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

The Midnight Lunch: My Favourite Blogs 2018

 Do you still read blogs or has instagram taken over all your free time?

Back in 2013 not long after I started this blog, I wrote a post on my favourite blogs.  It was pretty popular at the time, but when I went back and looked at it recently I realised it was pretty out of date – a lot of blogs don’t last 5 years.  Also in the meantime, insta has taken over as many designers first stop for inspiration.  Whilst there are great visuals out there on insta, I’m still a fan of blogs, I want to read the story behind the design and also read about other aspects of design –  the psychology, the business and the ideas.

So I thought it was time to update my list.  Many I still subscribe too via the old fashioned way of email while others are sites I just pop into from time to time.  Right now my problem is trying to make sure I don’t subscribe to more than I actually have time to look at. I never did find a replacement for google reader! (Any ideas?)

Yellowtrace
http://www.yellowtrace.com.au/
Yellowtrace remains one of my all time favourite blogs for interior design.  You get both the insta worthy images as well as the stories and interviews behind the scenes.  You also now get extensive coverage of Milan Design Week.  It doesn’t really matter what kind of design or architecture is your thing, yellowtrace covers everything beautiful from furniture to retail and hospo, workplace and residential.  Dana has worked really hard over years to make this an amazing daily dose of design all year round.  What more do you need?

Workplace Insight
http://workplaceinsight.net/
This site sits alongside yellowtrace as my favourite.  Completely different type of articles – the focus is articles on workplace design and psychology, real estate, facilities management and culture (as well as some UK real estate news) with a wide range of contributors.  Not just aimed at designers but a site for anyone managing or part of designing workspaces.  I was honoured this year when I was commissioned to write an article “I’m a designer and I job share with an AI” . As well as this site, the same editors are responsible for Work & Place, an excellent journal – well written and and researched for a similar audience.

Office Snapshots
http://officesnapshots.com
Office snapshots is a staple site for anyone working in corporate interiors – and now moving into healthcare and education too.  Get a weekly dose of new workplaces straight to your inbox, and then visit the site to search for thousands and thousands of images using a variety of product or feature search terms.  While you do get the story behind the design – the quality of the words is not always so good as the photos and can be very descriptive rather than telling the story of the design.

Dezeen
http://www.dezeen.com/
If you are into architecture and interiors then Dezeen covers all sectors.  With daily stories covering products, architecture and interiors arriving straight to your inbox you can keep track of all the big international projects, competitions and controversies, but also check out some little known designers and their work.  Its not just images either, usually there is  intelligent reporting- and an often humorous summary of the weekly reader comments.

FastCompany
https://www.fastcompany.com/
I do notice a bit of cross over between FastCompany and Dezeen.  FastCompany is more focused towards design generally – graphic and website design, product design and technology design. Again, a daily is of stories, I always find at least one that intrigues me enough to click through.

Workplace Unlimited
http://workplaceunlimited.blogspot.com.au/
Nigel Oseland’s blog is another long stayer.  Nigel is an Environmental Psychologist and Workplace Strategy Consultant.  It’s a blog I often stumble across new posts via social media. There is now the option to subscribe via email so hopefully now I’ll be reading more often!

Surviving the Design Studio
https://peterraisbeck.com/
Covering a wide range of topics from surviving the design studio, through to the Vencie architecture biennale, bias and competition in architecture, fees, design and  technology, I enjoy Peter’s style, sense of humour and wide variety of topics. This is probably one for anyone who is anti establishment architecture and it’s culture.

Workplace Design Magazine
http://workspacedesignmagazine.com/
An interior design magazine, as you can tell from the name focused on the workplace. Ideas, projects, products. This one is American and while it covers similar topics to Workplace Insight, I don’t seem to find as much captures my interest. I do like the around the web section for links to a wide range of other articles and sites.

ArchSmarter
https://archsmarter.com/
Once a week, Michael Kilkelly shares five topics that have interested him that week as well as his own writing and courses.  Starting with BIM, technology, automation but you could also find time management, architectural sketching and anything else that catches Michael’s interest.  (rather like this blog!)  Although there is plenty of content on the website, I think you only get the links if you subscribe to the emails.

Life of an Architect
http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com/
An American architect named Bob, blogs on all sorts of aspects of practicing as and just being an architect. Great writing and great sense of humour. Life of an Architect has now been going for a long time and I still pop in from time to time.

Parlour
http://archiparlour.org/
Parlour is another website that I both write for and visit from time to time.  Parlour’s focus is gender equity in architecture, but they publish a wide range of articles that effect this topic, from leadership and mentoring style articles, interviews with female architects, the impacts of gender and diversity on design outcomes to flexibility and fair work practices.

Since I first wrote this post I’ve also found I read more and more business focused blogs.

EntreArchitect and The Business of Architecture
https://entrearchitect.com/
https://www.businessofarchitecture.com/
In my mind these two blogs always go together.  They cover a lot of similar materials and are both blogs and podcasts aimed at small firm practitioners.  Covering topics from finances, making a profit, to proposals and marketing, hiring staff and managing a team – everything you need to know about running a practice that’s not the architecture part.

McKinsey
https://www.mckinsey.com/au/our-insights
If you are more interested in what’s impacting companies at the other end of the scale (be that your own or your clients), McKinsey is THE place to go.  Backed by reputable global research, you can learn about strategy, technology, HR, change and more.  With different format articles, spend just 5 minutes or 50 minutes to learn more about topics affecting business today.

ACA – Association of Consulting Architects
https://aca.org.au/
The ACA focuses on being the place to lead the discussion of business of architecture rather than talking all about design.  Another site I sometimes write for – you will find a mix of articles on fees, employment, HR issues, legislation and other matters affecting Australian architectural practice.

Futurism
https://futurism.com/
On a totally different note from pretty much everything else I subscribe to is Futurism.  Want to know about future society, cutting edge medical research, blockchain, the latest robots and anything Elon Musk is up to? This is the place for a very wide range of short articles that can be your starting point to learn more about where in the world we are headed.

I do also pop into many Revit blogs, but for me this tends to be on as as needs basis to search for help rather than regularly reading any particular blogs.  What are your favorites? Perhaps some of you can help out with more suggestions – although I will then need to find more blog reading time…maybe after I finish my architectural registration interview!

Discontents of Simulation (or what you might call modelling)

”Cave” simulation by Los Alamos National Laboratory, on Flickr“…architects are learning that the fight for professional jurisdiction is increasingly jurisdiction over simulation”

I’ve recently finished a book called “Simulation and it’s Discontents” by Sherry Turkle, which I bought while I was working on my presentation Big data at the intersection of people analytics and building analytics.  Part of my presentation was about creating simulations of human activity based upon big data, and I’d assumed the book would be about these kinds of simulations.  It wasn’t quite what I expected though – if I talk about architecture and a simulation – would you think of CAD? Nor did I!

In fact the term “simulation” is here applied to what we in architecture, interior design or engineering would use the term, models – specifically computer models. Part way through the book, our use of this term in architecture is actually discussed – that we use this term in resisting change, feeling a need to define the computer outputs in a language with which we are familiar.

It was interesting to see the understanding and language of computer simulations discussed across a variety of fields including architecture, engineering, life sciences, physics and even nuclear science (the image in this post is a nuclear simulation). The writers examine the attitudes of academics, students and professionals to the use of computer simulations in their fields – back in the 1980s (hence CAD) and again in the mid 2000’s. It was intriguing to see how much things have changed – and even just since 2005 – but at the same time how much things stay the same. The argument between hand drawing and Revit models continues  in many offices to this day. Personally I think it will keep on going for some time, because now even our clients have started contributing to it! One design gets up because of a sexy fly though and renderings, another client is only convinced of the quality of the design when they see some pretty hand drawn perspectives (which had in actual fact been traced over a Revit model!).

Do we think only by drawing as is so commonly stated by architects and designers?  I still keep a roll of trace at my desk and use it at some point in every project, I do think while I draw. But I think while I model too. Often the model makes me think harder. Things cannot be faked and fudged in the model as easily – to do so the person modelling almost always has to make a conscious decision to fudge it, to take a shortcut. At least anyone who actually understands the building does. There are certainly those who have been taught to fudge it, make today’s drawing or image pay off, get it out the door. There are certainly times when you need to. But that’s not BIM and it’s not thinking either. To me it’s the same by hand – you can draw or trace without thinking about how something really works, if it works in 3d or from the back, how it’s built, if it complies with code. You can do the same with a model. But if you model properly, with the intent of creating something that can be built then you have to think at the same time.

Interestingly one of the biggest concerns of the “discontents of simulation” was the same for all the disciplines discussed. It was a concern that practitioners became disconnected from the reality and the physicality of their discipline – unable to judge what is possible in the real world as opposed to a simulation. In architecture there is no doubt that this problem occurs, with the number of technical detailers and specification writers (often of the grey haired variety) dropping in many offices and there not being a younger generation to replace them.

Now in the architecture profession, we could blame BIM and computer software for this problem – but is it? Does anyone really think so? We can blame a lot of things on BIM, but is it BIM or is it something else?  When I read articles blaming poor design on BIM, it often seems to me it’s a different problem. The problem is about many things – most of which are outside of BIM. First and foremost it’s a lack of a transfer of knowledge.  Whether that is the immediate transfer of knowledge between designer and modeller, or the lack of BIM knowledge of the designer or the lack of technical knowledge by the detailer.  Why isn’t this knowledge being passed down? Is it a lack of interest in either teaching or learning – I don’t think so. I think it’s a lack of time. A lack of time (and fees) for graduates to go out on site and learn about construction.  A lack of time for more senior staff to learn about BIM. A lack of time because there are so many different things we expect an architect or interior designer or engineer to do and know. Not just one BIM software but many packages for modelling, presenting  and maybe even project managing and scheduling too.  Its not just the amount of knowledge required either.  Its the pace – every year projects seem to be delivered faster and faster – it’s not even about fees anymore – sometimes there really just isn’t any time for someone to explain what or why something is done that way – it just has to go out to the builder now.

Is this affecting the quality and cost of design? Of course it does. It’s not just the time for teaching, it’s also the time for thinking. It has been proven that as architectural fees go down, construction fees go up. While BIM can help rescue RFIs and variations – it still remains true garbage in, garbage out. This is the biggest concern of the discontents of simulation – sometimes at the end of the day the simulation is so beautiful, we could be blind to the garbage that went into creating it.

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. For further inspiration Come Out to the (Midnight) Lunch – If you are in Sydney on Thursday 16 October, I am organising another opportunity for followers of this blog to meet and network.  If you are interested in having a drink, meeting new people and talking with fellow The Midnight Lunch followers about workplace, interior design, architecture, BIM or collaboration in our industry – come to Chicane Bar at 10-20 Bond St in the city from 5.30pm. Note the event is not sponsered, buy your own drinks and food. RSVP ceilidh@themidnightlunch.com or just turn up on the night.

Image Credits:
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License   by  Los Alamos National Laboratory