Respect and the 40-hour work week

A post on Hacker News this week caught my eye, lamenting the loss of the 40-hour work week. In particular, the plight of information workers was highlighted as one of the few remaining industries that regularly asks its workers to work more than 40 hours.

Here at Headspring, we have a strict policy on not working 40 hour weeks. In our view, working more than 40 hours is a failure. It’s a failure in planning, it’s a failure in expectations management, and it’s a failure in communication. It’s a failure because we know that productivity decreases after 40 hours, and since we’re in the business of billing by the hour, we’re not going to bill 50 mediocre hours over 40 quality hours.

I have worked more than 40 hours in a week a few times in my nearly 5 years with Headspring, but these were all under extreme/extenuating circumstances. For example, I work on a project that supports over 10 million users. Although we’ve drastically improved deployments, at one time, a deployment could take hours. That was a failure on me to fully automate the deployment, but until it was done, I had to just suck it up. I failed to adequately optimize the deployment process, and I paid the price.

I rectified that, of course, and I can count on one hand the number of times in the past 5 years I’ve worked more than 40 hours on one hand.

All the senior leadership at my company have families, so it’s something that’s important to everyone. We even go so far as to not have individual bonuses for hours billed, something that encourages unhealthy behavior. We’re rewarded when the company does well, not when one individual decides to “help” a client out by working insane hours.

Darker times

I didn’t always work at a place that respected my time. Back when I was on a product team, we were on a death march. Sixty hour work weeks, doing weekends and so on for months.

The whole time, the sheer inanity of what was asked was apparent to all except management, who did not respect our time. They said “We were behind” when in reality, what was asked to be delivered was beyond our capacity to do. Quality of work suffered, and we thought we actually lost time because we were much less efficient during those 60 hours than we were in the 40. We were tired, mentally exhausted, cranky, and resentful.

After that, I vowed I would never work in a company that believed a death march was an acceptable mode of working. It’s not, it’s disrespectful to employees and is an absolute failure in management.

The real answer was to cut scope, not increase hours of course, but I was too early in my career to realize that I could stand up and say “no”, and offer an alternative that actually would work.

Respecting your time

Outside of one-time, special occasions (that 1-time database migration that only happens once every couple of years) that odd hours are needed, requiring long hours are just a sign of your employer not respecting you or your time. Companies that say things like “work hard, play hard” really just mean they install a foosball table at the office so that you’ll stay 12 hours a day.

I vowed never to work at a company that doesn’t respect me. If it’s a choice between taking a 20% pay cut for a 40 hour week over a 60 hour week, my time is much more valuable than that difference in salary.

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About Jimmy Bogard

I'm a technical architect with Headspring in Austin, TX. I focus on DDD, distributed systems, and any other acronym-centric design/architecture/methodology. I created AutoMapper and am a co-author of the ASP.NET MVC in Action books.
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  • mxmissile

    I applaud Headspring for taking this stance.

  • halcharger

    I am so with you on this one. What really gets my goat is the negative perception you get when you ask a potential employer in a job interview what their working culture is like, essentially you’re trying to ask in a diplomatic fashion whether or not they have a culture of working long hours. It irks me when they give you the standard “we work hard and we play hard” line and then write you off as someone who’s looking to clock in at 9 and clock out at 5, but as you say, those are the companies you want to steer clear of.

    • Nathan Alden

      Those types of companies are like ones in downtown Austin that hire mostly college grads who have no personal lives and no families and practically live at work. Family man? You won’t fit in here. O_O

  • jdhardy

    Conflating “working hard” with “working long hours” is a pet peeve of mine. 8 hours of deep work are a lot more valuable than 12 hours of interrupted work.

    Another one is assuming that the time in the office is the only time that counts as work. For me, that’s when I type stuff into the computer; the actual work is done on the walk to work, when I can really think about how to solve a problem.

    The key is not to succumb to peer pressure, and to decide for yourself what’s important in life.

    • Tudor

      The problem is not when a developer decides by himself to stay longer for whatever reason – the problem is when, after working for 8 hours in a day, the boss suddenly asks him to stay another 5 hours in the evening because the client suddenly decided that he wants a release earlier in the morning.

      Sure, the developer can say no, but in many countries that’s just an easy path to unemployment – the client wishes usually have priority over one developer form 500 others in a company, that a manager thinks can be easily replaced ..

      • jbogard

        There’s always extenuating circumstances. I make a distinction between long hours one day, versus more hours the rest of the week.

        Any time I’ve had to put in long hours one day, I got additional time off later in the week. If you’re still expected to put in full days the rest of the week (and onwards), that’s a sign of disrespect.

        • Nathan Alden

          A lot of times, the extenuating circumstances aren’t extenuating; you’ll simply get fired for disobeying.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/leriksen71 Lynn Eriksen

    This is awesome! Where can I apply?

  • http://www.facebook.com/cribas Carlos Ribas

    So, why is 40 the magic number?

    • http://twitter.com/mlapasa Mark Lapasa

      40 is the magic number because you work each working day 8hrs (excluding weekends) which is 1/3 of your day. You spend 1/3 of your day sleeping and 1/3 of your day not working. I agree with the sentiments of this article in that often the expectations of workers are so high that workers sacrifice some or all of the 2/3 down time so that they can work more. However there are mental, social, and physical health ramifications of working more than 8 hours a day for prolonged periods of time (in the order of years).

  • Daniel Marbach

    Hy jimmy
    As always nice post! That’s a value of scrum. I try very hard to respect that but there are times when it doesn’t work. For example this month I have 5 presentations and workshops to give but I’m still working in the project. Itryto reduce the time I’m working in the project but if my availability falls below 50% it is very hard to stay a valuable member of the team. But representing your company outside is also important. So during these times the workload cnpan explode. Where to draw a line is pretty difficult in such situations….
    Daniel

  • Chris Bristol

    I think you’ve alluded to this pretty strongly, but just to add my two cents…

    Where I work, we are completely in charge of estimates for tasks. I feel that when I am given the time to analyze a task, and say I expect a task to take roughly a certain amount of time, the responsibility is mine to make sure that I am meeting that deadline.

    It’s a completely different situation when a client can’t make up their mind about features and management expects you to “just get it done” or you provide estimates and management says “Well, we think it should take half that long, so that is how long you get.” That is indeed disrespectful.

  • JustinBMichaels

    I wish I lived in or near Austin, Tx because Headspring sounds awesome and have had nothing but good experiences with the individuals that worked for the company. My resume would be on Jeffrey’s desk like yesterday haha. It’s refreshing to hear a consulting company like Headspring actually advocates a 40 hour week.

    I’ve been on a 12 hour a day for 3 months straight project before because of a launch date decided by then CEO without mentioning or receiving a single estimate from the development team. I felt trapped after about a month and didn’t want to leave my other co-workers out to dry by leaving halfway through. So within like 2 weeks of finishing the project I had interviewed and accepted a position with another company. I still cringe when my former co-workers, who have now moved on from the company, and I get together for the occasional beer and discuss that project.

  • http://www.facebook.com/cribas Carlos Ribas

    I think this issue would likely self-correct if developers were non-exempt employees instead of salaried ones. It’s all about money. Time is money unless someone is salaried. If more hours meant more expense (and especially if the expense increased non-linearly), companies would magically get better at planning.

    • Nathan Alden

      Yep. It’s all about visibility into the cost. It’s easy to say to your dev staff, “Meh, put in more hours and get it done!” It’s easy and gives the illusion of control. Problem is, it doesn’t work much of the time! If suddenly the cash drawer had to open to get the devs to stay later… well then suddenly the true cost is more easily discovered.

      • http://www.facebook.com/cribas Carlos Ribas

        Some of this is a trust issue, too. Non-technical business folk sometimes have a general mistrust of what developers tell them. Sort of like going to a mechanic for your car… he starts talking about things wrong with the car and how all this work needs to be done and you think he’s just trying to get money out of you. I think the folks that say “Meh, put in more hours and get it done!” as you say, those people think those guys are either a bunch of slackers and incompetent. Sometimes they’re right, but when you find good eggs you should treat them accordingly. I think that’s effectively what Jimmy is saying here about Headspring. They only keep what they think are good eggs… and they treat them accordingly.

    • David

      Developers ARE non-exempt, even when salaried, unless they are also managers. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  • http://www.e-75.rs Ivan Mojsilovic

    This can’t be applied to all of the companies. For the long lasting companies that already have a sustanable business, this can be applied. I worked in such company and never had more free time in my life. If you are a family man, that’s the way to go.

    But if you work at startup, especially an early stage startup this does not work. Startup need titans and if you can’t comply with that, don’t work at the startup.

    • senorbadger

      I think that’s rather short sighted thinking though, if my startup business was to employ someone (it’s not at that stage yet) I’d expect the staff to do the hours we agree and not any more. It’s different if it’s your own business as it’s your passion but it shouldn’t be forced onto your workforce regardless of size

      • http://www.yanado.com/ Ivan Mojsilovic

        OK, come back when you get to that stage and let me know if you still think the same.

        • senorbadger

          Speaking from experience?

          • http://www.yanado.com/ Ivan Mojsilovic

            Yes sir.

    • CharlesKGim

      Software Engineer, developer, programmer, whatever the cool name of the day is here. Sorry Ivan but you sound very young. You haven’t been there when I have worked at several startups, each promising millions from stock options to only go under after everyone was putting in 50 to 70 hours a week. Not even so much as a sorry.

      You take your great idea and go make millions. I am sure you will deserve it but the rest of us are not falling for your slave scheme. If I agree to a salary based on a work schedule up front. Anything else is a con job.

  • RiccardoC

    Great post, I completely agree and I want to add a point.
    Working more than 40 hours (while being paying for 40, which is what actually happens in many places) isn’t actually correct in respect to your colleagues; in fact, it just lowers whatever you get for a hour of work, it undersells your work.
    In other words, as far as I can see, it is simply unfair for almost every point of view.

  • Khuzema

    Its just about honesty from both parties, the developer and the employer.

  • http://twitter.com/chuckconway Chuck Conway

    Well written. I too worked at a company that had a culture of 60 plus hours weeks. In the end I left the company on unfavorable terms and resentful of my time with the company. To prevent this from happening in future positions I now only accept hourly positions. While this does not prevent me from working over 40 hours it adds a quantifiable cost to my employer.

  • http://www.facebook.com/DJDannyRock Dan Rachmelowitz

    Stupid to work over 40 hours and lose productivity and family time. If the company was smart they would hire more employees with more shifts.