Monday, April 16, 2012

Lulu's Mailbag: Where do you draw the line with time spent at work? Part 1 of 2

Now that the economy is kinda-sorta coming back, it seems like I'm getting more questions about workload and time spent in the office. I recently received the following question from T. (edited here for length and clarity, as we emailed back and forth a couple of times):

I generally work 7:30 to 5:30 and half day Fridays, which is our office policy.  My time before and after work  is typically booked...usually we have an obligation of some sort to get to...gym, dinner, event, etc.   So I find it hard to stay even 1 minute past 5:30 and it's tough for me to get in anytime before 7:30.  It's not that I’m unwilling, it's that my personal time is important to me and I keep a clear distinction between that and work time....

Our firm isn't super busy right now, but we're all willing to put in extra time at a deadline, and I know I’ve shown (when our [name of big huge project] was active) that I didn’t complain about doing it.  It's understandable and it's perfectly okay on occasion to do that.  I bust my butt when I’m here, I typically work through lunches, so I’m not a slacker. 

My frustration comes from the random tasks that seems to come at the end of a day or ones that are gonna take longer but still need to be done in a week.  They come last minute, so there's no time to prepare for them.  So there's no time to cancel outside of work obligations.  So seeing as my wife/friends are more important than any job I’ll ever have, I choose them.  I get done what I can and I leave.  That’s where I think the unfair labeling occurs.

What I gotta ask is where do you draw the line between flat out saying "nope, I gotta go I’m sorry this can’t get done but I can’t put my life on hold, you had me here for 45 hours – I can’t give you anymore" before it starts to sound like you just don’t want to “help” out.  How can you let your employer know that you’re not able to stay late/come in early – because I’m not willing to put other aspects of my life in jeopardy to do so?

That, my friend, is the $64 million question, even for licensed architects with years of experience.  Where and how do we draw the line with our firms when it comes to our time?  And when we decide to draw that line, how do we say it?

I've said here before that neither extreme is a good idea--always working overtime or never working overtime.  (I've also discussed the importance of being willing and able to lean into the strike zone now and then, because it's going to be necessary.)  Work-life balance in architecture, as in many professions, isn't so much a balance as an ebb and flow.  There will be times when work takes all your energy, and there will be times when your life takes all your energy.  Let the pendulum swing--it will come back to the other side.  And when things aren't crazy-busy, do take the time you need to have a life.  You'll need that rest and life for when the pendulum swings back towards OMFGWEHAVESOMUCHTODOANDNOTIMEAUUUGH!!1!!!

T's question is a big one because it points to not an intern problem but a management problem. If a project architect or manager consistently works on something all day and finally gives it to you just at the end of the workday, the time management problem is theirs, not yours.  However, because rank sometimes hath privilege, their problem becomes yours.  Sometimes the architect hasn't gotten this thing done because his/her attention has been pulled in so many directions that day that s/he never had more than five minutes to think about it at a time until 4:50pm.  (This, by the way, has been the story of my life recently, so I can empathize.)  Sometimes the architect has bad time management skills.  Sometimes s/he forgets.  Sometimes s/he has unrealistic expectations.  Sometimes s/he isn't clear about when this needs to be done.  Sometimes the intern has to manage up--that is, have the conversation with the manager to figure out workload and schedules because the manager is too frustrated/overwhelmed/disorganized to even know that the conversation needs to happen.

Fixing this problem starts with a respectful conversation about expectations, typically during a non-hectic moment:

Intern:         Hey [manager's name], I wanted to discuss some scheduling and workload stuff with you for a second.  Is this a good time?
Manager:   Yeah, sure.
Intern:         Cool.  So, I know sometimes you have stuff for me to do, but you're not ready to give it to me until the end of the day. How much of those kinds of tasks can wait til the next morning?
Manager:  Some can, some can't I guess.
Intern:        Fair enough. Can you let me know what's urgent when you give it to me so I don't assume that everything is urgent?

Another tactic that can help this scenario is checking in with a chronic hand-over-at-the-last-minute boss is checking in with them a few hours before the end of the day.  Let's say you generally leave around 5 or 5:30.  Go to your boss if they're in the office (or call them if they're not) and ask if they have anything going on that you should be working on or know about by the end of the day, and how urgent is it.  This is especially helpful if you know they're working on something to give you.  Depending on their answer, you can remind them of your schedule:

Intern:         Hi [manager's name].  So, it's 3 o'clock, and I wanted to see if you had those redlines ready for me to work on.
Manager:  Um...
Intern:         I only ask because I have to leave right at 5 today, so if you need it today I'll need to get your redlines by, say, 3:30?

I realize that some of this talk might seem or feel kind of bold.  But remember: You're a grown-up too, just like the managers, and adults speak to other adults with clarity and respect. You're asking for clarification and checking in with your bosses for two reasons: one, because you want to do a good job and make them and the company look good; and two, because you want to protect your life from a constant onslaught of other people's schedules and/or poor time management skills.  While you won't always be able to fend that off, you can draw the line more clearly with your managers.  You're well within your rights to do so.

Next week: Part 2, or what to say when someone tries to call you out on defending your time.  If you have topics you'd like to see covered here or questions you'd like to ask, feel free to leave them in the comments or drop me a line via email in the sidebar.

1 comment:

  1. This is the story of my life, but my situation is a little different. They promise redlines from the time I get in the office and they wait till the end of the day or the next day to give it to me. Work is really slow and sometimes the redlines are the only things I can work on right now. So, I either study for my ARE in my down time. And those same bosses question what am I doing?

    Thank you for having a way to tackle this and I can't wait for part 2.