Tech startups love millennials. Tasty, tasty millennials who get underpaid, overworked, churned up and turned into nourishment for venture capitalists. Millennials are the Soylent Green of the tech world – Kyle Smith, New York Post
Dan Lyons has been stirring up trouble for startups. After working nearly two years at Hubspot, Lyons wrote a scathing book, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, about the company and the Silicon Valley startup scene. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Lyons wrote, “It turned out I’d joined a digital sweatshop… Instead of hunching over sewing machines, [employees] stared into laptops or barked into headsets, selling software.” He goes on to criticise how startups treat workers “as if they are widgets to be used up and discarded”.
This is only the latest in a long line of attacks on tech companies pushing their employees too hard. Way back in 1996, the Seattle-Post Intelligencer described Microsoft as “infamous for the workload and demands placed on its programmers”. Just last year, the New York Times published a 6,200-word exposé of Amazon’s work culture, which describes Amazon’s quest to extract the most from its employees by pushing them past their limits.
According to former employee Jason Merkoski
The joke in the office was that when it came to work/life balance, work came first, life came second, and trying to find the balance came last.”
The ‘Office’ Counterargument
In response, countless startups extol their work-life balance and 40-hour work weeks. Treehouse talks extensively about its four-day work week. Keen IO‘s CEO blogs about how the culture of overwork is killing entrepreneurs. Buffer writes about valuing “waking up fresh over working that extra hour”. Not lucky enough to work at one of these startups? Don’t worry, there’s a startup for that too. Doze SF offers sleep pods for hire — $20 for a 25-minute nap in a high-tech sleeping pod in San Francisco — aimed at over-worked entrepreneurs and startup employees.
I’m glad for Dan Lyons and for this discussion. Working hard for the sake of working hard has been glorified far too long. However, I have, to be frank — SocialCops doesn’t fall in with Treehouse, Keen IO, and Buffer. We work hard at SocialCops, and it’s not something we’re ashamed of.
Last I checked, it was 3:07 am. I’ve been working since 11 am yesterday, and I’ll likely be in the office until 6 am when I’ll walk home, fall asleep for a few hours, and come back to do it all over again. I’m not alone. To my left are a couple of people from our data team and one of the co-founders. To my right is one person from our partnerships team and three of our engineers. More people are working from home, visible to everyone as a glowing green dot next to their name on Slack.
I know what you’re thinking— this is just one data point and that too from a notorious workaholic. Yet I’m not alone in working abnormal hours. In a company survey, we learned that SocialCops employees pull an average of 5 all-nighters per month and work about 60 hours per week. Our office is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and someone is usually working in the office at any given time, be it a Sunday afternoon or Friday evening.
When some people first discover this culture, their knee-jerk reaction is to condemn SocialCops as just one more tech startup exploiting its young, gullible employees. But just like Decca Records declaring the Beatles unsellable, their initial reaction isn’t completely right. Here’s why.
Working Smart, Not Just Working Hard
Not everyone works best from 9 am to 5 pm. Some people are natural night owls who greet the setting sun with energy and enthusiasm, giving in to sleep only at 4 or 5 am. Others are early birds who rise with the sun and have completed hours of work before 10 am. President Obama calls himself a “night guy” and works alone until 2 am every night, while President George W. Bush was always in bed by 10 pm.
A standard working schedule just can’t account for this human variance — especially at a company like SocialCops where men and women from three different nationalities, diverse backgrounds, and all ages work under the same roof. Tell everyone to show up at 9 am and the night owls will be sleepwalking for the first few hours of work. Tell everyone to work until 9 pm and the early birds will doze off at their desks. The result, in either case, is grumpy employees and lost productivity.
At SocialCops, we can’t stand traditional working schedules. Instead, we believe in flexible working hours. You can come and go from work at literally any time, and no one will track or question your schedule. What really matters is your output, not your attendance.
Flexible working hours mean that everyone can work when they’re most productive. The result of this — everyone can work when they’re most productive.
One of our co-founders, Varun, usually strolls into work at 2pm or 3pm and heads home in the early morning. Our other co-founder, Prukalpa, usually starts her meetings at 8am or 9am. On our data team, Lilianna loves getting started at 10 am while Sanjib appears at noon sharp every day. Many of our engineers love working through the night when it’s quiet; for example, Deepu often comes to work at 4 pm and leaves around 5 am. Krishna, another engineer, loves working in long continuous stretches — several days straight spent in the office alternating coding and Xbox — followed by a full day at home. In contrast, Sahaj, our graphic designer, gets antsy if he’s in the office more than 9 hours.
These schedules vary depending on each person’s workload. On normal work days, I can roll out of bed without an alarm at 8am. But when I’ve been up working until 6am the night before, I don’t feel obligated to drag myself out of bed at 8am and trudge to work like a zombie. Instead, I’ll sleep until 1 pm and come to the office energized for a new day.
The schedules also vary depending on what each person is up to.
When Richa wants to interact with other teams and check on projects, she’ll come to work during the day. But when she has large presentations to build or chunks of writing to complete, she works at night when it’s quiet.
With the focus on doing awesome work, not watching the clock, everyone can be happier, more alert, and more productive. Sahaj can push away from his desk at 9 pm without feeling like anyone is judging him, while Varun can head home at 4 am without worrying that he’s setting unrealistic expectations for the company.
When The Best Thing For Work Is Not Working
Being productive is not just about the number of hours you work per day. It’s about how effective those hours are. That’s why we hold to a counterintuitive notion — sometimes the best way to boost our productivity is to not work.
In a company where we get urgent, unexpected deadlines, where we have more work than our team could possibly complete, where everyone is pushing themselves to achieve ambitious goals, burnout is a very real possibility.
Burnout comes in many forms. For Patrick (an engineer from the frigid American north), it’s fatigue from Delhi’s miserable summer. For Sahaj, it’s the frustration that comes from working on the same project for months and not seeing the kind of progress he hoped for. Burnout can suck the joy from the work that they were once so passionate about.
If someone has been working hard and doing great work, who cares if they aren’t at work on Tuesday?
When this happens, we know that the best thing for that person is to stop working. After a long day at work, we send Patrick to get a mango milkshake. After consecutive all-nighters, Krishna goes home to sleep for a full day, even if it’s a weekday. After weeks or months pushing for a big release, we tell Sahaj to take a long weekend, escape Delhi, and disconnect from his work.
After a particularly difficult period of work, I went to Sri Lanka for seven days. I monitored Slack somewhat regularly but, unless something urgent came up, people knew not to bother me. It was exactly what I needed. Before the trip, I had felt deeply exhausted. During the day, I felt like I was spinning my wheels, not accomplishing even a tenth of my task list. At night, I slept poorly, dreaming of the challenges I couldn’t solve at work. After the trip, I came back to work with endless energy, excited to tackle what before had seemed like an endless task list.
In short, if someone has been pushing hard and doing great work, who cares if they aren’t at work on Tuesday? If that’s what they need to be happy and productive on Wednesday, so be it.
What Our Work Culture Communicates To Our Team
For kids, the main activity in their lives — school — is regimented and scheduled down to the tee. From 8:15 to 8:25 am is the first period, followed by a 4-minute passing period, then the second period from 8:29 to 9:17, and so on until the end of the school day, with every period triggered by unpleasant alarms and bells. This one-size-fits-all schedule is borne out of necessity; after all, who could trust a kid to set their own schedule? Students have little responsibility or initiative under this system. Their main responsibility is to show up in a given room at a given time.
This pattern breaks in college when students are encouraged to take responsibility for their own learning. Students select their courses, choose when (or if!) to attend each class, and can experiment with how they spend their time between courses. This newfound freedom is meant to communicate that college students are now adults, capable of determining what is best for them and managing their own lives.
Dictating fixed hours shows that we think of our team like kids in school. Letting our team choose their own schedules shows that we see them as adults.
So why, after graduating from college and moving into the workforce, do we revert to child-like regimented schedules — fixed office timings with fixed lunch, break, and meeting schedules? We’re still the same people who in college were given so much freedom and responsibility. And in all other aspects of life, our freedom and responsibility just keep increasing after college. So why do we actually see less personal responsibility for our schedules at work?
We think this is just wrong. By dictating mandatory office hours, companies are communicating that they think of their team like children in school, untrustworthy and irresponsible. On the other hand, by letting our team choose their own schedules, we’re showing that we view them as adults — we trust them to do what is best for them and the company.
Some Last Thoughts
There is a larger point to be made about this debate around workplace culture and work-life balance. At SocialCops, we are pioneering a whole new industry — data intelligence. Our goal is to empower decision makers in all fields to make better decisions through data. We work with government ministers, business leaders, philanthropies, and citizens on the ground to help tackle some of the hardest challenges you can think of — from ensuring adequate sanitation and enhancing agricultural productivity to eradicating maternal mortality. How do you build a company like this with a 9-to-5 mindset?
Admittedly, we are still grappling with the side effects of the work we do. The sheer complexity of our work means we cannot predict and plan every work day. Urgent, last-minute requests from our partners lead to many unavoidable all-nighters than we’d like. Even though we’re growing quickly, pending job openings mean that each person still has too much work on their plate. But when we see a minister or an IAS officer staying in their office late at night to spend time with us, we know we have to keep up. That’s what keeps us going well beyond conventional office timings.
So no, we don’t regret the choice we’ve made to work hard. As long as we are working smart and taking time off when we need it, we will do just fine. It might look crazy to outsiders that our office is bustling at 3 AM, but we think it’s pretty awesome.
[This post was first published on SocialCops and has been reproduced with permission.]