Friday, October 23, 2009

Making a living and making a life

A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues discovered that his wife was expecting right after he took his second section of the ARE (back when it was nine parts). Knowing that life was going to get pretty hectic and very different after their baby arrived, my colleague stepped on it and finished the remaining seven parts of the ARE about two weeks before the baby arrived. During that same time, he scheduled his workload with his manager and fellow design team members so that when the baby arrived, he could slide off his projects for a few weeks while he helped his wife and then work limited hours for the next few months after that. A few women in my office have proceeded in a similar fashion when expecting--they let folks know at least three months in advance, figured out how long they wanted to be gone after the baby was born, and then arranged to have their workload lessened just before they left and increased slowly as they returned part time and then full time to work. My office also has a "quiet room" for making private phone calls because we have a mostly open office, and that room served double duty for women needing to use breast pumps.

It's no secret that architecture is a tough major and a tough profession, but increasingly it's becoming more accommodating to families. It demands a lot of its practitioners, and we put a lot of ourselves into it. Just when we think we've gotten caught up on our projects, we're suddenly behind again and there's yet something else to be done. But I've learned over the past almost-ten years that there's always something else to be done. And if I take literally the logic that I need to spend more time at work because there's always something else to do, then I'd never go home. So my colleagues with children and my colleagues without children and I go home at a regular and decent time on a regular basis. There are times when we work nights and weekends, but more often than not, we're making it home in time for dinner and story time and bedtime, and our weekends are free enough that there is time to take trips and play in the yard and do nothing.

Architecture as a college major is much tougher on a family life than architecture as a profession, I've personally observed. It seems as if everyone at my office had someone in their class who had a kid, and that person would hardly show up for studio and would eventually either drop out or change majors. Studio takes an incredible amount of time, and I'm amazed when I see people make it work. Being married without kids is easier at school and at work, but school seems to be harder on kids because dare I say, architecture school demands more timewise from you than work.

The architectural workplace is falling a little more in step with the rest of the modern professions and their workplaces these days, it seems. To be sure, there are some places that watch like hawks when you come in and when you leave, and there are people that give each other sideways glances when someone leaves right at 5pm. However, you can make work work for your family--in any profession--if you and your boss and firm agree on your hours beforehand and you can and do get your work done on time and with excellent quality with that schedule, then ultimately the discussion is closed. People can roll their eyes all they want--you're getting the job done and going home to your life.

I'd like to state that having a life outside of work isn't just for people who have children. Employers are finding that all employees are happier and produce better work when they have a life outside of the office and get ample time to rest and enjoy something other than drawing flashing details. A few of the people at my office work slightly off hours so that they can do other things outside of work. One woman works 6am-3pm so that she has enough daylight when she gets home to work on some home remodeling projects. A young man in his twenties (and an intern) who is one of our de facto drawing software managers works 7am-4pm so that he can be here to answer questions while people are working but also has a little time to get work done before the office fills up with people and their Revit and CAD problems. Another fellow works 8:30-5:30 so that he can take the train to and from work with his wife. None of the people I've described above have children.

I have worked crazy hours for an extended period of time, and regardless of whether I ever have children, I won't do it again. Long, crazy hours make me emotionally and mentally unstable, and they damage my health and work and personal relationships. When I see a work-like-crazy period coming, I let my managers know that I need help in order to make the deadline, and sometimes I just borrow someone and get the help and ask for forgiveness rather than permission. I know that my behavior might not fly at other firms in town, and that's why I don't work for them. Ultimately, finding a firm whose work ethic and flexibility works for you will help with balancing work and family, and doing good work by the deadline consistently shows your firm and your boss that you can indeed make it work.

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