The problem of architecture and the culture of overtime
“Working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication.” – Valve Software employee manual
There is a problem in architecture, and design, and people aren’t talking about it. Employees routinely work overtime, until they cannot anymore, and they do not report, nor charge, for these hours. The culture of architecture is one of all-nighters and work-til-you-drop, and to leave at 5:30 is considered sacrilegious and weak. You are not contributing if you do not stay late.
I wholeheartedly and fundamentally disagree. The question should not be, “how many hours did you work?” but “what did you do?” and “how well did you do it?” We should value the product, not this archaic, strange process. Is the work good? Or rather, is it great? I would much prefer to have an employee who accomplished brilliance in 6 hours - and found time to laugh, swim, play, and jump - than someone who had to spend 16 hours to do the same thing. Are we so wrapped up in this idea of time as the only indicator of performance, that we forget what we’re actually trying to do?
Further, the erosive nature of this culture means that we are consistently undervaluing what we do—by not charging for the time and energy it takes to be creative. If we don’t report, or bill, or account for the hours we work, we are all engaged in a game of driving down the value of ourselves, and our professional peers.
I think we’re afraid of actually being different, and wrap ourselves up in the idea of innovation through built work as achieved only as an incredible effort of exhaustive energy. Let’s question this assumption: can you create brilliance in limited time? Moreover, does the insertion of discipline requirements and tangible restraints actually create better productive work? Or do we view employees strictly as an expendable resource, ready to be used up and churned up, with only the best apprentices making it through the exhaustive, laborious years that suck up the energy of our youthful years.
In doing this process, are we losing the best talent? Are the people who could have been involved in architecture and design work leaving the field for other opportunities? Are we cultivating a sub-par class of professionals, the straggles that managed to stay on, the people who don’t actually think that things can be different? Yes, I’m insulting myself here. And you.
Let’s be truly innovative. Let’s find a way to work BETTER. Not “more.” Let’s do a hand sketch when trying to share an idea, and screw the 80+ hour rendering because both accomplish the same goal: getting the idea into the minds of our clients, and then getting that idea built. Let’s figure out ways to achieve our objective—building better worlds, and designing environments for human habitation—and not forget what our objective is in the first place.
In this rush to stay busy, have we forgetten what we’re trying to do?
This was inspired both by experience, and by the recent essay on the Work-Life balance problem of architects by Andrew Maynard. I encourage everyone in all professions to read it. Here’s some of it:
After all, the entire profession cannot relegate itself to working almost exclusively on renos and extensions as I do. Commercial architectural firms are the biggest employers of architects and their slice of the pie continues to increase as we see mid-size practices morph and compress. The vast majority of architects will continue to be employees rather than employers.
There is a strange unspoken, yet ubiquitous, competitiveness within architecture offices. Who will leave first? Who has put in the most hours? Who looks busiest? Who gets along best with the boss? Whose timesheet is full of ‘office’ and ‘admin’ hours?
When I worked for one of Australia’s largest commercial architectural firms I deliberately ignored this internal scrutiny. I did not want to compete with my fellow employees and I did not want to be exploited by my employer. I dedicated myself to producing the best work I could within the constraints of my employment agreement.
I would arrive no earlier than 8.30am. I would have a morning tea break daily. I would never work through lunch. I would try to leave at 5.30pm, ensuring that I was gone before 6pm. I would never work on weekends or public holidays.
This attitude, as expected, put me on a crash course with management. When it was clear that I was going to be uncompromising my employer became passive aggressive and easily rallied a handful of fellow employees against me. I was accused of not being a team player. I was accused of not being committed to my projects. The quiet hostility got to the point where I found it necessary to have my employment agreement front-and-centre on my desk, conveniently flipped to the page stating that my work day ceased at 5.30pm and my right to paid overtime should I work beyond this.
Eventually I surrendered to the realization that I was very much alone in exercising my rights. At no point during informal reviews of my work and attitude was the quality or quantity of the work I produced in question. I performed my contracted task well and received compliments from fellow employees about the care and rigor of my work. There was no evidence that I did any less work than other employees. However, it became obvious that one idealistic graduate commie upstart like myself was not going to change the exploitative office culture of one of Australia’s biggest firms. So I left.