The Workaholic Quandry
I thought I’d post on this yesterday when I first saw it – I actually started with the response from 37signals but let’s start at the source, a posting by Jason Calacanis on his blog, calacanis.com about “How to save money running a startup.”
Among those tips was this, which sparked the debate:
Fire people who are not workaholics…. come on folks, this is startup life, it’s not a game. go work at the post office or stabucks if you want balance in your life. For realz.
Well then. Jump below the fold to see more takes on this...
David at 37signals responded as such:
Here’s another take on that: Fire the people who are workaholics!
He then listed several good reasons why working with workaholics is not conducive to good productivity or creativity, among them:
…despite their claims, working like that all month, all the time is not going to be sustainable. When the burnout crash comes, and it will, it’ll hit all the harder and according to Murphy at the least convenient time...
People who are workaholics are likely to attempt to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at the problem. If you’re dealing with people working with anything creatively that’s a deadbeat way to get great work done.
People who always work late makes the people who don’t feel inadequate for merely working reasonable hours.
Working with interesting people is more interesting than just working. If all you got going for your life is work, work, work, the good team-gelling lunches are going to be some pretty boring straight shop talk. Yawn. I’d much rather hear more about your whittling project, your last trek, how your garden is doing, or when you’ll get your flight certificate.
Calacanis amended his original post, changing it from “workaholics” to “people who love their job” and point well-taken. But several others have chimed in, including the always sage Mitch Joel and via him, a posting on Jackson Fish, which had some more gems:
Clearly being flexible with your employees and making sure they have time to have a life makes sense. Clearly not hiring slackers or people who don’t love their job makes sense as well (though I would ask Calacanis, why does he write it as “fire” as opposed to “not hire in the first place” — but that’s another post). But I have noticed (in an ad-hoc fashion) that the companies that talk about scaling back from “seven days a week to six” are often funded by angel and VC money. And the companies that have a more liberal attitude about time spent at work are not part of that funding model.
My take is this: VC money comes with a countdown. At a certain point the fund ends. At a certain point the investors need to see return. At a certain point there’s a deadline for progress past which it’s no longer worth it to spend any more time or money on a particular startup. When you start a company with an hourglass, it’s no wonder startup CEOs feel the need to work six and seven days a week. The’re battling the clock. “It’s in the DNA” as Umair Haque would say.
I don’t know about other folks trying to create businesses, but I am under no illusion that I have any predictive power in terms of when we’ll reach certain revenue milestones. I can guess. I can make educated guesses. I can even make spreadsheets and presentations that look like I really know what the fuck I’m talking about. But I don’t. And I believe nobody else does either. When you’re starting a new business, there’s simply no way to know. You can guess, but I’m not sure what that gets you other than a false sense of comfort.
Like anyone who has worked in the business world for any amount of time, I’ve worked with plenty of folks who not only were workaholics, but would proudly describe themselves that way. There is a distinctly American badge of honor to wear when it comes to talking about how hard one is working – in business school, it was how much studying we were doing, and in our internships, how little sleep we got. It gets old really quickly, and for me, part of growing up was realizing when I was the most efficient. Frankly, long after 6:00 PM (which by the way is about a 9 ½ work day since I eat at my desk probably four days a week), I stop being productive. Some people work better late at night, some early in the morning and many of them work just fine in the 9-5 time zone. None of them are any better or worse than each other, and what I love about my current employer is that – like all smart companies – we let people work around the schedule that works best for them. There are days I leave and my car is the only one in the parking lot; other days, I leave at 4:00 and no one bats an eye, because it’s all about getting your work done. Employers who don’t realize this, who place a premium on seeing you at your desk from a certain time in the morning to the afternoon regardless of what else is going on, are living in the past. Or, at the least, they are employers I don’t want to work for.
It should be said that the discussion centered around a start-up mentality, and obviously there is a difference in that scenario – but, at the end of the day, not much. You need employees (and bosses) who are passionate about what they are doing, and a business model that doesn’t require anyone to be working hours that would jeopardize their non-work life. If you can’t combine those two, the problem is with the business model, not the folks trying to implement it.