Is it really necessary for us to accept a long hours culture in order for architecture or design practices to thrive, or for us to succeed as individuals? Ceilidh Higgins investigates.
Earlier this year I started a new role. I’m a senior associate in an award-winning interior design studio. In my last practice I managed a major workplace fitout project of close to 8,500m2. I also work three days per week. A lot of people are surprised at the last sentence. While it’s not uncommon for women in our industry to work part time after having children, what is uncommon is that I changed jobs and managed a major project without switching to a full-time role. Numerous women, both in design and other industries, have told me that my job change is inspiring them to start seriously job hunting and not putting it off ‘until they are ready to go full time again’. If you are a man thinking this post isn’t for you, think twice. Would you like your evenings and weekends back too? It’s all part of the same problem.
There seems to be a belief across our industry – from architects and interior designers through to project managers and clients – that you have to work more than full-time hours to lead a project. That part-time won’t work. That you should be available to answer questions from clients and contractors at least during all business hours, but preferably during any hours they choose to work. This isn’t just an issue for women – I know plenty of men who are also sick of the hours and the pressure.
Why has our industry culture developed this way? Sorry to say this, but what we do isn’t all that critical. We are not emergency services – no one’s life is at risk. To be really brutally honest, not even that much money is at risk. Your client’s payroll for a week is much much larger than a week’s corporate rent. So, why have we developed this crazy notion that everything is super urgent, that a reply can’t wait a day and that everyone has to be working all the time?
Mobile phones and email are part of the problem. In days gone by, contractors might have had to wait for us to come to site, or even send a letter – that could take days! Somehow even a fax was never as urgent as email has now become. It sat in the office until you returned. The pace of things has changed for everyone, but why do we let it drive us? If we are part of the problem, we are all a part of the solution. As long as we all accept the status quo, nothing changes. But what if we push back, if we look at alternative ways of working and managing our teams and our clients? Why shouldn’t everyone work part time – especially if automation is going to mean less work for everyone?
My choice to work part time is partly about the fact I have a toddler, but it’s not just that. Working part time also gives me more time for other things – to write, to be part of the BILT ANZ event committee, to meditate and to try to fit in some exercise. I had already spent some time working more flexible hours a couple of years ago and had realised that working less hours makes me more productive, more creative and better at my job and my life. Especially in a creative role, sitting at your desk for 40 hours plus a week doesn’t help you do a better job – it just gives you repetitive strain injury or a mental health problem.
Right now, we have a shortage of senior interior designers in Australia. Why? Partly because so many young designers dropped out of the industry during the GFC but also because many senior designers are women with children, who just don’t want the stress of feeling that they can’t meet the hours and workload expected of a senior design role. Architecture has a similar problem with a shortage of senior women, particularly in mid to large size practices.
It doesn’t help that many part-timers are forced into roles that undermine their confidence and capability. Being a senior associate and given the same work as the part-time student is pretty demeaning (and it has happened to me, along with many others I know). Just because you are part time doesn’t mean you can’t be client facing. And there are plenty of tasks in every studio that can really benefit from the knowledge of part-time senior staff. Quality reviews are a really easy start, plus there’s internal staff training and mentoring. Partnering a part-time senior staff member with a more junior team member can be a great way for a junior to get more client exposure and more responsibility.
It’s true that looking for a new role as a part-timer is harder. One practice told me they wouldn’t hire a part-timer for a senior role – they said it’s too hard to manage. But it’s different to manage – it is only harder because it’s not what we are used to. I know this as a manager. I’ve managed remote teams and I have managed a team in which I was the only full-timer. Both of these kinds of management are different to managing a team who sit right in front of you, available every day of the week. The secret is being organised, communicating and setting expectations. It takes adjustment on both sides. Managers have to realise that staff are not there at their beck and call. Micromanagement won’t work. This applies as much to other kinds of flexible and agile working as it does to part time.
As an individual you have to take control of your role, your tasks and your relationship with email. Team members have to learn to balance taking initiative with recognising when something is truly urgent and worth bothering someone on their day off. Finally, clients have to learn to respect boundaries, too. Most of our client organisations have part-time staff (and many of them work shorter hours than your typical design studio anyway). Given the knowledge and the chance, most clients seem to respect the fact that I’m not in the studio every day. Usually things are not so complex or critical that they can’t be solved by another team member, or wait a day or two. More often than the client having a problem with part timers, it’s our own industry perceptions that assume a client will have a problem. It is not unusual for a senior staff member to be regularly unviable several days per week due to existing project commitments or travel – why is the fact they are at home rather than in another client office that day any different? For some reason our culture seems to think it is.
It’s up to individuals and their practices to figure out what will work for you. How do I manage my part-time week? I choose to spread my work days out, working Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday so I am only ever out of the office for one day at a time. This won’t work for everyone. I also keep an eye on emails on my days off. Again, this is my choice, and it can lead to difficult conversations around boundaries. The challenge here is to be able to see an email and not freak out or feel you have to respond straight away, as well as for others to respect that you won’t respond to everything. If you and your team can’t do that, then maybe checking email on your day off won’t work for you (but maybe you want to train yourself to to be less affected by email bombs – it’s something I am getting better at by practising). If things are urgent, I might contact team members via email or on Slack. The team knows they can contact me if it’s urgent. I don’t respond to client emails on my days off. My email signature tells people the days I am in the studio and I find most people respect this and don’t call my mobile on my days off. When I’m running a project, I make sure all the team members are fully briefed on the priorities for the days I am away and we have a shared to-do list (I have been testing out trello) for when anyone finishes up all their allocated tasks. For my teams, it’s working. In my previous role, I delivered tender documentation on time for a fast-paced 8,500m2 fitout project, thanks to the help of a great team working alongside me.
It’s highly unlikely anyone else will ever tell you to go home, or not to respond to emails on your day off. It’s true some clients, team members or managers will always be difficult and expect everyone to always be available. But rather than expecting this to be the case, expecting organisations not to hire part-time staff, why don’t we all start expecting the opposite? That’s how change will come about. Once we start accepting that part-time works, we will also realise that no-one needs to work 24/7 and we can all get our lives back.
Note: This post was first published on Ceilidh Higgins’ excellent blog The Midnight Lunch and we are delighted to republish it here.
An accomplished and skilled interior architect with experience in workplace strategy, design and implementation. Ceilidh Higgins’ speciality is work – both the places we work and the way we work. Her day job is Senior Associate at FutureSpace, working alongside an award-winning team of interior designers and architects. FutureSpace is a cutting edge design agency leading the way in creating the future spaces in which people will work, learn and live. Ceilidh works across workplace strategy and design, delivering workplace projects from as small as five people through to upwards of 1000 people. Ceilidh also researches, writes and speculates on the future of work and the impacts of technology.