I don’t care when the ARCHITECT staff gets to the office. There’s no reason to be rigid about it. We’re not one of those businesses that has an inherently fixed daily schedule, the way a trader is tied to the opening and closing bell or a clerk to store hours. Our art director arrives at the crack of dawn and usually is the first to leave, while the editors are generally mid-morning to early-evening people. As long as the work gets done on time and communication is effective, everybody’s happy.
For reasons that a glance at a newspaper will explain, happiness is nothing to sniff at these days. That may be the biggest takeaway from this, our second-annual What’s Next issue. Last January, working in collaboration with designer Bruce Mau, we cast the net as broadly as possible and covered advances in seemingly every area of architectural activity. This year, in consultation with the AIA’s 2011 National Architecture Firm Award winner, BNIM, we focus on the architectural workplace and practice.
Check out this year's What's Next section, and you’ll find interviews with leading practitioners, reports on best practices, research on professional attitudes, and even a manifesto by BNIM. There’s a lot to absorb (and there’s even more online), about topics ranging from telecommunications to space planning. And happiness pops up like a bunny as the central theme on practically every page.
It was feasible to dictate 9-to-5 office hours when the average employee had a stay-at-home spouse to cook the meals, get the kids to school, and starch those uniform button-downs. But with middle-class salaries stagnant, two-job families are the new norm, leaving nobody to tend the hearth. And making life even more complicated, laptops and smartphones mean that the workday never really ends, not at night, not on weekends, not even during vacation. Work has unilaterally invaded the home.
Partners and principals will find themselves under increasing pressure to loosen the constraints of the typical workday. This shift won’t necessarily be easy for the boss: Architects tend to be controlling by nature. According to a prominent leadership coach and management consultant, fully a third of his hundreds of executive architecture clients falls into a single Myers-Briggs psychological profile, known as the Field Marshal. This type (there are 16 in total) only occurs in about 1.8 percent of the general population.
So managers who find themselves resisting flexibility should wonder whether they’re motivated by legitimate business reasons (which is fine) or because they just feel better knowing where every single employee is at all times (which is definitely not fine, and probably generates a lot of unnecessary resentment among the staff).
In fact, keeping employees on too tight a leash is bad not just for morale, but for business in general. The recessions of the late 1980s and mid-2000s have resulted in a shortage of Gen-X and Gen-Y architects and designers—and both age groups are hardwired to question traditional office culture. Firms may not feel the talent pinch right now, but the economy will rebound eventually, and job candidates who have plenty of options will be judging a prospective employer at least in part by the office culture. Sweatshop & Partners will not get its top draft picks.
I use office hours as an example because it’s one small way in a relatively large corporation that I can set policy for my own team. By contrast, architecture firms are generally small businesses, so there are arguably fewer political and bureaucratic obstacles to the creation of a benevolent workplace.
Here are a few more ideas that you might consider for your staff or suggest to the boss: a monthly team lunch, a casual dress code, a weekly bring-in-the-kids day, an open pets-at-work policy, or even just free time to prep for the ARE, LEED accreditation, or CES courses. Personally, I wish I could bring my dog Mortimer to the office. My contentment level surely would spike if my best friend were napping under the desk as I read copy. My productivity would rise as well, if only because I wouldn’t have to dash home to walk him every night.
I know a flexible work schedule isn’t right for every practice. Fortunately, there are innumerable other ways to boost morale, and they don’t have to entail a massive outlay of cash or buy-in from above. And it’s an easy matter to demonstrate the return on an increased investment in human resources, by tracking absenteeism and employee-retention rates. Even if you have to go mano a mano with the managing partner to promote a happier office culture, it’ll be worth the effort.