

wilderness Gina said...

That's sad. All I do is try to stay warm and pick up after cats. Sad.

And spoil a Mile-High-Maddy once a year.