Does architecture really need a mandated working week?

6 January, 2020

One of the biggest benefits of having a desk in a largish practice, apart from the Jura coffee machine, was the chance to observe architects up close – something I could never do before.

I knew of course that architects generally work more than 8 hours a day. But in my two years based at SEW, I also noticed they took an hour off for lunch and sat around together eating huge plates of food, often playing a rowdy game of table tennis to finish off.

On Fridays work seemed generally to grind to a halt around 4pm. There was often a talk followed by drinks (beer was on tap) and food. There was yoga on Tuesdays and a drawing class on Wednesdays. It seemed that once a week it was someone’s birthday, which was a reason for the entire studio to down tools to eat cake. Like most practices, there were elaborate summer trips, usually involving a flight to a European city and at Christmas a party and bonuses. I never heard anyone complain of being exploited or having to work overtime for no pay.

I know not all practices are like this. However I am struggling to understand the need to draw up a charter to protect architects from working more than 40 hours a week without overtime on the basis that “there is a culture within the architectural profession of long hours and poor pay with resultant impacts on physical and mental health.”

The pompously called Principles and Ethics Charter also says that staff should not be asked to opt out of the EU Working Time Directive, which was a pointless bit of legislation only ever followed by the British and we’re now free from it.

Most practices (and I have conducted my own straw poll) say they do not expect staff to work more than their contracted hours and if they have to, and it’s excessive, they agree time off in lieu. Most architects I know are open-minded liberal people who, unfortunately,  often have to deal with a world of regulation and inspection. Do they really need another charter to tell them how to behave?

But if you are going to mandate for a 40-hour working week, you should also mandate for anti-time wasting.

Going back to my time at SEW, this would mean no more chatting over coffee breaks, no informal conversations with colleagues and a more stringent policy towards birthday celebrations. To make sure that the 40-hours were being spent working and not browsing Dezeen or checking WhatsApp, it would also need to commit staff to daily outputs and have penalties for non-performance.

Of course, architecture is full of stories of all-nighters and there are plenty of practices ready to defend its long-hours culture. But for the majority, what is attractive is that the work is intellectually engaging, motivated by values beyond the market – and you are being paid.

Could practices cut down their hours and be as productive? I am not sure.

There is sometimes something hugely inefficient about the way architects work, at least to anyone on the outside. Do they really need to spend five hours re-designing the elevation yet again? The answer is that this is part of practice culture and process that architects guard carefully.

Take away this comparative luxury by all means but to go down the road of a mandated fixed working week could diminish the essential character of the studio and probably, in the end, architecture itself.