A culture of overwork

The technology industry has a problem. Okay, we have a lot of problems, but there’s one in particular that I’m talking about today. We have a culture of overwork and it’s bad for everyone.

As someone who is remarkably lazy, I have a keen interest in doing as little as possible. Of course, this tends to be more of the Sisyphean “automate all of the things” as opposed to just slacking off, but the point stands. Labor productivity in the United States has grown fairly steadily over the last few decades, so why don’t we see that reflected in the tech sector? (I can think of a few reasons offhand, but I don’t want to lose focus.)

My company has what I would consider a very healthy policy. Our vacation policy is effectively “take all the time you need,” and we have a minimum annual amount in case people don’t recognize that they need to take time. It’s in the best interests of company and employee alike that everyone is rested and focused. Exceptional times require late nights or weekends, but those are understood to be the exception.

But even in well-meaning organizations, particularly startups and small companies, it’s easy to let overwork culture creep in. Sometimes getting a release out on schedule means a lot of late nights for developers. Or a production outage for a customer means your support team loses their weekend. Even an offhand comment like “well look at Alice with the quick reply on a Saturday” can slowly lead to an unspoken social expectation that it’s always time to work.

For my team, I’ve always made it clear that I don’t expect anyone to be working outside of our business hours unless they get paged. In order to lead by example, I don’t have my email auto-sync to my phone, and I don’t check Slack when I’m not working. My team knows how to reach me in an emergency and I trust them to judge what an emergency is. Of course, the first week my most recent hire joined, I emphasized this to him and then ended up spending most of the weekend working. It was clearly and exception, but someone new to the company may question if that’s the unwritten reality.

Which brings me to the written reality in some places. A recent opinion piece by Alex St. John said, in effect, game developers should work 80 hour weeks and like it. Tech Twitter and many publications were immediately critical of St. John’s philosophy, but the fact that he could even get such an article published means it’s more of a problem than it should be.

I could never work in the kind of environment St. John advocates. Nor could many others for very long (and this is without considering his views on women in tech). I suspect even Mr. St. John would hate working for himself. I find the “just quit” reply to any complaints about a job to be incredibly myopic. That most people have practical considerations beyond the purity of an artist’s idealized life seems to have escaped him.

As an industry, we should be celebrating the incredible gains in productivity that we help make happen by shortening the work week, not lengthening it.

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