Friday, September 1, 2017

Work/Life Imbalance in Silicon Valley

The indignity of it all. At a time when we are having a national conversation about work/life balance, workers in Silicon Valley have adopted an ethic of work/life imbalance.They call it the ethic of “hustle.” It feels like a variant on the old Protestant work ethic.

Silicon Valley techies pay lip service to work/life balance but work seven days a week, not taking vacations, working and working and working. They take pride in their ability to give up most of their personal life in order to work harder.

Naturally, serious thinkers believe that this is very bad. Dan Lyons writes in the New York Times that these young workers are workaholics. God forbid! For good measure he adds that they are being exploited. Perhaps, they need to form a labor union. Should they band together to overthrow their capitalist masters?

Of course, it’s all voluntary. Young people work this hard because they want to. They are competing to gain an advantage. One needs to point out that they are not alone. Young associates at New York law firms often work 100 hour weeks, with precious little time off. How does it happen that keepers of the ethic of work/life balance have nothing to say about these young lawyers?

Lyons explains the problem:

So maybe it makes sense that just as a lot of industries have begun paying more attention to work-life balance, Silicon Valley is taking the opposite approach — and branding workaholism as a desirable lifestyle choice. An entire cottage industry has sprung up there, selling an internet-centric prosperity gospel that says that there is no higher calling than to start your own company, and that to succeed you must be willing to give up everything.

This leads Lyons to recommend that these young workers ought to go on strike. Because they are being oppressed. And yet, the young people who do this see themselves as Navy SEALs, highly competitive, willing to endure hardship in order to show how tough and committed they are. Should the Navy SEALs go on strike? Are they workaholics?

A century ago, factory workers were forming unions and going on strike to demand better conditions and a limit on hours. Today, Silicon Valley employees celebrate their own exploitation. “9 to 5 is for the weak” says a popular T-shirt. A venture capitalist named Keith Rabois recently boasted on Twitter that he worked for 18 years while taking less than one week of vacation. Wannabe Zuckerbergs are told that starting a company is like joining the Navy SEALs. For a certain type of person — usually young and male — the hardship is part of the allure.

Lyons quotes an academic study suggesting that beyond 56 hours, there is little gain in productivity. Why hasn’t he told New York law firms about this study? At law firms, more billable hours adds up to more revenue. An associate bills at hundreds of dollars an hour—someone will be kind enough to give me a more precise number—so however unproductive he is, he is generating income.

Let us not forget, Silicon Valley companies are markedly successful. Could it be that the work ethic contributes to their success. Why would anyone try to undermine it? Lyons does not seem to care about commitment and team spirit, but when you are part of a team, it matters:

Working beyond 56 hours in a week adds little productivity, according to a 2014 report by the Stanford economist John Pencavel. But the point may be less about productivity than about demonstrating commitment and team spirit.

If I may use a slightly vulgar expression, the elephant in the room is of course, the presence of more female employees, some of whom, one supposes, were hired to fill diversity quotas.

As everyone should know, when it comes to competing for position on the company status hierarchy, working ungodly hours is most likely to be a guy thing. Women are less likely to want to compete at this level. They are most likely to suffer adverse health consequences. They are more likely to find that work/life balance is a vital necessity for them. Cue James Damore.


Ares Olympus said...

Stuart: At law firms, more billable hours adds up to more revenue. An associate bills at hundreds of dollars an hour—someone will be kind enough to give me a more precise number—so however unproductive he is, he is generating income.

Sure, if you're billing out hours, exaggerate galore, include every minute you're thinking about your case while in the shower, driving to work. If the scam works, keep it up! But if you're an employer who is actually paying for the diminishing returns directly, you may see things differently.

The small employee-owned engineering company I work for for a long time had a policy of comp-time, so if you're on salary and need 80 hours this week to finish a project on time, you should do that if you can. And your reward is you could take off 40 hours in the coming months. Unfortunately that generous policy was eliminated, although it is still used informally. I'm sure many work much longer than 40 on a regular basis, and they do get that back indirectly at bonus time.

I also have encouraged co-workers to write down actual hours spent, even if salary is fixed, since that allows management to see time spent, but I can see there is also pride involved, and some people don't want to admit they're slow or inefficient.

Jack Fisher said...

I don't know exactly what they do in Silicon Valley, but if you're a junior associate in a big law firm and you're routinely billing 100+ hour weeks, most of that is routine scut work that a good secretary or paralegal could accomplish. You're stapling papers and charging the clients full rates; you're not capable of doing much else. No one with case responsibility would trust the judgment of someone putting in those hours (one hour of billing probably equals an hour and a half of real time). But it's how that game is played. Most of these associates burn out and move on with a resume builder and contacts, the survivors of the pyramid scheme move up.

David Foster said...

There is a big difference in working long hours to get something specific done and working long hours in order to impress everyone with your dedication and/or to rack up more billable hours.

It's fine to expect people (professional people) to work 70 or 80 hour weeks for finite periods of time, say when getting the big sales proposal ready or getting the software release done, but if people are working 80 or 100-hour weeks for years on end, creativity and judgment are going to suffer and potentially-serious mistakes are going to be made.

Sam L. said...

I guess they're ALL on salary; hourly workers wouldn't be allowed to do that.