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.

Architects and Risk: The personal connection.

Thank you for all those who have completed the Surviving the Design Studio: Global Research Survey. The results and comments so far have come from all over the globe. It has given me much food for thought and the results will be shared here as blog post, or two, in early March. I would like to thank everyone for the comments and certainly the next research Survey I conduct will be better again. In the meantime we are rushing to prepare the Practice subject for the beginning of semester at MSD in two weeks.

tom_oliver_payne_robin_hood_gardens_brutalism-8.jpg

The Myth of the Digital Superhero

For most architects the drive of the architect to be a digital superhero, a creative celebrity, or a young Instagram genius, obviates and perhaps erases the necessity to focus on risk mitigation. But, regardless of the efforts to fashion a stable, if not stellar, identity in the vain hope of surviving financially, the overwhelming focus of attention for both employed and self-employed architects is risk mitigation. This has a personal dimension.

Yes, like most architects when I hear or read the word “risk”, my eyes glaze over and I think about hopeless project managers and all those risk matrix forms we sometime have to fill in the workplace. Like everyone I ahte thsoe cheesy Risk Management powerpoints.

For the majority of small practices and employee architects managing project risk appears to be dependent on the procurement path that has been chosen for any individual design or project. Yes, of course, managing project and design risks has been inculcated into architects since architecture school. But sometimes, like the dmeolition of Robin Hood Gardens, everyhting goes pear shaped.

Risk and the everyday life of architects. 

But, there is another aspect to the predominant approaches to managing risk in architecture that has, I think,  been overlooked. Whilst rarely stated project risk, the risks managed by architects as they undertake projects, and the risks they must manage in their everyday lives are linked; individual architects and small firms are required to manage their own personal financial risks in the face of volatile cash flows.

More alarmingly, given that the majority of architects either work in or a part of small SMEs project risks can easily impact on an architects individual economic circumstances. These risks may include:

  • The architect being sued for perceived or actual negligence.
  • Insolvency as result of not recovering client fees.
  • Insolvency through individual mismanagement; either time or financial management.
  • The need to use individual resources to rectify a design or construction error.

To reiterate, all of the risk events can connect to and impact individual and personal circumstances. But small firms often have few resources to manage the risks they face. They are often locked into cycles of inadequate fees, over work and conflicts in their work-life balance.

Fighting Risk

v1.jpg

Arguably, in Australian risk management is only partially inscribed in the competencies that determine architectural education. Yes, many of the architectural associations, wherever they may be in the world, have tried to plug the risk management gaps with professional development programs. In other words, the first response, the fighting response, has been  to build capability and knowledge about risk management.

 In a study of risk management practices in UK SMEs including architects (64 small practices and 49 medium practices) noting that risk regulation frameworks have been extensively studied and proposed. Yet, it was found that there is little understanding of how these frameworks are implemented in SMEs. The studies suggest that the resources required to adequately manage risks, in particular to implement risk management techniques, was often prohibitive because it was “unrealistic for SMEs and beyond their capability and affordability.” Despite this limitation he concluded that small firms required appropriate organisations structures, tools and organisational culture in order to implement effective risk management in order to gain competitive advantage.

Fleeing from Risk  

Recently in a discussion in an architect’s office it was put to me that in some ways architects have run away from risk. It was stated that in some respects architects had actually de-risked their practices but done this in a way that has given away ground to our competitors.

Because of a lack of resources individual architects have not resisted, and perhaps been complicit in the de-risking that has come about as result of external factors including: competition from project managers, disintermediation across the practice life-cycle and the increasing  availability and lower costs of digital tools. We have to stop doing Trash-for-Cash-Jobs. 

As architects we are best able to manage design and construction risks. But too often we perceive ourselves as the victims, of clients, developers and contractors.

3081684_img_7367

The personal dimension

But as suggested above, risk for many architects also has  personal dimension. This is often missed in the risk management literature. In the UK in 2009 a study of architectural job satisfaction, found that:

“20 and 40 percent of respondents are dissatisfied with their rate of pay, practice management, promotion prospects, working hours and opportunity to use their abilities”

In contrast self-employed architects appeared to experience better occupational well-being. In contrast self-employed architects had more satisfaction because they had more flexibility and control over their workflows. However, there were issues for these architects, particularly in the area of job security as well as greater conflicts in their work-life balance.

In another similar UK based study focused on architects similar findings are confirmed. However, these researchers point to the:

 “a seismic shift in industry culture is required in order to address issue around flexible work practices, effective time management and workload planning⁠.” 

Mental Health: the real risk.  

 

Another area of personal risk for the architect is in the area of mental health.

In a landmark survey of existing research commissioned by the NSW registration board and the ConNetica.

There exists a dearth of research around the mental health concerns facing architects, when students, when seeking employment, and when employed.”

But perhaps, more importantly, As the study states in this conclusion:

“The perception of architecture as a profession that is male dominated, that involves excessively long study hours and intense commitment during education, and excessive work hours and intense, often isolating, project focus in practice, suggests there are elements in the profession’s culture that could be contributing factors in mental health concerns. Whilst research to date has addressed the mental health of students (with some addressing architecture students specifically), There also are concerns in regards to women in architecture, given that it is considered a male dominated industry, and that their mental health may be at risk as a result.”

Architects, as a profession, need to think about risk in both deeper and broader ways. But it also makes me think that in Australia we need an Architects Benevolent Society. 

Robinhood images are from Deezeen and the Architects Journal 

Mental Health, Burnout and Architects: Starting the conversation

RUOK day has come around again in my peripheral part of the global architectural galaxy. Recently, I met an architect who was having a few really bad weeks in her practice. She said it was the worst time she had ever had in practice. After a series of particularly gruesome negotiations and risk management issues she decided to take, what is known as, a mental health day.

Survey Invite for Architecture Students

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a widespread issue regarding mental health the both for practitioners and students. If you are an Architecture student reading this you might like to complete our survey.  We are investigating how undergraduate and postgraduate students’ experiences of psychological wellbeing and distress relate to other aspects of their university experiences. Understanding these relationships is important for supporting students to develop strategies that enhance their wellbeing and overcome experiences of distress. The survey link is here.

The Stress Factors Practicing Architects Face 

No matter how hard architects try to manage risk it doesn’t take much in practice, for things to go awry. In the last year I have been witness to some of these things:

  • A builder who misrepresents his financial position because he is not getting paid on another project.
  • A  bullying project manager who can’t make decisions on prestigious government project and then blames everyone else for time delays
  • A client who moves in and then vociferously complains about every detail despite extensive prior consultation.
  • The bad advice from the product manufacturer combined with sloppy installation resulting in the necessity to replace all the floor coverings.
  • Every minor planning ambiguity or skirmish that architects have to deal with.

All of the above situations is enough to put extreme pressure and stress on any architect, regardless of how experienced they may be. Running and directing an architectural practice can be gruelling. No matter how big or small your architectural practice, or even if you are a student of architecture being an architect can take a real toll on your mental health.

Speaking from my own personal experience burnout is common factor amongst architects and academics.  I came to the conclusion that the “grin and bear” it school of working, doesn’t really help anyone. It is too easy to sweep a culture of out of balance work practices under the carpet. Run for the exit if you here your overlords telling you to “man up” or just “just grin and bear it” or it “is what it is” when unreasonable work expectations are made and you start to burn out.

Contributing Factors

In some practices staff are subject to long hours, relatively low pay, entrenched cultures of discrimination and worse still bullying. To what extent are these issues systemic? I guess, no one really knows as there have been few studies looking at these issues and the mental health outcome of architects (there is a PhD there for someone). Some of the contributing factors in regards to mental health and architects as noted by RIBA recently are:

  • Lower pay relative to other professions
  • A culture of long hours
  • Adhoc career pathways
  • Gender and other forms of discrimination.
  • “Boom’ and “Bust” workflows
  • High personal investment in the actual work
  • Lack of union protection
  • And a working environment where HR support is not a part of the working landscape

This is not to say that every architectural practice is exhibits all of the above attributes. But architecture is hard enough any way so why make it worse?

Discrimination

But, it also needs to be said that all of the above is relevant to those architecture students and architects who experience discrimination as a result of their sexuality, gender identity or ethnic differences. (You can read some of my thoughts on this here). Thankfully there are more, although not enough, community support groups for these people than there where in the past.  My previous blog on some of these issues can be found here.

For me personally, that many of the problems, is because of an entrenched culture that gives primacy to the architects as singular genius with loyal followers. Slowly but surely, architects are waking up to how much this has damaged our profession. Anyway here a few points for your consideration:

1. A Few Online Resources.

There are lots of online resources these days so here are a few.

In my country RUOK day is coming up and this can be found here.

There are plenty of online resources in Australia Usually a good place to start. Some of the resources again the ACA is on top of things here.

The AIA in Victoria currently has a health in the workplace module.

Tim Horton’s the NSW registrar’s article about this is also worth reading here.

2. You are not invincible.

We all need help sometime. For younger architects, it is easy to think you are invincible. But like everyone else life events, for example grief, can easily take their toll. So, don’t be afraid to seek help from a trained psychologist or counsellor.

In Australia, you can start to find someone who might be able to help at this link. There are also plenty of places where you can go to for immediate and urgent help such as Lifeline if you are having an immediate personal crisis.

3. Getting a coach or mentor.

As architects, we need all the help we can get. No matter what kind of practice you lead or are in it is really important to develop your own support groups or find yourself some mentors further up the food chain. One great group is EMAGN and also the young architects group in Victoria. There are also various groups for small practitioners around.

If you are in a position of leadership, or decision-making is crucial in There is also a lot to be said for getting a career coach. Leadership and Decision Making is not taught in architecture schools so executive coaching may help you develop and fill the gaps. The best design leaders are the ones that are reflective and can evolve.

4. Take a Mental Health day

Yep, just go for it. Turn the smart-phone off. Get out and party, or shop, or as suggested by the blog image go for a spin down the freeway. Go for the Yoga thing. Sleep in or hang out with the Baristas. Do nothing. Go to Burning Man 2018 as my friend did in 2017.

Sacrificing your mental health for architecture does not really help anyone. As a local, regional and global community of architects we will be stronger if we start to have this conversation. As a profession, no matter our roles or where we are situated, not talking about this stuff is toxic to architectural culture.