Are Architects Oblivious to Employee Suffering? The four syndromes.

Are architects oblivious to suffering when it comes to work practices and workflows in their firm’s and studios? Are employee well-being and flexible work-life balance practices ingrained in the way that architects manage and organise their offices? Paid maternity and paternity leave might be a case in point. I am not so sure how well architects are getting across these issues in Australia; maybe, just maybe, architects are getting there a bit?

However, I am prompted to write about this because of a few recent stories, from the front-lines of architectural practice. I have framed them in the form of syndromes as many of them seem to persist in studio culture. If you witness all four of these syndromes in your workplace maybe it’s time to get out. To help I have tried to offer a few counter suggestions of how you might act if you are faced with these kinds of syndromes.

At a broader level Negotiations is indeed something I would like to see taught more of in Architecture schools. The best design architect I worked with, who shall remain nameless, was also great at negotiations: pragmatic, modest, yet tough when required with an innate sense of negotiation timing.

How else do you get real architecture and great designs built? By being a prima-donna-baby? Certainly not by thinking your design is great and you don’t need to negotiate. Or worse still imposing your giant design ego on the design process without a clue about negotiating.

S1 Silence when we forget to pay you.

Yep, a middle-sized practice that forgets; to pay its employees for a month. Pays monthly then very little or no communications with the staff for an extended period (WTF, like 3 weeks). Eventually, practice leaders say there is a stuff up with their accounting system and tax payments, and as a result, the staff weren’t paid.

Apparently, the real reason the practice itself has not been paid is a result of poor agreements with clients and an inability to manage cash flow. I think more architects should use debt collectors.

Counter with: No-money No-workee. Try and say that and you will be surprised how good it makes you feel. And you can easily find another job. Besides, why work for arseholes who don’t pay their staff or their architects.

S2 The rubber band syndrome

If you are competent, you will get piled on with lots and lots of work. Until you snap. The project work keeps coming. You keep saying yes. You put your heart and soul into that work because, unlike your supervisors, you are ethical. They will keep piling on the work until you break. It’s a tactic of bullies. Eventually, all the responsibility, the extra hours, the so-called “all-nighters” will make you snap. At its best, you might just get angry with someone at its worse you will have a mental breakdown or worse still an aneurysm (Perhaps we need to ask just how many How many architectural employers will cover your sick pay after the snap).

After you snap, your employers will blame YOU the victim. Believe me, I know.

Usually, people have worked outside of the award or their employment contracts, if they exist, and the best situation in this instance is to make sure you have good legal advice when signing employment contracts.

Counter with: Post-Snap always good to get a bit of legal advice and a legal letter to your employers outlining the situation. Call out the bullies, and that will usually get you out of being blamed as a victim. But, maybe not.

S3 Fruit and Veg Market syndrome

This syndrome is particularly devious and fundamentally manipulative. But it is very very prevalent. I once saw an architect I worked for at the Vic Market in Melbourne. He was shopping for fruit and vegetables and going from stall to stall, picking up each individual fruit and mango, examining it and then putting it down. Eventually, after a few stalls, he selected the Mango he wanted. This was the mango that seemed just right: for the moment. But he had picked up and tried and examined a lot of mangos along the way.

When I saw this, it dawned on me that this was how this person treated staff. Pick them up and pick them out from the other mangos, give them an attractive job a role or position, turn them around and about, and then as soon as the mango picker has extracted some worth its time to discard.

Don’t be a MANGO in the hands of a fickle and clueless director or manager. I am never going to fall for that one again.

Counter with: When you get picked as the Mango make sure your rules of engagement—and exit mechanisms–are discussed, outlined and clearly written down.

S4 Drip Feed Syndrome

This one is about incentives and many of you reading this blog will realise just how familiar it is. Too often potential clients and even real clients employ this on architects themselves with a promise of future work or benefits. Your employers are unable to offer the correct wages for your knowledge and skills so they will provide you with incentives here are a few of the more common ones.

•We will make you an associate.

• We will give you a great project to work on.

• We will provide you with more experience.

• We will give you a permanent job.

• We will actually pay you.

Drip, Drip Drip and Drip.

Counter with: Point out and highlight the drip each time you get a drip. And try and negotiate for real and authentic incentives in exchange for measurable outcomes.

All of the above syndromes have implications for the employee. For the person who is not in a position of authority or power. The student, the recent graduate, the intersectional employee or even the really experienced older architect. Many architectural employees have invested 5 to 7 years of education, and more years, in architecture to only then be caught up in a global, yes global, system of callous disregard. Usually, a disregard associated with the teeth-gritting masculinities of the pedigreed architectural tough guys.

In each of the above syndromes, the well-being of the employee involved tends to be ignored. I wonder what it is in the design studio system that breeds such callousness? I wonder what it is about the system of pedigrees and architectural stars that also produces such callousness? What is it about the architecture schools, especially those run by architects, that seem to replicate these syndromes within them?

So two questions remain: Are the most successful architects the ones who are best at exploiting the talent? And are the most successful architects the ones that can exploit the talent while being oblivious to the suffering and well-being of the architectural talent they exploit. All I can say is architects need better skills and managing the people in their firms and across their institutions.

On a positive note we should all be more like Cardi B.