My fellow blogger, David Hunt, sent me a Harvard Business Review article on how “A Manager’s Job is Making Sure Employees Have a Life Outside Work” by Arjun Dev Arora and Raman Frey that was a pretty good read. Its message is employees work harder, better, smarter and more creatively when they are treated with respect and trust. And that means respect for the employee’s life outside work as well as in the office. Well, duh.
To most people this would seem self evident. Who doesn’t like being treated with respect and appreciation? To people who work in the high tech industry, however, the existence of life outside work is an ongoing revelation. As the @HarvardBiz article focuses on “martyr capitalism,” which means “if you’re not sleeping under your desk you’re not committed,” I will also.
Now, I will admit that in all my years in high tech I never slept under my desk or knew anyone who did so. I did once have to persuade a colleague who planned to bunk in to go home (a 10-minute drive) and get a good night’s sleep. On the other hand, I was in marketing and I worked in Massachusetts, so maybe my experience wasn’t typical of Silicon Valley coders.
The Logical Extension of Work as Life
The question is not whether this kind of behavior is abnormal—it clearly is. Or whether management demands drive people to do it—they clearly do. The question is why management makes these demands in the first place. The simple answer is that they think more time equals more work. More time equals better work. More time equals greater profits.
The logical extension of this train of thought is, obviously, slavery. Overseers can drive slaves to work from dawn ‘til dusk, laboring under the lash to be as productive as possible all to the greater profit of the master, who pays them nothing. Is that what we want?
Slavery might have created profits—the whole economy of the antebellum South was built on it—but that didn’t mean the work was better. Nobody works for The Man better than they work for themselves. Slacking off, cutting corners, and stealing a little for yourself when you can are how a slave protests his situation and asserts his humanity. Now, if you’re picking cotton or driving a mule down a field, quantity might matter more. But in today’s work world, quality is important. Heck, even in the fast-food industry, that holdout of rock-bottom minimum wage, the customer’s experience matters.
When More is Less
So why is it such a tough sell in an industry that runs on smarts and education to get management to understand that sometimes more is less? Why the constant need to assert that people are not machines, that employees have lives, that families need them, that rest is necessary, that downtime can be creative time? Well, maybe it’s the lack of diversity and maturity in Silicon Valley and the expectations of the venture capitalists who fund them.
If a tech company is founded by a young male with a STEM degree who has no family of his own, what demands does he have on his time? If he’s a card-carrying nerd with no social life and no particular love of exercise or the outdoors, there are even fewer distractions. Work is it and you immerse yourself in work to the exclusion of everything else. If you’re in charge, that’s what you expect of the people working for you. After all, you have one focus: making the company succeed. Work — more, longer, harder, better, and more creative work — is what you expect and demand.
And who’s going to argue with you? Not your fellow nerds. Not the VCs who want a quick and profitable exit. Not the employees who want to keep their jobs. Maybe your mother, but she never understood what you do anyway. Eventually, this mindset solidifies into a cultural norm and corporate expectations. It’s just the way things are.
One Cancels out the Other
What these young founders don’t get is that working harder and longer cancels out working better and more creatively. They want it all, like having the lights on, the HVAC working and pizza delivered after midnight. They’d never think of having to choose.
What we need is, dare I say the word, diversity. We need people in start-ups with other life demands. We need people with the experience and maturity to manage employees well. We need people who have families and understand the need to be with them. We need people who don’t count cars in the parking lot at 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. and make a judgment about how committed the missing employees are.
But that would mean recognizing that people are not robots and that the needs of human beings must be addressed. It means not accepting “the way things are” and finding ways to manage actual human beings who have an actual life outside work to get the best results. I’m not holding my breath, though.