Tips for Time Management

Rena Klein , 26 August 2019

Running a practice can be unrelenting, changeable and extremely demanding. How do you manage your time in such an unpredictable environment? Rena M. Klein offers some tips.

At BB Architects, the principal usually works 60 to 70 hours a week. Often, he is in his office until eight or nine o’clock at night, regularly works on weekends and takes work with him when he does go home. He would like to spend more time doing other things, but the demands of his six-person practice seem to make that nearly impossible.

For example, last week one of the project architects was sick, and there was no one else but the principal to do her work. At the same time, besides the usual workload, a great job opportunity came up that required a quick proposal be written. This week, a job in construction is demanding immediate attention, the bookkeeper quit, and a major deadline looms.

The principal likes his work and is stimulated by the pressure and variety, but feels vaguely like he is on a treadmill, never advancing, perhaps falling a little more behind each day. In addition, he’s just tired, and wonders how long he can go on this way. Sound familiar? Many principals in small practice will describe their work life in this way. The work is unrelenting, changeable, and demanding. Given this unpredictable environment, how can practice leaders effectively manage their own time and the time of their staff? The following are practical suggestions for improving time management:

Minimise Unexpected Interruptions

Institute a practice-wide ‘quiet time’ – two to four hours each day when professional staff members do not answer the phone, respond to email, or interrupt one another. Occasionally there will be a critical call expected, and there will be other exceptions to the rule. However, most of the time calls can be handled by a voice mail system and email responses can wait an hour or two. Quiet time will allow concentration and creativity without the usual distractions. After an interruption it takes most people two to five minutes to get back to where they were before the interruption. For many practices, and practice leaders, introducing quiet time can add considerably to billable hours in a given week. To make quiet effective for practice leaders, it must be coupled with ‘daily rounds’ in which the principal touches base with each employee. If staff members are assured that routine contact with the principal will happen, there will be fewer unexpected interruptions.

Question Unconditional Availability to Clients

Architects are rarely ‘emergency architects on-call’, yet many act as if unconditional availability to clients is required. Saying ‘how high’ when a client says jump may be sending the wrong message. Establish respect and assert equality by setting boundaries on availability. Take a breath and pause before making verbal commitments about schedules to a client. It’s okay to say, “I need to check my schedule and get back to you” or “My lead time right now is about three weeks (months) before I can begin a new project. Can I put you on the schedule?” Consider the match between the workload of the firm and the schedule of the client before accepting a project. Though hard to do, saying no can be an effective time management strategy. It can also be empowering if you say no strategically, not taking outlier projects or troublesome clients.

Expect Client-Driven Delays and Deadlines

Workload fluctuation is a problem that all small firms deal with. Often the change is sudden, with the surprising cancellation of one project or the unexpected start-up of another. This situation often results in overwork or under-work of the existing staff. Firms can prepare for this likelihood by building flexibility into their workforce. For an unanticipated surge in workload, firm leaders should prepare for the possibility of needing to hire temporary workers. Before the help is actually needed, take steps such as: interview potential contract workers; investigate outsourcing of production work; or consider subcontracting work to another small firm in an area of the country where work is slower. These kinds of advance actions will build the staffing flexibility needed by a small firm. Firm leaders would be also be wise to think about what will happen if work slows down. The memory of the Great Recession looms and it is important to heed its lessons. In the big picture, firm leaders must position their firm in their marketplace to be able to weather a downturn. In terms of keeping valuable employees, strategies such as voluntary leave, temporary furlough and a four-day work week may be useful at times.

Examine the Principal’s Tendency to Micro-manage

Some principals have a hard time letting other people do the work that needs to be done. They are constantly looking over the shoulders of their staff, always meddling. Or worse, they make late-in-the-process changes that drive deadline-generated crisis. They seem not to really trust the intelligent and hard-working people they have hired, and a culture of disempowerment often evolves. The most obvious symptom of this is a harried, overworked principal, who always stays late and works weekends. Principals need to be very strategic about what work they do themselves and what they delegate. Principals should only do the work that only they can do. All other work should be delegated, including some of the fun and interesting work.

If a principal thinks, “I can do this faster/better myself”, then a more skilled employee needs to be hired, or more training and coaching must take place. Identify the most routine aspects of your work, the tasks that can be described in a step-by-step list. These are the easiest to delegate and teach even novice staff to do. Then identify tasks, such as filling out certain forms that are the same process each time, but with a variety of customised situations. These you can delegate to emerging contributors that you can trust to think about what they are doing.

Improve Communication, Staff Learning and Empowerment

Part of the previous idea is that in order to delegate, the staff must be trained and be authorised to act on their decisions. Give stretch assignments, if possible, but be there to mentor – ‘sink or swim’ is very inefficient. Institute regular contact (almost every day) with each employee to check in on what they are doing and to mentor and coach. This practice of sharing knowledge broadly and regularly is critical to small practice success.

Use Technology to Help

Synchronise office-wide calendars with individual calendars. The more everybody knows about where everyone else is, the better a firm will operate. Use SLACK, or a similar app, for internal communications, to remove them from email, for internal direct messaging, to remove them from texts, and as a vehicle to share all kinds of knowledge and information. Consider the use of voice memos to record project notes after a client meeting so you can transmit them to the project team and have a permanent record of your thoughts.

Rena M. Klein, FAIA is a nationally recognised expert in small firm practice, having served as executive editor of AIA’s The Architect’s Handbook of Professional Practice, 15th edition (Wiley 2013) and as past-chair of the national Advisory Group for the AIA Practice Management Knowledge Community. As VP of Investment Partnerships Charrette Venture Group, she advises partner firms on all aspects of financial management and operations. With 20 years of experience as the owner of a small architecture firm, and over 10 years as a consultant and educator, Rena brings a special understanding of design firms managed by entrepreneurial architects. She has served as an adjunct professor at various universities teaching professional practice, ethics, project management, and leadership to students of architecture. Rena received her Bachelors in Architecture from the University of Oregon and her Masters in Management and Organisational Development from Antioch University in Seattle. Rena is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This article was originally published by Licensed Architect and the Charrette Venture Group, and was republished here with permission.

Photo: Malte Wingen, Unsplash.