A recent spate of articles about working conditions for programmers and developers in technology companies is leading to a larger question: How hard should you work?
The initial Times article happened to be about Amazon, but others were quick to point out that Amazon wasn’t all that different from other technology companies.
“In the halls of the most successful technology companies, like many law firms, financial institutions and medical offices, a fanatical work pace is often prized and even mythologized: The all-night hackathons that helped build up Facebook; Steve Jobs pushing Apple employees to do the impossible and sometimes calling them back mid-vacation to get it done; Google building laundry services and gyms to keep employees on campus longer,” writes Seth Fiegerman in Mashable, in a piece entitled, “Can you work at an Amazon, Uber or Google and have a life?” “But Amazon’s emphasis on work almost to the exclusion of life is not fundamentally different than the other technology giants.”
At the same time, technology companies also offer among the highest salaries and best benefits, and compete fiercely with each other for the best employees. Yet critics point out that even the generous benefits reinforce the image that people are supposed to be working constantly.
“Silicon Valley in particular tends to promote a work-all-the-time ethic—an attitude it signals with on-campus dining, gyms, and laundry services, all of which telegraph the message that you never need to go home: it’s all taken care of,” writes Julia Greenberg in Wired.
Still, such benefits are being offered, and are sometimes more prevalent in technology than in other fields. During the same week that the Amazon article came out, Netflix announced that it was greatly expanding its parental leave program to a full year. Several other companies, such as Microsoft, Adobe, also expanded their parental leave programs.
While admitting that corporate culture could, in practice, make such leaves difficult to take—“If Marissa Mayer famously only took two weeks off for maternity leave, how would it look if you took 20, much less an entire year?” writes Nitasha Tiku in Buzzfeed—at least they’re being offered, she points out.
But there’s more to benefits and work-life balance than just being able to attract the best employees, writes Dustin Moskovitz, an entrepreneur who, among other things, co-founded Facebook: It gets you the best work out of the employees as well.
“Many people believe that weekends and the 40-hour workweek are some sort of great compromise between capitalism and hedonism, but that’s not historically accurate,” Moskovitz writes. “You could actually get more output out of people by having them work fewer days and fewer hours. The research is clear: Beyond ~40–50 hours per week, the marginal returns from additional work decrease rapidly and quickly become negative.”
In an industry, and an era, where innovation is more critical than ever, it’s important to recognize the value of your people, and give them time and space to come up with ideas. Indeed, many experts say the best way to come up with better ideas is to lean back, not lean in, and make sure that people have large blocks of time—away from the office—where they can think about things.
For employees working 60 hours and more a week, how much of it is actually productive time? It may well be that they’re spending their time on email or busywork, which could be automated or reduced if they actually had time to stop and think about it. Or perhaps, knowing the value of the butt-in-chair metric, they’re in the office but finding other things to do with their time?
Finally, the least productive employee is going to be one who’s no longer there because he’s found greener pastures elsewhere or gotten burned out. While it’s true that the high-powered companies attract job applicants because of their cachet, it’s reported that employee retention is often pretty short. How much innovation and institutional memory are those companies losing in their emphasis on work time?
Chances are, you wouldn’t run a machine nonstop and expect it to keep performing at a high level. People are the most important resource a company has. Shouldn’t they deserve the same consideration?
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