I was stumped for a while on how to approach this piece. This is something we knew we needed to write, but the work culture space has so many experts. For the non-architectural reader- Architecture – while having the potential for being a very rewarding profession, loses a lot of talent due to its relative low pay, long hours, unpaid overtime and negative work cultures that aren’t supportive of part time work or the parenting juggle. If you’re interested, you can read some great work on this by following the links at the end of this article.
^^ Hanging out drinking wine while the team works super hard *just jokes* ^^
After nearly a decade in the job, I found myself burnt out professionally and personally. Beginning Maytree was really a last-ditch effort to carve out a space where I could be creative, free of the accountability to timesheets and most importantly, create a kind place for myself to live & work. It was a very privileged thing to be able to do – I was freshly single and had few overheads! The business name – Maytree Studios – was a metaphor for a protective, kind and creative space. I envisioned something big enough to support me, and everyone else who came within the fold of the business. (Serendipitously, I learned later that Maitri (said May-Tree) means loving kindness in Sanskrit).
Serendipitously, I learned later that Maitri (said May-Tree) means loving kindness in Sanskrit.
Humans First, Architects Second
From this initial beginning, Maytree has continued to grow. We’ve had our ups and downs, bruises and lessons. People have gone, some have come back again, but at all times, we’ve sought to create a humans-first approach to the business decisions we make.
We see what we do as a series of rings:
The first ring includes our team. Our projects come from the brains of the people who work here, so it makes a lot of sense that we look after those brains!
The second ring is our clients – supporting & protecting their interests and goals and their wellbeing through the process.
The third ring is our builders, subcontractors & suppliers – treating them with respect and creating a collaborative relationship where our mutual goals are met.
The fourth is our community – creating buildings that last, that give back and are better places to live.
Architects are a funny bunch. We are creative, but a whole heap of our job is right brain stuff – contracts, project management, finance etc. While we love colours and talking about how we feel in a space, we are also terribly logical. Often, it has gone against the grain for me to use soft terminology, like kindness or, compassion – when talking about the business of architecture. But as I’ve become comfortable with the term, I’ve realised that kindness influences not just our culture, but also the practice of making buildings. It most certainly is our bottom line – profit is great, it just won’t ever come at the cost of our people or our clients.
I’ve realised that kindness influences not just our culture, but also the practice of making buildings. It most certainly is our bottom line – profit is great, it just won’t ever come at the cost of our people or our clients.
How this works in Practice
We thought we’d step you through a few things that make a huge difference for our team & our clients in practical terms.
Say thank you
As an employer, I’ve never taken it for granted that talented, awesome people choose to show up and work in my business every day. Saying thank you has been the most effective and cheapest thing I’ve ever done in my working life. People don’t stay working with me for the pay checks, office coffee and witty jokes. They stay because they are valued and they are told they are valued. At Maytree we’ve built a culture of regularly thanking one another for things – from doing the dishes, to nailing a presentation.
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems” (James Clear, Atomic Habits)
This is a big one. And probably deserves its own blog. But architectural practice has a horrific track record for low pay (relative to the qualification) and long unpaid hours. Unpaid overtime is the biggest culture killer.
The challenge in architecture is that every project has so many variables. A common misconception in our industry is that you can’t take these varied projects and systemise your business to manage timeframes, resources & money well. I believed – as I had been taught – that while everyone else was systemising their businesses in order make more money or run their businesses more smoothly, architecture could not fit that model.
Thankfully, I let go of this notion, and with a drive to make architecture more accessible through language and process, I accidentally started building processes around each stage of design. My only goal was supporting our clients more meaningfully through every stage of the project, but the outcome was that we broke our process down into smaller parts; we created simple checklists for each stage; we worked out how to talk to our clients about what to expect; and we created detailed programs for the 9, 12 or 18 months that they would be working with us.
The outcome of all of this has been to create an increasingly clear process that frees us up to spend our time where we bring the most value – in design. And because we have a firm program we have committed to with our clients, we avoid many of the pitfalls of poor practice management. We complete our presentations days, if not a week, before they’re due. No-one is at work till 2am for something unforeseen. Every client and project – no matter the size or complexity – steps through the same 9 steps, not to flatten creativity, but to support it and to better support our team who have a clear set of expectations about what to do and when.
People before projects
Along the same vein, we always remind ourselves at Maytree that the pressures we have are of our own making. Only we can control the levers to decrease stress. When a project deadline begins to take a toll on a team member, we pull ourselves up and say ‘what do we need to do here to make this sustainable’. Sure, it’s not optimum to delay a project, but our clients don’t get a great outcome from a sick, tired or stretched team who are giving out of empty. The culture of working to burn out is huge in architecture and starts in university. It’s considered a rite of passage – finishing design presentations after 3 days with 6 hours sleep and then breaking down right after folio submission. But this doesn’t make for great, sustainable teams. If it’s not working, your project parameters have to shift, not the boundaries & wellbeing of your team.
In the same way, our clients’ needs trump ‘the project’ as well. We’ve had clients pause projects for financial or personal reasons. We don’t make this hard, we recognise this architectural project sits among a gazillion other priorities and while we’d love to think we’re number 1 (we are though, right?!), maybe this time, their project has to slide.
Work to one another’s strengths
We are suckers for a personality test. And we love pointing out (and praising) the great things about each other (with some teasing about our weaknesses!). We all bring something different to the table and being able to identify and value one another’s strengths means more effective communication and teamwork. I’m really great at the start of a project – I love big thinking and the conversations that get the project rolling. Andy is awesome at giving that some substance, of finding ways to deliver the vision and making sure things are compliant. We each bring our strengths and weaknesses to the studio each day. Being part of a team means it doesn’t all rest with me to get it right. And understanding this also means we don’t resent each other when gaps are pointed out and solutions are offered. I guess this one is about stripping the Ego out of the design process and all being onboard towards achieving a common goal.
I love this one. We always joke about how uncomfortable the word ‘boss’ makes me. We have a rule in the office – don’t ask for time off, inform me you’re taking it. This comes back to treating people with respect & trust. Respect that they’re a professional and understand their own work commitments. And trust that they’re not trying to screw you over. People who have autonomy and freedom are happier people. No one wants to work in an environment where they have no control. Life happens. Our kids get sick, our nbn breaks down, we just need a slow morning to reboot. A good work culture allows for people to determine their own timeframes and we’ve seen that the pay back is enormous in productivity, retention and wellbeing.
Give people something to believe in
This may not be true for everyone, but I think most of us want to know we are part of something that is making a difference in the world. And sure, for a while, designing nice buildings is enough. But if people don’t believe in you, or what you are doing, the work is going to eventually feel out of alignment with their values or deeper drivers. What is your mission? Why do you exist? It isn’t to make sure the inner city has more overpriced real estate. For us, we have a clear sense of what we are about – making architecture within reach. Right now, that means language, process and transparency to improve the everyday persons’ appreciation for what an architect can bring to a project. In time, we aim to use our profit to do meaningful work in the community – supporting families and organisations who otherwise wouldn’t use an architect and working to foster startup creative businesses.
It goes without saying really, the benefits to your business are HUGE!
- Because your team stick around, your clients start and finish their job with the same people
- Long standing relationships with consultants and builders are built, which pays off in the execution of well-built buildings
- Everyone is able to engage in building the business they want to be a part of and is actively involved in improving how it works
- There are no Sunday blues – going to work is enjoyable and energising
By fostering a workplace culture where everyone gets a say, we are constantly improving as individuals through learning and teaching one another. Transparency and openness come pretty naturally to me (you might have guessed!), but even if this isn’t your strength, you can have the most amazing team in your corner just by sharing your struggles and your triumphs with them. Let them in on your goal setting, your turnover projections, your fears. This lets them know they matter, that you value their opinion and advice and gives them opportunity to engage in the business and drive its success.