What's stopping us from having a better work-life balance?

Anna Beckett BD column

If it’s 5pm and you are reading this, please stop procrastinating. Turn off your computer and go and make the most of your evening, says Anna Beckett, in her latest column for Building Design.

It is 8pm on a Thursday and I am trying to send one last email so that I can go home. I have been here all day, with the exception of 15 minutes at lunchtime when I walked to Pret to get some lunch. This isn’t an everyday occurrence but it happens more often than I would like, and it is something most of us in the property industry are guilty of.

Even when the companies we work for are supportive and are encouraging us to make more time for ourselves (like Webb Yates!) we often don’t seem to be able to take a step back. We spend so much time at our desks that the things we want to do are squeezed into gaps of “spare” time rather than taking equal precedence.

What’s stopping us from being a bit stricter with ourselves and walking out the door at 5.30pm?

After two years of on-and-off working from home and disrupted social plans, I think most of us would agree that it has become staggeringly obvious that the way we are working is not sustainable. Or healthy.

In some ways things have improved – working from home has allowed for greater flexibility and we can find a way of working that fits with our lifestyle. If we need to go and collect our children from school at 4pm we can do that, but then most of us return to our desk at some point in the evening to carry on working.

Working hours have changed but, if anything, they have got longer.

So why are we all working so hard? For most engineers and architects our careers are a vocation rather than a job; we design buildings because we are passionate and want them to be the best they can be.

We enjoy finding solutions to difficult problems and we want the client to be as enthusiastic about the design as we are. But, with tight deadlines and tight budgets, achieving this within the hours we are paid to be at work can be a challenge.

Even when we leave the office, we are still checking emails or reading Teams messages on our phones. We are always connected and technology that is intended to help us communicate better seems to make us more unreasonable.

We send a demanding email, expect a reply instantly and we are frustrated when our colleagues are not available online. When we are sent site queries (which contractually we usually have five days to reply to) we are expected to find a solution quickly. If we don’t, we’re seen as delaying progress on site.

Maybe the answer is that we need to be better at saying no. We need to be clearer about the time that we need to get something done and we need to stick to it.

It is actually a requirement of the CDM regulations that a suitable amount of time should be allocated to each design stage, and while we sometimes push back against unreasonable programmes, we often carry on if it is what the client wants.

If we are always rushing to get things out of the door, then we are choosing quantity over quality and we are inevitably going to make mistakes that cause more delays in the long run.

If we were all a bit more disciplined with ourselves and stuck more closely to the hours we are supposed to work, would we actually be more productive in the long run? It is so easy to convince ourselves that we are busy when really we are distracted thinking about our holiday, or the football, or cat gifs.

Maybe we are sitting at our desks for nine hours but only actually doing seven hours of work.

And, if we are going to give ourselves a bit more free time, how about a four-day working week? The first large-scale trial of this has just started in the UK.

More than 3,000 workers from a variety of different jobs will be working four days instead of five over a six-month period, for full pay and aiming to maintain “100% productivity”.

Sounds great – an extra day of weekend to go cycling or finally get around to watching Stranger Things. But how long would it be before you turned on your computer on your day off to finish off that report or send that email you forgot about?

Improving our work-life balance has to be a change that we make for ourselves. In 20 years’ time I doubt you will remember that email that you were supposed to have sent, but you will remember watching an amazing play or your child winning a trampolining competition.

So, if it’s 5pm and you are reading this, please stop procrastinating. Turn off your computer and go and make the most of your evening!

This article was originally published in Building Design.