Our request was simple: Tell us about your challenges with balancing work and life. Clearly architects have spent some time pondering this issue, because they responded to our email blast with passionate and insightful missives—hundreds of them. We heard from individuals Skyping at all hours with clients in China. We heard from an intern working nights as an Outback Steakhouse server to make ends meet. We heard from single moms juggling child-care pickup with client meetings. We heard about how the pervasive culture of long hours at many firms can be traced back to the all-but-mandated all-nighters in architecture school, and how the flailing economy and threat of layoffs only exacerbate the stress.
But we also received fishing-trip photos from a partner playing hooky, got lectures about how overcharged striving after the American Dream precipitates burnout, and heard stories about how flexible working hours and remote officing make it easier to spend time with family. In the end, a rather rich cross-section emerged of day-to-day life in the trenches, at firms small and big, from semiretired baby boomers to Gen-Xers eschewing traditional corporate office culture.
In their own words:
“My work is an integral part of my life. The borders between home, family, office, studio, etc. are healthiest when they’re indistinct.” A Portland, Ore.–based architect
“Work/life balance? I’ve blurred the distinction and usually work 18 hours a day/7 days a week, thanks to the computer and the difficult economy.” A Houston-based solo practitioner
“I try to keep work separate from home as much as possible. There are times when it’s necessary to bring work home for deadlines, but for the most part I disengage once I leave work.” A Scottsdale, Ariz.–based architect
“Our society, and unfortunately our profession, doesn’t place much value in achieving appropriate life/work balance. Our relationships (and our children) often pay the price.” Principal of an Olympia, Wash.–based firm
“Architecture has become much more than a career but a lifestyle.” A Louisville, Ky.–based intern
“One of the things that makes balance possible in the face of being on the road four days a week at minimum is the current state of technology. Without the communication advantages offered by the smartphone, tablet, and laptop, I would spend my time at home doing nothing but catching up.” Principal of a Tucson, Ariz.–based firm
Indeed, flexibility emerged as a recurring theme, with many respondents saying that being more plugged in meant they worked more outside the office. That’s no surprise, says Cali Williams Yost, a Fast Company blogger and CEO of Flex+Strategy Group, a consulting firm that works with corporate and nonprofit clients. A study her company conducted this year with the Opinion Research Corp. suggests that full-time employees are increasingly embracing the idea of flexible hours and worrying less about being perceived as slackers or about losing their jobs when they take advantage of such policies. Increased workloads inspired by the recession, however, have made it harder for workers to take advantage of flex time, the study showed.
So how should firms and employees introduce flexibility into the workplace, to maximize worker productivity and happiness? “Organizations can give us flexibility, but they can’t tell us when to turn on or turn off,” Yost says. In short, workers must figure out their own best strategy for maintaining their productivity, happiness, relationships, and outside pursuits. For some architects, integrating their work and life may be ideal. For others, the answer may be starting their own firm or keeping a strict boundary between home and office.
In these pages we feature the stories of three architects who responded to our query. (You can read many more such stories online at architectmagazine.com.) Amid the lingering recession, these individuals are managing their own practices, which grew and took shape around their busy lifestyles. In envisioning the workday of the future, one trend seems clear: The traditional 9-to-5 will become ever less common.