Work Smarter Not Harder

In theory we all have exactly the same amount of time in our day or our week, but why is it that different situations such as lockdowns, maternity leave or unemployment make time pass so differently – or different individuals feel like they have so much more or less time than others?  While there is a whole host of reasons that impact our perception of time, one of the biggest is how effectively we use it – the common saying to work smarter not harder.  But how exactly do you do that? 

As someone who has gone from a life working a 60 plus hour week to a flexible 27 hour work week, I have a few thoughts on the subject. In architecture and design, many people equate working long hours to loving their job and being creative.  But how much of those long hours are actually being spent on creative endeavours?  Or people think they are simply just not ‘organised’ and believe they can’t change the way they interact with time.  Just as you can train yourself to become better at a sport, a hobby or a language, you can also train your brain to deal with your time differently.  Even if you have trouble concentrating, being organised or have ADHD – you can train your brain and change how you deal with time and organisational skills. (While its not a resource for time management, “The Brain that Changes Itself” is an amazing book about the power and plasticity of the brain)

The first step to doing things differently is to make the decision that YOU want to do things differently.  Maybe you can also bring your colleagues and others around you along for the ride, but maybe you can’t.  At the end of the day though, we can only change our own behaviours and responses and gently encourage others around us to take responsibility for their own choices and actions.

Many people can be very successful in life, but still have problems managing their own time, or respecting the time of others.  Often these people are stressed out and overwhelmed, they know something in their life isn’t working, but they are not sure what it is.  Frequently the noticeable issue is that you feel like every day is spent putting out fires and you may not feel in control of your own time.  This can flow onto the people around you, leaving them feeling the same.  It doesn’t make a great work environment for anyone.

Regardless of our our own time management or our immediate team, often in the collaborative but often combative world of design and construction, external parties are pushing their own agendas and can leave us feeling our day or week is out of our own control.

Set Your Boundaries

People who know me today, assume that I started to set boundaries  around my work life because I have a small child.  Its common that women (and more and more men) will prioritize children, and particularly child care pickups (partially due to expensive fines for being late).  But while this might often force people out the door, it doesn’t always mean that boundaries are set at other times, either on a day off, at night or on the weekends.  For me, I’d actually started to set boundaries around my time earlier.

Particularly in this always on smart phone age, I believe everyone needs to set their own boundaries.   No-one will ever manage all your time for you.  You have to decide when to switch off, when you are available and when you are not.  This includes setting and managing your own notifications on your phone, email and apps.   Its also important to have a culture that makes it clear to team members that they are not expected to be switched on and responding 24/7.  Particularly during lockdown, much of my own work was occurring outside business hours – that doesn’t mean I expect others to be available or responding.  If you know that work emails outside of hours will aggravate you – turn them off (or see below and try meditation).

In this industry you can never avoid deadlines, and occasional overtime is always going to be required, but planning realistic timeframes and negotiating with clients to achieve agreed outcomes can help to manage this process as well as regular communications within teams about current workloads and status.  We use slack and in person meetings to keep track of where everyone is, what they are working on and project resourcing overall.

For many years I have run teams with a significant proportion of part time or remote staff (one team I was the only full time person out of 5!)  As a team we plan our workloads, deadlines and meetings around everyone’s commitments.  Sometimes this takes more work and means agreed hours needs to be thought about and regular meetings might have to be on Teams/Zoom or even to shift days whenever things need to change – but this way everyone is able to plan their days and time around known commitments.  Many teams have seen over the course of the last year that this approach can work.

Delegation and Mentoring

Obviously one of the biggest ways to save yourself time, if you can’t automate it (more on that later) – delegate it.  Many professionals in our industry – be they architects, designers, engineers or even project managers are really really bad at delegating.  Partially this could be because we don’t even get taught how to delegate and many of us have had such  poor examples to learn from.  Delegating is not just handing something over to someone else to do it and then checking every day (or hour) if they did it yet.  Delegating effectively is a mix of training and briefing people as well as a bit of letting go.  

Our industry has been often heavily biased towards a single individual being in control of the project or being the client contact – but this is not always the best team structure – for the client, the project, the business or the time of individuals.  If a less experienced team member is paired with a more experienced team member, not just to draw this and model that – but to take responsibility and get to know the project inside out, it can be a huge benefit to both team members as well as the client and your business overall.  When only 1 team member knows what is going on across the project – you open yourself up to trouble if they get sick, go on holidays or leave your business.

I use a mix of different communication tools for delegating and briefing staff from in person or video chats thru to previous examples, Slack and Trello as well as Revizto.  Just because I delegate a task also does not mean I don’t track the outcome at all, and a lot of these tools help my team communicate with each other when something is complete or any issues or delays in completing a task.

I also spend a lot of my time training and reviewing projects or deliverables (probably actually almost half my time).  In particular, training is often set aside when we are busy but can then be ignored for months at a time as low priority.  Before you know it – you have a team going off in 10 different directions (same goes for regular team meetings or one on one catchups).

Tools

Use the right tool for the job.  Any task you spend a lot of manual time on can be improved – it doesn’t matter if its emails, expense claims or documentation.  Any time I find myself ‘wasting’ time by inputting data twice, or adding up manually, I know there is a better way.  I am constantly on the lookout for tasks that can be improved on and the tools to fix them. This mindset really does help you work smarter.  If you can get a whole team working thinking this way, over the course of a year you can make significant improvements in how you work – and see positive gains in culture as people feel less frustrated wasting time on boring manual tasks.

Slack (or other chat) is frequently a faster way of communicating with team members than email.  Software like Trello, MS Planner or Monday can help you manage your projects, delegate and assign tasks and never forget to do anything ever again!  Is Revit the right tool for the stage you are in?  Do you need to add Dynmo or another free or paid addin to help push Revit in the right direction?  Or do you need to get back to basics and sketch – but could sketching digitally on an iPad make this process faster and more efficient as well as provide consistency?

Your software is just one set of tools though, there are many other tools that can help you with productivity in different ways.  One I like is a music subscription designed to help you focus – Focus at Will. 

For others, trying different ways, places and times of working can make a big difference – if you have the opportunity, then figure out what works for you.  I know some of my colleagues (and much of the world) were surprised at how productive they became working from home during lockdowns!

Processes and checklists

Processes and in particular use of templates can really help you to streamline your time.  The more people or times you are doing a task, the more important templates become.  Templates can range from wording in an email that can be copy and pasted, a standard Trello board, through to your Revit or Indesign software templates.  A template for these kinds of programs is much more than just the graphic look.  Templates also should build on automation, from automating text that is repeated, to page numbering, use of styles and consistency of information.  It surprises me how poorly understood templates are within architecture practices.  Building templates takes time but if done well should pay off quickly and immediately by improving both the time it takes to do something and the quality of the outcome.

Checklists help free up our brains so we can focus on the important and creative tasks.  They also help create a process for ensuring quality of documentation, proposals or anything else you are issuing.

Process is also about how you manage your own time.  Blocking out and committing to time for strategic tasks (whatever than might mean in your role from building templates to business development strategies to one on one meetings with your team members).  Most of us actually know the things we should be doing to take our career, business or project to the next level – we just don’t actually make the time for it.

For me one of the most effective process tips I’ve ever found was around managing emails and keeping a clean inbox – when you open the email, make a decision immediately what to do with it – delete it, file it, move it to your action list (for me that’s Trello) or move it to a folder to be actioned later (I call it _To Do so it sits at the top of my folder lists) – or even better delegate it to someone else.  It doesn’t matter if I’m on my PC or my phone – this is what I do with my emails.  I remember once some colleagues looked at my email when I was out one day and thought it was broken – because my inbox was empty!  You do need to ensure you check and action the to do folder every day you are working for this to succeed.  This won’t work for everyone – find what processes work for you to manage however it is you work.

Sleep and Exercise

When you are tired you don’t perform at your peak, you make more mistakes and things take longer.  You probably also feel like you have even less time (and this is my explanation for over a year of no blogging!)  I have noticed that regular good quality sleep and setting aside the time for exercise makes a huge difference to how productive and creative I am during the day.  If you continue to push yourself to work hard or spend hours awake at night stressing, you will never be able to work smarter.  Having spent the last year dealing with sleep issues in my family, I really recommend taking action – see a doctor, a psychologist, try acupuncture, meditation or even simply cutting back caffeine (much as I love coffee – this is actually the first thing to start with).

Meditation

There is scientific proof that meditation changes your brain.  It can help you sleep, it can help you manage stress and anxiety and it can even help you to become more creative.  I know personally, it is one of the habits that I know I should do more of, but even if you don’t manage to meditate every day, there are still so many benefits.  One of the biggest that I have noticed in myself is the ability to be less reactive and not to take personally emails or other communications I might find stressful or frustrating.   I find this allows me to be more available without pushing up my stress levels, which helps me manage my own boundaries.  Personally I like Headspace app but there are so many different types and varieties of meditation out there, try a few different ones and see what works for you.  Commit to 10 minutes per day for 10-14 days and you will notice a difference.  Mediate regularly for a year or more, and seriously, it will change you (in a good way!)

Other People

The hardest thing to manage is the other people who you work with, but who you don’t necessarily have influence over their processes.  From clients to other consultant members to other teams within your own organisation.  While you can work your best to work smarter – not everyone around you will see the benefits.  That is where meditation and patience comes in!  (if not a change of job) However many of these techniques will also help in managing others around you. By being organised, reliable and setting your own boundaries, you will generally find most other people around you will over time respect knowing what to expect and when to expect things.

Letting go of Ego

One of the hardest and possibly least talked about aspects of not working so many hours is letting go. Letting go and taking a step back from the project or the work, but also letting go of your own ego. To successfully work part time, or likely even at different times means you have to delegate, and sometimes you have to delegate decision making, miss an important meeting or let someone else take the lead. I always try to remember no- one is indispensable – and that if I was indispensable, that would mean I couldn’t take a holiday either!

Different tools, systems and tips work for everyone. Sometimes it really is a matter of giving things a go to see what works. Team environments are a little harder, but being willing to try different ways of working and organising can benefit everyone. What are your tips for working smarter in architecture and design? Or in life generally?

Image Credits: Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Mental health and the road to leadership

Do we have to accept that “long hours are just part of the job”? Is it possible to succeed in architecture and design without working excessive overtime?

For the first time in Australia, a top law firm has recently been reported to Worksafe for overworking employees, “A source said KWM graduates were subjected to grueling conditions, with some employees choosing to sleep at the firm’s Melbourne office rather than return home. Day and night shifts were allocated so work could continue around the clock.” This probably sounds familiar to a lot of architects and designers – except we might be thinking “They got to sleep though?” and “so if there were shifts…that means individuals were not working round the clock”.  Whilst law is renowned for its long hours, architecture is frequently worse – and far more poorly paid.  Even if we haven’t worked all night lately ourselves, we all know practices where it is common place.  It will be interesting to see the outcomes of this case and what impact it might have on architecture as well as law.  There is no doubt that the long hours culture of architecture takes its toll on many individuals in different ways.

Around the same time as I came across this article, I attended two separate events on the same day – Sustainability Live and a WIDAC networking event.  Through a session “Mental Health in the Building Industry” the topic of the long hours culture of architecture was part of the discussion.  Mental health is an issue that the NSW Architects Registration Board is currently focusing on – and Registrar Tim Horton was part of the panel.  The NSW ARB is concerned about the mental health of architects and commissioning further research to learn more about this important topic.  However it does seem that their focus is on the risk of sole practitioners suffering mental health issues and the resultant risk to the public, than necessarily on the impacts of those working within practice and subject to long hours and bullying cultures.  We have to remember that the job of the Boards is primarily consumer protection rather than protection of the architects – that’s where the AIA and ACA need to be involved.

Personally I do believe that part of the prevalence of sole practitioners and small practices is due to the desire of many mid career architects to escape the hours and bullying and to gain control over their own lives, and not just their own designs.  But the problem we have is that often the long hours have been so well trained into us, and  then you add the pressure of small business, and many architects still can’t get away.  I’m not sure if its funny or scary that some of the young architects I spoke to after the session (and since) had thought the previous session on “Modern Slavery” was going to be about Australian architectural practices and their working cultures…

That evening I attended my first WIDAC (Women in Design and Construction) event – and I was very impressed.  Outstanding speakers and well organised – I’ve already joined! The topic for the evening was “The Road to Leadership” and there were three speakers, an architectural director, a partner in a law firm and a HR executive (the selection of which somewhat seems to match the topics of this post!) Alex Wessling, Sara Haslinger LLB MPP and Kate Evans shared their fantastic and individual stories of their own roads to leadership.  One of the things that all three had in common, and I think probably underpins many successful people, but perhaps even more particularly women, is that while working long hours can sometime seem to contribute to success, working long hours usually lead to problems in your life (be they mental, physical or both) and that ultimately this is not a sustainable path to continue along. The other common lesson is that the path to leadership is windy even if at an outside glance it might not always seem to be so.

My own story also has these threads in common. Initial career success stalled with the combination of a slowdown (GFC) and a psychopathic boss. Years of overwork – sometimes due to deadlines and those around me, and sometimes due to the pressure I placed on myself – combined with the pressure of workplace bullying eventually lead to repetitive strain injury and chronic pain.   Physio, personal trainers, acupuncture, feldenkrais and a dozen different medical specialists and surgery didn’t solve it – for the first few years it got worse.  Starting with my left shoulder, then my right arm, both wrists, my neck, both hands.  Imagine the fear of not being able to use your hands.  To the point where I almost couldn’t work at all.  Then in the middle of all of that I was made redundant from the job that caused it.  All of this defines my story from this point on.  Almost 10 years later, I still have chronic pain in my neck but I am much recovered and can now manage and live with the pain and its impacts on my mental health.

Part of the way I have improved my health is to work part time.  People assume I work part time because I have a small child.  While this is partially true – I dropped my hours to part time after she was born – I’ve found its really helped my health, and I know I certainly can’t work more than 40 hours a week.  I can’t take a job in a practice that might expect me to work excessive overtime.  My symptoms would flare up and it’s just not worth it.  This is one reason why I am passionate about hours and working culture – I don’t want to see more people face these kinds of problems – and the more time we spend crunching over computers the more common it is becoming.  Already almost every architect and designer I know has some kind of neck, back, shoulder or arm pain that flares up from time to time.

At the same time, I have been determined not to let my injuries or my working hours define my role or opportunities within design practice.  Whilst it has meant that I am careful about choosing where and with whom I work (unfortunately for me not always clear at the interview stage), my commitment to my own work life balance or integration has had a positive side effect.  Bullies usually also seem to inhabit the long hours cultures in higher proportions…coincidence?

Now I am lucky enough to work at Custance Associates, a boutique practice where I have a senior client facing role and input to the practice direction, with directors who are supportive and who actually care about the staff who work for them – a team who are a friendly and incredibly talented bunch.  I work flexibly from Tuesday to Friday working at 70% of full time, with some of that time being from home.  Occasionally I work some extra hours to meet deadlines, but its pretty rare.  Nor do my team work overtime regularly.  I have time for my blog, being a part of the BILT ANZ committee, to exercise (which is actually essential for my pain), occasionally to meditate and always to spend with my family.  I am happy.  I think this is something we sometimes forget is even possible in our industry.

So many people I know have continued working in unhealthy environments on the premise that everywhere else is the same.  Maybe a lot of practices are – but not everywhere.  Take the time to define what you want and expect – and then demand that – and if where you are can’t provide it, you can probably find somewhere else that can.  Maybe not so quickly and easily as just any job, but I believe for most of us, it is possible.  If more staff expect that a reasonable work life balance and working hours is possible, and that bullying is unacceptable, then companies will be forced to change – both in architecture and law.  Do you want things to change? Do you believe cultural change is possible? Will you be part of the problem or part of the solution?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image via unsplash