Pressured into overtime? Welcome to the architecture culture! A culture that indoctrinates one into devoting him-/herself day and night to his/her craft in order to become an architect. Starting from early university years, the culture of overworking and long hours is constantly perpetuated by some academics and numerous employers. Such environments are often pushing one’s physical and mental boundaries without much consideration of the overall wellbeing of the individual.
During the last couple of years, multiple surveys carried by architectural magazines such as Archdaily,Dezeenor AJ have reported that one-in-three students are suffering or treated for mental health problems. This is not only a disheartening statistic but also an issue that has to be taken seriously by universities, RIBA, ARB, and employers.
But let’s focus on the industry for a moment. Are you working 50, 60 or 70 hours a week and somehow it never seems enough?
What about 3 months in a row with no weekends?
It can’t be true, right?
Well, this is the reality in some cases. Until you accept it, you can’t change it.
Even though this might not affect you personally because you are part of a positive working environment that respects your time and sees you as an asset for their business, not much can be obtained until we all come together under the same roof.
For me, it all started early in my architectural career, when I had the opportunity of working for a well-established name in the design industry and learned one of the most important lessons. I can still remember how excited I was by this opportunity that was offered to me and I wanted to give my best. However, what I did not realize at that time was that I was often confusing giving your best with working long hours. Usually, when everybody was ready to go home at 6 pm I would continue working for another hour or more. However, one day, when everybody was ready to go home, one of the directors approached me:
Director: ‘How come you are still here, it’s almost 7 pm?’
Me: ‘I just want to finish some work and I will be gone soon.’
Director: ‘Well, I noticed that you are always staying late and you shouldn’t do that. If you are staying late that means two things. One: If you cannot finish the work you have been assigned to until the deadline that means you either need more time or we need more people working on it. Two: Also, if you are staying late one evening you will be tired the following day and not as productive as you wish.
‘Therefore, either way, you look at the situation it’s not healthy and you should enjoy your time off. If you need more resources just let me know!’
Little did I know back then that those words will shape who I am today. It was the first time a professional opened my eyes to what a healthy working environment should look like. I later realised that my bad habits of working long hours were imbibed in me during my university years and that by doing so you aren’t more productive at the end of the day. Also, there have been numerous studies that illustrate how overtime does not lead to more efficiency but rather to fatigue and higher turnover rates.
Since that moment I decided to hold on to this mentality and take it along in my career. I strongly believe that in order to be successful you will need a strong work-life balance and always work for people out of respect and not out of fear. Be honest to yourself and you will grow as a person more than you think.
However, this change of mindset comes with a lot of questions and insecurities, so I thought of exploring some of these ideas which others might identify with as well.
1. Stay healthy
Sleep enough, eat healthily and exercise!
It might sound like common knowledge but it makes a massive difference once you are actually following these rules. I can still vividly remember my first day at a new job when my colleague ate an apple for the whole day due to a deadline in the evening. This is not only absurd but detrimental to your health. Respect your unpaid break time, eat well and go for a walk. You will notice how your productivity increases and you feel better.
2. Know what you are worth
I find that often in life you attract what you believe you’re worth. I have friends who often sabotage themselves. They would say things like ‘I am not good enough, so I need to put in more time’ or ‘I am still learning’. In any profession, there is a learning curve and there will always be space for improvement, but that does not mean you need to work extra hours. You have studied for probably three to five years and you have most of the skills needed to climb the ladder in this profession.
At the end of the day, you offer a service for which you should be remunerated accordingly or at least to RIBA standards. Think that you are bringing value to a company which is then profitable because of its value.
3. Be punctual and proactive
I think being punctual and proactive are some of the most important aspects that often get overlooked. Most of the time architecture offices fall in the vicious circle of the ‘studio culture’ where time is relative. However, because of the promotion of this ‘studio culture’ people cannot be punctual anymore, and for good reasons. If you are always staying late, no wonder you cannot be on time the next day. Get your work done and leave when you are supposed to.
4. Gossiping is not being friendly
There is no place for gossip at work. You have probably met countless people before who take pleasure in spreading rumors about different issues within a company. It does not lead anywhere good and it always makes things even worse. Try not to promote an unhealthy working environment and be respectful to everybody, but most importantly enjoy your workplace and never forget to smile.
Glenn D. Rolfsen is a psychotherapist working in a corporate health service in Oslo. In one of his talks, he describes the main factors that contribute to a toxic working environment and how this can influence our working life. His TED talk can be found here.
5. Keep life and work separate
I noticed that some employers expect you to be available at any time of day and night and often forget that everybody has obligations and responsibilities outside of work. Unless there is an emergency, nobody should be expected to be available after the contractual hours end. Once your personal and professional life get intertwined it often leads to a poor work-life balance.
6. What if I get fired?
Let’s say you work in a place that treats you badly and pressures you to work overtime, but you cannot do anything about it because you have to pay the rent, bills or that planned overdraft?
I get it, we all do, but there are always going to be better places to work for. Don’t risk your health at the cost of a headline on your CV. Some firms do not care about their employees and the high turnover numbers for toxic practices speak for themselves.
In the past, I had the opportunity to collaborate with both positive and negative practices and I always notice a recurring pattern. Good practices focus on people whilst the bad ones focus on numbers.
7. Knowledge is power
Knowing the law and your rights early in your career will help you a great deal. Some employers, especially those who charge high fees whilst taking advantage of their employees’ time, are counting on the fact that their staff is clueless about legal matters. They are right until proven the contrary. However, ask yourself this: If you are not paid for your overtime, who is?
Secondly, be in control of your finances. Let’s say you cannot put up with the toxic environment at your workplace anymore after all your attempts of improving it. When you start realizing it is time for you to change your job, you should start planning in advance, and if you have some savings put aside the transition will be much easier.
8. Be the change you want to see
Lastly, be the change you want to see! We are all complaining about the long working hours, unpaid overtime, low wages, high university fees, mental issues, etc., but few are getting involved in making things better. During the last couple of years, multiple initiatives within the industry started to arise, but there is still a reluctance from people when it comes to joining them. I believe that this hesitation is mostly based on fear, which is deeply ingrained in our minds. Believing that things cannot be different is a state of mind, but we all have the same goal and that is to take pleasure in what we are doing and have a better quality of life.
9. Get involved!
For instance, the Danish Union of Architects was founded in 1951 and has over 5,650 members today. They not only have the right and power to negotiate for the entire architectural community, but also offer legal assistance on wages and other professional agreements.
Similar initiatives from the professional and academic environment started to appear in the United Kingdom as well, and have gained traction in recent years.
UVW’s Section of Architectural Workers
The first Architecture Union in the United Kingdom came to life in 2019 and is known as UVW-SAW. This is the first union of its kind and their aims are clear. They want to ensure everyone who works in the architecture sector is properly compensated, fairly treated and secure in their job. More details about how one can become a member can be found here.
INVOLVED is a platform born out of the absence of young professional and student contributions within the architectural profession. It is a bridge between education and industry, allowing one to inform the other, and the other to shape the future. INVOLVED gives a voice to young people in the profession through the open-submission online magazine and annual printed issues as well as organising debates and events, centred around conversation. INVOLVED is always open to people who want to join as a team-member or as occasional contributor. If you have something you want to share, get INVOLVED! More details can be found here.