Twitter, Lyft, Stripe and several other companies had major layoffs last week, and with the undeniable tragedy of layoffs, a frequent debate has reemerged. Are the tech employees working hard enough? Is working hard a sign of puritanical virtue? Are long hours a sign of inefficient production that ignores a century of productivity research?
Unless you place a premium on social networking engagement, participating in these debates isn’t very rewarding. Folks enter the discussion with their mind made up, some jabs are thrown, and then the discussion winds down with the participants feet solidly in their starting positions. However, as you dig deeper into these industry memes, you can usually find one or two specific beliefs that divide the faithful on each side, and identifying those beliefs unlocks a more nuanced perspective.
Within the “merits/folly of hard work” debate, a recurring set of conflicting values is between (1) folks used to creating new things on small teams and (2) folks used to optimizing very complex, existing systems. This often surfaces as startup founders arguing that long hours are necessary to launch a meaningful product, and experienced scaled operators retorting that long hours are inefficient.
These can both be true!
Working long hours at a scaled company means excluding many of the key team members necessary to accomplish your goal: many of your coworkers will have young children, live in different time zones, or be balancing time across multiple projects. Working more hours in that sort of environment doesn’t accomplish much, because execution is generally blocked on input/output. A key role of executives in such organizations is that they’re able to secure high-priority input/output on their particular set of priorities (even though their prioritization inevitably causes other projects to get jammed up).
Small companies, and small teams without external dependencies, work differently. If they’re composed entirely of folks who are willing to work long hours, then you can work long hours in an effective and inclusive way. If they’re all in on working asynchronously and remotely, then some individuals can work long, effective hours and others can work short, effective hours. The inconvenient reality of small teams is that they aren’t teams at all, they’re just a handful of individuals haphazardly orbiting each other. No one’s fungible, and there aren’t any rules about how things have to work.
There absolutely are bad reasons to do things in a certain way, but you should be terribly skeptical of anyone who argues there is only a single way to accomplish anything important. You should be skeptical when startup executives insist their ten thousand employee organization should work the same way as their twenty person team from ten years ago. You should be skeptical when folks who’ve thrived in large organizations make definitive statements about what cannot happen outside the bureaucratic shackles (and leverage!) of a scaled organization. Finally, you should be even more skeptical of anyone who wants to debate complex topics in soundbites: it drives engagement and create fanatics, but it does nothing to advance the industry.