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A fine balance
Pt 1

Long hours, tight deadlines, complex projects – how is there time for anything else?

Work-life balance is one of the biggest challenges graduates Raymond Wu and Amy He have found in their burgeoning design careers.

In this two-part series, Amy and Raymond ask some of their more experienced colleagues about how they juggle work with life.

Matthew Todd, Principal

For our first interview we spoke with Principal Matt Todd, drawing on his 30 years of experience in the field. Matt has a holistic view of work-life balance and shared his strategies with juggling multiple responsibilities and managing stress – especially during deadlines.

  • What does a typical day in your work week look like?

Apart from an essential coffee (I’m no morning person) my day usually starts with an overview. My commute is about 45-minutes door to door, and I try and keep that time clear of distractions. Then I’ll always scan across the different communication channels. As Principal across multiple projects it’s essential to have an overview on what’s hot.

Across a full day, I’m usually in a series of external and internal meetings, workshops and interviews alongside project work. Each day can vary dramatically. Non-architects, or often people looking to study architecture, assume you’re just designing all day, but it’s probably only about 5% of the time. It’s a really important 5%, but in my role the rest of the time is about managing people, checking that everyone’s okay, and ensuring there’s a good team energy. I really enjoy one-on-one discussions – especially about design, but also mentoring.

Sometimes I might get lucky, and I can block out half a day to just design and draw, which is most often a Friday. It’s a good lead into the weekend but it can also be highly productive. These days it seems to be a ‘front-loaded’ week with meetings and then it tapers off.

Sydney Studio

  • When you have a deadline, how do you manage your workload and stress and prioritise your general wellbeing?

Because we live on deadlines in architecture, it’s about actively managing your time blocks throughout the day and prioritising. It’s also about being efficient and using all the technology and tools at your disposal. Collaboration is at the heart of design, so you’ve got a team to share the load – a problem shared is a problem halved!

Constant communication with my colleagues is very important in managing my wellbeing and avoiding stress. Potential issues can be resolved quickly through these discussions, or you find you’ve been stressed about something that is not an issue at all. You quickly realise you have the support of the whole team.

Sometimes stress is unavoidable. To decompress during a stressful period; my ‘go-to’ is to take a walk in a garden or The Domain, as I find nature restorative. It helps me process my thoughts and de-stress so I can finish the day with a healthier mindset.

One thing I place boundaries around is weekend work. Whenever possible I preference longer days over weekend work because I prefer a clear separation for family time, ‘life admin’ or even a bit of time for myself.

The Domain, Sydney

  • As a person who has accumulated a lot of experience over their career, is there any advice you would give your younger self about balancing work with other commitments?

I think I’m now doing more of what I should have done earlier in my career, which is that old cliché about ‘not sweating the small stuff.’ You shouldn’t worry about things that are out of your control.

Back then I was always ‘pushing the envelope’ to the maximum degree, but that can come at the expense of your mental and physical health.

Something I did for years was to strive for perfection. I’ve realised that it’s important to be realistic. You should still ‘shoot for the stars’, but in some cases that’s not necessary. You can still do excellent, amazing things without every single element being perfect.

How has work culture, and perceptions of work-life balance changed since you started, if at all? Do you think it has improved, in terms of having a more holistic balance?

The definition of ‘balance’ depends a lot on the individual, but I think it’s influenced by the practice expectations and ambition alongside your own expectations and ambition.

I think all creative professions, but particularly architectural design, are inherently time-consuming. It’s often labor intensive, which is why any automation technology should be your friend. Certainly my 30 years of experience has taught me good architecture takes time, but I’ve seen design and construction time scales getting progressively shorter. This puts the pressure back onto the team and the individuals to do more – and quickly – if they want to maintain any work/life balance. This is at absolute odds with creating amazing architecture, which demands time and reflection.

I think what’s encouraging to see in contemporary practice – compared with 18 and 16 years ago when I had my kids – is appropriate and generous parental leave and flexible work policies. At the time, I certainly didn’t get four months off as a secondary caregiver!

Thanks to Matt for his time and his insights. Check out Part 2 of our series, when Associate Arun Agranat offers helpful tips on navigating a typical workday.