The 80-hour week in startups: Is this acceptable?
When important deadlines are pending, some startups require extreme weekly working hours from their programmers. For some, the 80-hour week, even over an extended period, constitutes the norm. Is this even feasible?
It’s no secret that startups demand more than average from their programmers, but is this requirement acceptable? A blog post appearing on Developer Base has investigated the thinking behind the demand and has asked the tough questions of startup founders.
The first focuses on the founders themselves and people with “real skin in the game” – do they work just as long as their programmers are expected to? In other words, do they demand from their employees a high amount of effort and time, whilst also adhering to the same guidelines? An answer in the affirmative is the only acceptable response, according to Developer Base.
The next keyword we’re introduced to is micromanagement. Many programmers find it frustrating, and sometimes even offensive, if their supervisor claims to be the master of their features, even though they are demonstrably less knowledgable in the work. Programmers are faced with detailed instructions on a short leash, which is a less-than-ideal working situation.
The next important factor is, as is often the case, money. One question that the startup founders should be asking revolves around equity: Are employees granted a genuine, fixed percentage of company shares, or are they merely ‘ghost-shares’? If you’re banking on double the productivity, the latter option isn’t going to be considered a particularly fair exchange.
In the age of burnouts, the dominating theme of “work-life balance” gets regular media attention, and rightly so: For people doing a lot of challenging, knowledge-intensive work, it has a massive negative impact on energy in their (rare) spare time, which in turn has serious negative effects on their health and social life. To request working extra hours of an employee without renumeration is considered by the authors to be “frankly disgusting”. Apart from the fact that being overworked affects the quality that can be expected, the price of reaching a deadline this way can often result in a larger technical debt.
Is there no other way?
It’s clear to the Developer Base authors that a massive workload should never occupy the bottom line, at least not over a prolonged period. Of course, if the work isn’t going anywhere, there’s always the nuts and bolts assertion that founders lead by example and motivate employees accordingly. The easiest way is to do this is to ensure that they’re happy with their working conditions. “Lead by example, not by mandate”.
The classic and often practiced way to achieve this is to use money as bait. However, as we already know, money isn’t always the only motivator. A far greater factor that plays into it is personal growth: If a developer feels that joining a company will advance them personally and/or professionally, they’re requirements are more often than not met.
A final motivator, and perhaps a decisive one (plus the most difficult-to-reach), is the feeling that one’s work is making a real difference, rather than being classified as mere routine.