Re-examining work-life balance in practice has been looked at in a new light since the pandemic. Remote and hybrid working suddenly became the norm during lockdown, and the technologies that allowed it all to happen had arrived on cue.
But for most people, rebalancing their work and family commitments still means seeking a little flexibility within the traditional model of the nine-to-five working week.
Clare Nash, who has written a book on work/life balance for architects – Design your life: An architect's guide to achieving a work/life balance – decided that she had no option but to rip up the rulebook and invent her own practice model.
What did Clare do to turn her working life around?
Clare's radical rethinking of her work life started when she established Clare Nash Architecture from her rural home near Banbury in the south-east of England.
It was formed on the basis that all staff would work remotely – years before hybrid working was fashionable – with no office and semi-autonomous employees who had their own needs for flexible employment.
Clare’s approach might not be for everyone, but it does offer food for thought. And on her journey, she cheerfully inverted the logic that would normally be applied to practice problem-solving.
Working hard but not earning enough in the early days, she decided to double her fees overnight rather than take on more work and discovered she did not lose clients. If anything she attracted more.
Additionally, Clare identified the less-strong areas in her skill set (like accounting or spending time answering the phone). But rather than addressing them she simply decided to outsource, getting someone else to do everything she did not enjoy and decided instead to play to her strengths.
And why pay rent for an office that you might only be in twice a week? Her team all manage their own time but meet up once a week for a mandatory meeting in a café.
What is the scarcity mindset?
Clare set up on her own during the recession in 2011 while previously employed.
“I was a bit fed up about feeling guilty when I left the office on time,” she remembers. “I felt that I was more effective by having a longer break than people who were in the office at eight o’clock at night, and that was proven because I would meet all my deadlines and I was generally seen as being an efficient person.”
She decided to prioritise her mental and physical health over the demands of work, even though she was setting up her own practice in a recession. This was after an initial period of taking on too much work to cope with burning out and taking the brave decision to double her fees.
“It was hard to lose that ‘scarcity mindset’, which can lead to a downward spiral,” she says. “It drives you to take on work that you know you shouldn’t, and which you wouldn’t take on if you were confident.”
The ‘scarcity mindset’ is a belief that one has limited resources or is unable to provide for themselves or others.
What can architects do?
When it came to starting her own practice, Clare was a reluctant employer. She knew she had to take someone on, but was unsure how good she would be at managing people and did not want to commit to a full time salary for someone. So, the practice built up gradually with part time employees who had other jobs or commitments and would work remotely, and the office-free practice model evolved.
"It means that everybody who works for me has a lot of autonomy over their time,” she explains. “It’s like being a freelancer without the risk of being a freelancer – you’ve got steady work and there’s a lot of trust.”
“I couldn’t stand to be a micromanager type of person. I like working with people, but I don't like being in charge of other people’s time and being a people manager. So, we’re a team, but obviously, I’m the final decision maker.”
Clare’s book has chapters for students and employees, but most of the work-life advice is aimed at people setting up or running their own small practices. One of the main themes is delegation and outsourcing.
“There are many things that architects think they have to do all by themselves, just like other small business owners. But if you are not good at it, get someone else to do it,” she suggests.
“My financial director is virtual. I even have a virtual receptionist who answers the phone, because obviously, we do not have an office. My virtual assistant calls people back or sends them a form, and only after that do I meet them or have a conversion if [potential project] criteria are met. It saves a huge amount of time and costs very little.”
At the end of the day, Clare’s philosophy about winning work and being brave enough to charge satisfactory fees is not about the hours, but developing confidence in your own worth and what you stand for and the kind of architect you want to be.
“If you can approach a project with passion and demonstrate to a client that you care more than the other architect, they will be more interested in employing you,” she concludes.
Thanks to Clare Nash, founding director, Clare Nash Architecture.
Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.
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