Work/life/work balance by Andrew Maynard

Courtesy of

Australian architect , co-director of Andrew Maynard Architects, has shared with us his article “Work/life/work balance”, published first on Parlour. “Many women leave the profession due to the difficult combination of poor work cultures, long hours and low pay. But these conditions affect everyone – women and men – as well as the viability of the profession as a whole. Andrew Maynard sets out the issues and challenges the profession to end exploitative and exclusionary working practices.”

It is time for architectural work practices to grow up. We must stop deluding ourselves that architectural employees are anything other than a contemporary exploited labor force.

Epicurus argued that humans needed only three things in life to be happy – friends, freedom and an analyzed life. All evidence indicates that Epicurus had a rather good time while he was around. Now he is dead. I wonder if Epicurus became a senior associate at Philosopher & Associates Pty Ltd before he died? Surely this was a priority. Does contemporary architectural employment deny us our happiness; our friends, freedom and the opportunity for an analyzed life? Many would argue that being employed in architecture and the pursuit of happiness are irreconcilable. It can reasonably be argued that most architects, and almost all recent graduates, are working in conditions that are unhealthy, unsustainable and exploitative.

Continue reading after the break. 

At 27, like a surprising number of architecture graduates, I cut and ran from commercial architecture. A number of my peers disappeared into graphic design, 3D rendering, fashion and retail. I did my time and mused that, “Life’s too short. I’ll start my own practice. I won’t work for another architect again.” What I didn’t know at 27 years old was how unlikely it would be that my practice would survive. (It was more luck than anything else, by far, that it did).

We all imagine working for ourselves. We become the authors of our own work, we get the credit for our work and, most importantly, we gain full control of our working conditions. After ten years I now have what could be described as a good work/life balance. My office is an old shop front on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. I live upstairs with my eight-year-old son and my partner. At 5.30pm all staff leave the office, including myself. On some nights I will return to the office after my son has gone to sleep to play video games (mostly COD, SWTOR and BF3). On very rare occasions (perhaps six times a year) I work at night, however, this is done under very specific conditions: Firstly, I am inspired and, secondly, I want to work.

Most importantly, through planning, management and the ability to turn away bad projects, I never allow myself to be in a position where I need to work after hours. I have manufactured this situation with great difficulty over the years and outside of the norms of architectural practice. To generate this work/life balance I have opted out of the overly competitive and patriarchal environment that contemporary architectural working culture demands. My practice fills a tiny niche and I recognize that it is not financially viable for the profession as a whole to do as I do.

After all, the entire profession cannot relegate itself to working almost exclusively on renos and extensions as I do. Commercial architectural firms are the biggest employers of architects and their slice of the pie continues to increase as we see mid-size practices morph and compress. The vast majority of architects will continue to be employees rather than employers.

There is a strange unspoken, yet ubiquitous, competitiveness within architecture offices. Who will leave first? Who has put in the most hours? Who looks busiest? Who gets along best with the boss? Whose timesheet is full of ‘office’ and ‘admin’ hours?

When I worked for one of Australia’s largest commercial architectural firms I deliberately ignored this internal scrutiny. I did not want to compete with my fellow employees and I did not want to be exploited by my employer. I dedicated myself to producing the best work I could within the constraints of my employment agreement.

I would arrive no earlier than 8.30am. I would have a morning tea break daily. I would never work through lunch. I would try to leave at 5.30pm, ensuring that I was gone before 6pm. I would never work on weekends or public holidays.

This attitude, as expected, put me on a crash course with management. When it was clear that I was going to be uncompromising my employer became passive aggressive and easily rallied a handful of fellow employees against me. I was accused of not being a team player. I was accused of not being committed to my projects. The quiet hostility got to the point where I found it necessary to have my employment agreement front-and-centre on my desk, conveniently flipped to the page stating that my work day ceased at 5.30pm and my right to paid overtime should I work beyond this.

Eventually I surrendered to the realization that I was very much alone in exercising my rights. At no point during informal reviews of my work and attitude was the quality or quantity of the work I produced in question. I performed my contracted task well and received compliments from fellow employees about the care and rigor of my work. There was no evidence that I did any less work than other employees. However, it became obvious that one idealistic graduate commie upstart like myself was not going to change the exploitative office culture of one of Australia’s biggest firms. So I left.

Courtesy of Andrew Maynard Architects

But why was my insistence to work within the time limits, protected by my employment agreement, so confronting and provocative to my employer and so threatening to a handful of fellow employees?

“Working overtime for extended periods indicates a fundamental failure in planning or communication.” – Valve Software employee manual

A number of unique conditions, and abundant false logic, leaves young architects exposed to exploitation. Perhaps it’s our left-of-centre university indoctrination to be egalitarian, generous and servants of society and the city? Could it be that ‘all-nighters’ are considered the norm and time management is seen as the enemy of creativity at university? It could be the illusion that one must suffer for their art. Is it simply the need to conform to an office culture?

Regardless, there is the belief that architecture is a profession that demands all or nothing. We are even led to believe that we are working in an industry whose margins are so tight that its very survival is reliant on donated time of architectural employees.

These factors contribute to the ongoing exclusion of many parts of our diverse community; there are many individuals within our community who cannot donate their time due to family or other external commitments. Inclusion of these individuals outside of the architectural norm would no doubt enrich the architectural profession.

Arguably the most pervasive element enabling exploitative office culture is the postmodern trickery of the contemporary working environment. Slavoj Žižek argues that modern employment tactics create the illusion that our employer is our friend. This fabrication empowers the employer while denying the employed the right to vocalize and protest dissatisfaction of their working conditions. “You’re not going to stick around and help out? I thought we were a team? I thought we were friends?”

Žižek suggests that the environment of the workplace has been twisted, using architectural devices, to manipulate employees. Kitchens, ‘break-out spaces’, lounges, free food, free coffee – he postulates that this is a postmodern sleight of hand designed to manipulate and disarm staff. By fabricating the illusion of employer as friend, the employed is denied the opportunity to protest, argue, fight, be adversarial and demand more of their working conditions. These informal spaces are political spaces of control, surveillance and manipulation.

Architectural employees operate within a specific set of broken logic principles that leave them open to exploitation. We tell ourselves;

If I work longer hours I will get promoted and paid better.
Architects are often the lowest paid person on the building site and the only ones willing to donate their leisure time for free.

I will one day start my own practice.
The proliferation of small practices and their significant cull rate illustrates a pathology unsupported by economic logic.

I’ll rise through the ranks of management.
Architects are a labor force, not a set of managers. The most insidious trick in the corporate world was to begin calling everyone a manager, executive or senior something or other. This created the illusion that everyone was on a relatively even plane with their employer.

We must suffer for our art.
We are suffering for our employers’ profit. After all, how much of your time is spent being the ‘artist’? I spend around 7% of my time being the ‘artist’. I refuse to suffer and sacrifice for all the other stuff.

Long hours make the project better.
Long hours may produce a greater quantity of information, but corporate research suggests that working long hours drastically reduces quality and soon becomes a liability.

My employer is suffering equally for the good of the project.
Each unpaid hour of overtime you work is profit to your employer. Though an employer may articulate otherwise, profit plays a fundamental role in encouraging an environment of extended working hours. If one of my team did an extra hour I could only think “thanks for that extra $210 you just gave me”.

Architectural practices cannot afford to pay overtime.
Like so many other professions, the architectural profession would adapt. It would remodel its spreadsheets. So is the nature of capitalism.

Other professions, such as law, demand extended hours – why not architecture?
Law is one of a handful of professions that has a cultural predilection for extended hours. The fundamental difference between law and architecture is that lawyers are typically paid very well.

Creativity doesn’t necessarily happen between 9am to 5pm.
How creative are you between 5.30pm and 8.30pm? Let me answer that for you; you are not creative at all, you are in fact tired, hungry and keen for a beer. You may get a burst of creative energy at 2am, but those moments are rare and fleeting and they don’t need you to be sitting in your employer’s office for them to emerge.

Once you allow yourself and the staff around you to work past your contracted period of employment you are enabling a culture of exploitation. A commercial office is an instrument to make money not art. There is a hint that gives this fact away – it’s the word ‘commercial’. Yet it is within the practice of commercial architecture that we see the greatest amount of unpaid work and we see the greatest donation of leisure time to an employer.

Courtesy of Andrew Maynard Architects

Deferred Happiness Syndrome and a shift to an Epicurian mode of thinking.

During my time at a commercial architecture office I anecdotally noticed specific behavioral shifts among new young employees.

  • As employees worked longer hours their friends became those that they were working with. Is this because they saw their other friends less? This overlay between colleague and friend helps reinforce an office culture of extended working hours.
  • Most employees trade their freedom either through a competitive desire to rise through the ranks or a conformity to office culture and the fear of being seen as an uncommitted team member.
  • An analyzed life. Clive Hamilton writes of the endemic nature of deferred happiness now ingrained within Australian culture: “(a) widespread propensity of Australians to persist with life situations that are difficult, stressful and exhausting in the belief that the sacrifice will pay off in the longer term”. If one worked fewer hours then perhaps one could spend more time exploring an Epicurian ‘analyzed life’.

Hamilton argues that the motivations for deferring happiness are various.

  • Growing aspirations for more expensive lifestyles, reflected in rapidly increasing house prices, are dominating some people’s lives. The desire to stay in this race leads many to work longer and harder, often at the cost of other aspects of their wellbeing.
  • Some workers feel a powerful need to accumulate as much as they can in preparation for their retirement. This is especially prevalent among men in their forties and fifties.
  • Some workers are stuck in demanding jobs because they are fearful of the consequences should they change. They become habituated to the stresses and pressures, perhaps until a health problem or some crisis at work or home forces them to consider alternatives.

Within architecture, we should be attempting to erode the competitive aspirational illusion of grinding our way through the ranks or aspiring to all working for ourselves.

Instead we collectively need to start concentrating on securing fair and reasonable working conditions that support a healthy, rewarding and creative lifestyle. One can and should argue that selling one’s daylight hours to an employer must be fully rewarded and no part should be offered for free.

Currently architectural employees appear to have two options of attaining a good work/life balance:

(1) work for oneself and take the very real risk that one may go broke at anytime

(2) leave the profession.

These issues obviously threaten the long-term relevance of the profession. Unsustainable work practices and poor working conditions are a significant part of the overall viability of the profession into the future.

Quite simply, if you are paid to work until 5.30pm then stop work at 5.30pm. You may be able to work for much longer, you may be keen to work longer, you may dream of becoming an associate or one day a director, but along the way you are contributing to an exploitative and exclusive work environment.

Written by Andrew Maynard, Director and Architect of Andrew Maynard Architects
Seen first on Parlour

Cite: Rosenfield, Karissa. "Work/life/work balance by Andrew Maynard" 15 May 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed 25 Jul 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=234633>

114 comments

  1. Thumb up Thumb down +12

    Agreed!

  2. Thumb up Thumb down +21

    Bravo. With regards to the time and effort demands of the individual, there is a root cultural overlap from architectural schooling to the professional work place. It would seem wise to also aim effort in rethinking the approach and execution from the educational side of architecture to further compliment these changes outlined for the workplace.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +2

      An excellent article and very true about the competitive nature of architecture school which ingrains this attitude at the beginning of ones career. For a lot of people though, it is base survival fears that keep them wedded to an unfulfilling job. Architecture employees need to unionise; no doubt about it…

  3. Thumb up Thumb down +18

    very good article. if only everybody would agree to stop slavery then the world would look better

    • Thumb up Thumb down +2

      agreed on the thoughtful article, but let’s not go so far as to compare underpaid white collar employment to *actual* slavery, which still does exist in the world today.

  4. Thumb up Thumb down +17

    This article gets at the very root, the very core of everything in my opinion. Never should there be a profession which rips away the enjoyment of that purveyor’s life. Thanks you for shedding some light, for those who sacrifice themselves for someone else’s profit every day, on an issue that most people are blind to see.

  5. Thumb up Thumb down +7

    I’ve worked in Barcelona and Santiago de Chile and it’s the same scheme as Australia’s, it seems. Here in Chile now, the main problem is the major and unrealistic quantity of arch. schools, mostly private, that make construction market abuse the high number of architects looking for jobs. No way out for now, maybe political in the long term. Let’s vote for real.

  6. Thumb up Thumb down +9

    A big thanks to Andrew for writing so clearly what many of us believe and commit ourselves to. As a young architecture professional, I have been working hard to establish a proper working balance and it is very encouraging for a successful and experienced architect to reinforce.

  7. Thumb up Thumb down +10

    Thank you for articulating this so well.

    In my experience in ‘design offices’ there is an enormous emphasis on endless cycles of options, with the attitude that more time = better solutions. ‘If we suffer enough, if we exhaust every option, the client will be impressed and the work is bound to be good’. After 12 years I have seen that this is rarely the case.

    Efficiency is almost never discussed because it is assumed that labor is free or at a discount.

  8. Thumb up Thumb down +11

    Episode IV: A New Hope

  9. Thumb up Thumb down +14

    Great article, thank you. These frustrations led me to leave a mid-size firm 3 years ago and start freelancing. I’d encourage others to do the same. The exploitation only works because the workers tolerate it!

  10. Thumb up Thumb down +14

    Well said, Andrew. That was the most honest thing to come out of our industry in years.
    I would forward it to my boss but he’d just fire me…jk

  11. Thumb up Thumb down +28

    it’s a good article i agree, but i think the root of the problem lies in architecture school not in the profession. professors just expect us to work long hours from day one. its not like we walk into an architecture firm and all of sudden find ourselves working past 5:30 everyday. we are used to the extreme work hours from architecture school. the problem lies in the education not the profession. that being said, the reason why we work late hours in architecture school is because architecture students find comfort in the idea that their sacrifice is worthwhile because it enhances their ideal self-image, the hero designer. Similar to medical students, we find reward in sleep deprivation because the learning experience ennobles it. If the learning experience didn’t ennoble it, then there wouldn’t be this problem and maybe then we could live a more average life.

    • Thumb up Thumb down -9

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +2

      Andrew, thank you for writing such a great article.
      I think one of the main issues that needs to be addressed is the fact that both the education institutions and the profession operate at completely different wavelengths, and without relavant (and sometimes bold) policies undertaken by the AIA, it will only get worse.
      As an architecture student, I feel very disappointed to see the universities play a proactive role in being part of the process that further devalues our degree (and profession) by allowing architecture schools to overflow with students in order to secure more funding without changing adapting the education in any way. I know very well that there is way too many students compared to the jobs out there. furthermore, our education deems us less competitive than ever before. The reason why architectural graduates get paid so little is because they are so many of us, it is a simple case of supply/demand.

  12. Thumb up Thumb down +8

    Andrew, thank you very much for this article. I have often thought that perhaps Architects should have their very own Union, but I think most would see that as somehow lowering ourselves and i’m sure there would be a lot of resistance from the upper echelons in most commercial firms.

  13. Thumb up Thumb down +2

    Couldn’t be more right.. Sitting at work right now reading this and considering your 2 options.

    Didn’t include the holiday to Spain in there

  14. Thumb up Thumb down +8

    In Architecture in Australia this has been the elephant in room for years and has ultimately underminded the profession.
    pitty we don,t see more discussion on the subject, good stuff.

  15. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    link posted as my facebook status. perspective that all industries could consider

  16. Thumb up Thumb down +6

    Love it! Best article ever in archdaily life and pretty relevant nowadays…

    Regarding Brandon Young comment, I do agree some of the problem starts at architecture schools but, let’s remember that in most of the cases, professors are the first employers of those ‘architecturally-robotized’ students. Students willingly become cheap working force in order to access the hidden professional circle. Therefore, I still think there is a professional problem (if not a moral and ethical one in general terms)

    Some architectural unions start to flourish though often criticized due to the dumb assumptions around them (commies, lazy individuals wanting to work less, etc.) which I hear even at the most blue-collared environments.

    Anyway, “A New Hope” (hopefully)

  17. Thumb up Thumb down +24

    I never did an all nighter during uni and got a distinction. Gensler fired me for not working weekends – and that was the best thing to ever happen to me as it was the worst place to work ever. I since decided not to do overtime unless absolutely neccesary and have been getting better jobs and pay than my peers. You have to believe in your worth. If you aren’t performing in the given hours maybe youre calling is something else.

  18. Thumb up Thumb down +8

    Fact: some big architectural offices make big money, and almost ever, this do not translate to better gains or conditions to the professional. Other than that, there are a lot of architects on the wrong profession – they could be everything else, but not architects – and most of those are working long after hours…

  19. Thumb up Thumb down +5

    Very well said. The same goes for the engineering industry. I worked for a very large company and the conditions were very similar. The attraction of working on high profile projects and the hope that this will somehow lead to ‘moving up’ keeps the slaves going for a while. Unfortunately the engineering lacks any creativity or quality because it’s all done by drones with the pressure on time/fees.

    I think part of the problem is that as an industry we are not business minded. Lawyers and other professionals are savvy enough to not cannibalize each other by competing for lower and lower fees.

  20. Thumb up Thumb down +12

    I work as an Industrial Designer, and find myself in that very situation. My boss actually put a negative comment in my review for taking vacation time, and calls me uncommited if I do not stay late. Very frustrating. And, Industrial Designers are paid very little for the work and creativity we provide. How have the creative fields become so undervalued? And why are poeple so willing to trade their personal lives for their employer?

  21. Thumb up Thumb down +1

    Great Article
    - The issue & solutions do not need to be so black & white.
    - My frustration is the lack of efficiency: exploit technology!
    - BIM has transform our productivity from dumb 2D cad.
    - Research examples in other professions & architecture firms:
    (Example is Google allowing employees to explore personal interests)
    - When I leave the physical office, the project is always in my consciousness: The best solutions / inspiration happen not in O.T. at the office, but walking down the street, in the shower, at art galleries, while enjoying a meal, & my favorite: when meditating.
    archmix@gmail.com

  22. Thumb up Thumb down 0

    Great Article
    - The issue & solutions do not need to be so black & white.
    - My frustration is the lack of efficiency: exploit technology!
    - BIM has transform our productivity from dumb 2D cad.
    - Research examples in other professions & architecture firms:
    (Example is Google allowing employees to explore personal interests)
    - When I leave the physical office, the project is always in my consciousness: The best solutions / inspiration happen not in O.T. at the office, but walking down the street, in the shower, at art galleries, while enjoying a meal, & my favorite: when meditating.
    archmix@gmail.com

  23. Thumb up Thumb down +5

    Capitalism formula…”Maximum profit – (for the employer)” that is the cause of all the symptoms mentioned in the article. Something already known by most of us reading the article.

    The question here is.. What’s the plan? We see the problem but we don’t have a good solution.

  24. Thumb up Thumb down +9

    Couldn’t agree more, I’ve always said if you can’t accomplish what you need to in an 8 hour day/40 hour week something is wrong with you or wrong with your manager.

    There are always exceptions of course.

  25. Thumb up Thumb down +3

    Very true article. I think another important reason for this phenomenon is the too large supply of architecture related people in business. This creates the possibility for owners to increase the pressure on the people.

  26. Thumb up Thumb down +5

    Excellent and very timely article. In my own experience, I have been unable to break into the creative industries because of the unspoken requirement that one completes several unpaid, full time internships, lasting months if not years. This results in the industry being dominated by workaholics from privileged backgrounds.

    While internship culture is an adjunct to the issue highlighted in the article, it is perhaps another root cause of the culture of working for free in creative industry. It is demeaning for all involved (but for some at the top), it demeans creative work and excludes many from entering an industry where they could offer so much to it.

    Sadly, this kind of worker exploitation is endemic to contemporary capitalism, but looking at the architectural profession in-depth like the author has makes for an enlightening and cautionary case study.

  27. Thumb up Thumb down +12

    I imagine there has been a significant influx of CV’s sent to Mr Maynard.

  28. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    We had something called “donut club” at work. Those without families and kids worked weekends and came in early. They were noticed by the owner who was also working weekends and coming in early. He would bring donuts and they formed an informal connection. When layoffs came around 2 years ago and again this year those people weren’t even considered. Being a wife and mother I am not able to work massive amounts of overtime. Sure I could work weekends and often do see myself in the office on weekends when I have a deadline but that’s not the kind of life I want to have for me or my kids. I felt like I was punished because I choose to try to balance my life. It didn’t seem to matter that I was able to meet my deadlines without putting in extra time. In my firm- moms and new parents were the first ones laid off. It’s a damn shame!

  29. Thumb up Thumb down +6

    Great article! Ironically it is my architectural peers (sometimes friends), not employers, that put the most pressure on me to work long and late hours…

  30. Thumb up Thumb down +4

    Without trying to sound deliberately hyperbolic, how is this article not sparking a revolution? My only two choices are ‘work for myself’ and ‘quit’? This is my life’s work. I believe what I’ve read as I’ve experienced what it describes firsthand… but that’s what it boils down to? Looks like I’ve got to polish up my stand-up comedy routine. Though it’ll be hard to sound funny after having read this.

    • Thumb up Thumb down +3

      The reason there is no revolution is this: Employees fear the reprisals for not “doing what is expected of them”. They fear the effect on their livelihoods, rejection from peers, losing the distractions of work which currently keep them from dealing with real personal life issues, ie. a genuine sense of purpose.

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