The culture of long working hours within architecture is damaging individual practices and the profession as a whole, says Box Architects director Graham Place.
“The relentless pursuit of commercial advantage damages every aspect of professional life, and flies in the face of accepted thinking – and even common sense.
To be a great architect, you must be engaged in the wider world, and take time to understand the communities you’re designing for… to be inspired and become inspirational; to be interested and be interesting. You simply can’t do this if your life consists of being shut in a studio and staring at a screen for 12 hours every day. A life outside the office is as important to the design process as one within it.
In our profession, there is a competitive ‘who can stay the latest’ culture, but all this serves to do is supress fees across the board. If you can rely on your staff to deliver 30% of the service for free in their own time, you can undercut the competition. But this ‘exploitation’ fuels a race to the bottom – with fees, quality and innovation in an ever-decreasing spiral towards self-destruction.
Worse, however, is the effect that long hours can have on our health and wellbeing, and that of our loved ones. Introducing more comfortable workspaces, sofas and break-out areas doesn’t make it any more acceptable that a huge number of Millennials are regularly exceeding the legal 48-hour working time directive. Many, of course, can’t afford to buy a house, so staying late at the office may be better than going back to mum and dad. But it doesn’t make it right.
Gender equality is at risk too. Like it or not, more women than men are the primary carers for children or ageing parents – if they can’t fulfil the long hours expected by their employer, their male colleagues may be at an advantage. Times are changing, thankfully, but a long-hours culture can make the evolution painfully slow.
So, what can be done? In recent months, the Architects’ Journal and RIBA have discussed the illegal (yet common) practice of forced ‘opt outs’ from 48-hour working time directive as a condition of a job offer. While it’s encouraging that this topic is on the agenda, a recent RIBA poll revealed that only 56% of architects believed their professional membership should be revoked if found guilty of such practices. Do 44% of us really think our governing body should tolerate illegal and exploitative practices by many of our professional colleagues?
Here at Box Architects, the answer is a resounding ‘no’. We have developed a culture of fair working hours – quality not quantity – and recently embraced flexible working to improve our team’s work-life balance. Our gender balance is 50/50, which we believe is a consequence of our business culture.
Unfortunately, this healthier approach is at risk. While we strive to develop a sustainable, creative and progressive business that serves ourselves and our clients, it’s being undermined by the short-sighted and exploitative actions of others within the profession. More worrying is the failure of those organisations that seek to direct us to take more decisive and responsible action.”
“To be a great architect, you must be engaged in the wider world, and take time to understand the communities you are designing for… a life outside the office is as important to the design process as one within it.”
Graham Place, Director, Box Architects