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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