How Important Are Long Work Hours at Startups?

Tech startups are not exactly known as bastions of sane work-life balance. Startup jobs have a reputation of requiring very long work hours, and many role models elevate this picture: Elon Musk supposedly works 120 hours a week. Twitter and Square founder Jack Dorsey by comparison slacks off with just 100 weekly hours. Facebook still occasionally goes into lock-down mode: employees are expected not to leave at all and work around the clock until a problem is solved.

In the past, long hours were just assumed to be a fact of life in startup land, but increasingly there is push-back. Some high-profile executives like Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg are very public about trying to stick to a more sane schedule. Others like the team at Basecamp have advocated for sane workweeks for many years. And there is increasingly an open discussion about the severe toll long hours take on startup founders and employees.

Some people, a bit cynically, feel that things have gone too far into this direction: There is the cliché of the wantrapreneur who shows up at 11am at the co-working space, sips four latte macchiatos and then leaves at 4pm for networking happy hour. Obviously that’s not the way to entrepreneurial success. Or is it? Do long hours really correlate with success?

No one doubts that startups are intense environments. A constant emotional rollercoaster, rapidly changing environments, unpredictable market developments and technical crises are just a natural part of the game — and often that seems to suggest that workweeks must be long. But that’s by far not the whole truth. Startup founders need to decide what kind of work hour culture they want to shape for their company — and lead by example.

So what are the most important considerations when shaping this culture of time?

There is always more work at a startup, and somebody has to do it

If you are used to a traditional work environment with well-defined, finite tasks that are executed in a clearly structured hierarchy, a startup situation will come as a real shock: Work never ends at a startup, and everybody is (in principle) expected to chip in on potentially anything. You can always improve the product further, you can always pitch more customers and investors, you can always put more effort into marketing, and so on. Particularly in smaller startups it’s absolutely common that people work on things well beyond the scope you would expect from their job title. The phrase “That’s not my job” shouldn’t exist in such an environment.

This of course makes it extremely difficult to decide when it’s time to go home instead of tackling yet another task that seems urgent. Much has been written in productivity literature about the art of prioritization, but nowhere is that skill more important than in an early-stage startup. There’s always plenty to do, but if you try to do too much, the team will burn out quickly.

A good way to think about this is to consciously look at your team’s (and your own) energy as a finite resource that has to be managed and guarded very consciously, much like your financial runway or technical infrastructure capacity. Making priorities very explicit helps as well. Nothing is worse for startup success than getting stuck in irrelevant busywork on endless workdays.

Sometimes you need that magic boost of energy that comes from long hours of camaraderie

Startups are like flywheels: When you add a bit of energy every day, momentum will build over time, and problems can’t easily get it off track. Just showing up every day and doing consistent, high-quality work goes a long way.

But while consistency is important, sometimes a team needs extraordinary moments of focused energy to get something unusual done. Maybe it’s a major product launch, an outstanding marketing activity, implementing a solution for the biggest new customer ever, or a proof-of-concept for a brilliant new idea. The most glorious, culture-shaping moments in a startup’s history (the ones everybody still talks about years later) typically come in short, intense bursts, and then it’s all about having all hands on deck.

To be clear: That’s not the same as pulling all-nighters constantly. Sometimes it’s a short burst of activity to deal with a problem that just popped up. Sometimes it’s just an intense phase of a few days of working on nothing else but the problem at hand. But it’s essential to cultivate these unusual moments and not impede them with preconceived notions of what work hours normally look like.

The important things happen outside your office, and that means travel time

As startup guru Steve Blank always says: You need to get out of the building to succeed as an entrepreneur. That’s where your customers are, that’s where you can really test your product-market fit, that’s where investors want to get pitched, that’s where you’re likely to find your best future employees. Being out of the building means travel time, and that means long hours in airports, on cars and trains. Travel time is maybe the least pleasant form of working long hours (many of these hours are wasted in very unproductive settings), but it’s the type that can make or break a company. Startups that have a culture of spending time outside of the building (on all levels, not just founders) typically have a much higher chance at succeeding.

Inspiration strikes at unpredictable times, and flexibility to capture these moments is essential

I keep a list of my innovations — both of a technical and business nature — that I’m really proud of, with the time and place when I did the most important work. It’s all over the place: Quietly tinkering away on a Sunday afternoon at the office; on a Saturday morning at home after just waking up with a great idea; on a long train ride; on a late night at the office over beers; during an intense week of 16-hour days; during a brain-storming session on a sunny day in the city park. But there were also plenty of cases when outstanding work happened just during plain vanilla regular work hours.

The point is: Religiously sticking to a pre-defined work schedule is potentially depriving you and your team of key moments when inspiration strikes and demands immediate implementation in a state of flow. Having a great idea on Sunday morning and writing it down to deal with it on Monday at 9am is not the same as following through on it immediately.

Long hours are not the same as productivity, but that’s sometimes hard for managers to understand

There is plenty of research that shows conclusively that working very long hours has dramatically diminishing returns. This particularly applies to jobs that have a strong creative component or require deep quiet work, such as UX design or engineering. The sweet spot for most of these roles is about 4 to 6 hours of productive time per day, very rarely more.

Unfortunately, that’s not always easy to understand for people with a pure management role. YCombinator founder Paul Graham explained in an essential essay the difference between a maker’s schedule and a manager’s schedule: Managers have a very fragmented daily schedule, full of distractions, focusing on communicative tasks like meetings and emails. Their time scales fairly linearly, because spending another half hour on answering emails late in the day has almost the same output as the first half hour in the morning.

Makers (engineers, designers, writers, etc.) have a very different productivity curve. First, the best time of the day for deep work doesn’t neatly line up with office schedules. Second, the amount of this work you can do per day is limited, and productivity drops off sharply after a point (or even turns negative, such as introducing more bugs in your code). Third, it depends on long stretches of uninterrupted time. Managers who are not familiar with this mode of work often don’t think much about when to best schedule meetings or what kind of hours to reasonably expect from people who are on a maker’s schedule. As so often, empathy and a sincere desire to understand the other side provides the best results.

A culture of physical presence rewards weak managers and introduces bad collaboration habits

The easiest thing to optimize as a manager is how long your employees spend butt-in-seat at the office. There are still people who think it’s great if employees are made to work 12-hour days at the office every day. Needless to say, that’s nowhere near the same as productivity. Allowing presence time to be a key metric that gets measured (implicitly or explicitly) and optimized just promotes a very lazy style of management that gets away with not measuring real results. That’s often something you don’t notice in the short run but that will backfire badly in the long run.

A presence culture often goes hand-in-hand with the habit of just walking up to people at any time to ask questions, give instructions or discuss something. Of course flexible collaboration is essential, but always doing it just spontaneously harms productivity through unnecessary distractions. It also promotes sloppy thinking because it doesn’t force people to think things through before interrupting others.

Balancing results and expected work hours as well as promoting collaboration while protecting individual’s quiet work hours is one of the most difficult things to manage, and that’s exactly what you should pay managers for. Everybody’s time has value, and it’s higher than you think.

Excessive work hours kill diversity

When I look at the startups I have worked at or invested in, there is one aspect that was more predictive of success than any other: The diversity of the team, in all relevant aspects you can imagine. A culture of long work hours at the office makes it very difficult to hire a diverse team, because not everybody has the same freedom to spend endless hours there as a twentysomething single nerd (apologies for the cliché — I once was one of them too).

If you want to hire a team from all walks of life (and you should, not out of politically correct niceness, but out of cold, hard capitalist self-interest), you will need to think hard about how you can treat work hours flexibly. People who have children, care for an elderly or sick relative, deal with a long commute or have a disability are often not able to work excessively long hours and be infinitely flexible with their time. But very often they are the most exceptional employees. Constraints improve focus, and people who live with all kinds of constraints are often just more effective. Dealing with this diversity of work habits and constraints involves setting clear rules of what is expected and tolerated, but also of constantly educating employees and managers about this topic. Needless to say, founders and executives need to lead by example.

Bottom line: It’s about flexibility and maturity, not duration

As so often in life, dealing intelligently and successfully with work hours is all about balance, not extremes. But balance doesn’t mean sticking to an old-school 9-to-5 office schedule. It means recognizing that startup life is less even and predictable than a traditional work setting, and that cuts both ways. It means that sometimes there are bursts that require extraordinary effort, but on the other hand a startup can provide more flexibility of when and where employees work. Much of the fun of starting a company and working at a startup is that you can shape your own environment and culture. Recognizing that work hours are a big part of that is essential — not just for everybody’s well-being, but for economic success.

Originally published at innospective.net on October 4, 2018.