quotes ranting

Productivity, work-life balance and setting expectations

I came across an article in The New Yorker this week on the cult of productivity. The basic idea is that a view of increasing productivity that is based on improving processes, typically in manufacturing, has morphed into the idea that we can all, individually, be even more productive. This is a false economy, allowing companies to “do more with less [people]” which, too often, translated to longer hours for most people. This in turn burns people out, maybe you liked your job but at some point if it takes over your whole life you are going to hate it.

In classic productivity, there’s no upper limit to the amount of output you seek to produce: more is always better. When you ask individuals to optimize productivity, this more-is-more reality pits the professional part of their life against the personal. More output is possible if you’re willing to steal hours from other parts of your day—from family dinners, or relaxing bike rides—so the imperative to optimize devolves into a game of internal brinkmanship

Cal Newport, in The Frustration with Productivity Culture [] published in The New Yorker

Since my kids were born I have rejected the more-is-more drive for work. Not specifically about productivity but in general, I don’t let the company work me 24/7. I log ago blocked by calendar to show out of office between 6:30PM and 8:30AM on weekdays and all weekend. I’m more religious about it but I reserve the right to ignore all work related things during these hours.

I do work late when there is genuine need; if I have committed to something and need extra time to get it done or, more often, when customer provide unreasonable timelines to get things done —we call these RFPs and customers as assholes about the timelines, universally in my experience they expect their potential vendors to work 24/7 during the short period between release and submission of an RFP. I’ve pulled all nighters with colleagues to get things done on time. Famously a 48 hour binge session to close a major RFP and the only sleep was in the cab to home and back to take a shower halfway through. These days few people are around who were there for that, no one remembers so what did I get out of it? In the end I think only the recognition from my boss that I would do what it took to meet my commitments.

After more than a decade in the same company I have a reputation, at least among the people I work with regularly. My bosses PA asks me if I will attend a late call before scheduling it. Every time there are new VPs to work with I have to set expectations again. Because I work for a company where many of my colleagues don’t or can’t turn off. A majority of them attend calls at all hours of the day and night. Just this week I had colleagues on calls at 6AM (their time, we are a global company) and colleagues who were on calls until 3AM. Working —attending Zoom or Teams calls— until 9, 10, 11PM or later and on the weekends is the norm for many of my Australian colleagues. Here is a typical week on my calendar:

I know it’s not just my colleagues or my company, it’s a general trend of many years in IT and I think in many other industries. Anywhere people are paid to get the job done not just by the hour seems to adopted a model of “do more with less” which is actually “do more with less people”. You get paid to do a job, not work 40 hours a week, so the company just redefines your job to include more and more things, if it takes you 60 hours then so be it. If you don’t do it someone else will… it’s a vicious circle.

If it’s up to you alone to get more done, then attempts to moderate your workload can be misinterpreted as laziness.

Cal Newport, in The Frustration with Productivity Culture [] published in The New Yorker

The COVID pandemic and work from home have made all this harder on people. I used to leave my laptop at work 90% of the time. Once I shut it down I was done for the day. Maybe I would check email on my phone before bed but I broke my crackberry addiction long ago and I refuse to spent too much time typing emails on my phone late at night. They can wait until the morning for the most part. A quick email to help move things along, especially if those working on it are in other time zones so it’s still their workday is ok, but for the most part. It can wait.

My company has been running a campaign for the past year to get more people to take it easy. We have lost many people to burnout. They have been running virtual coffee breaks, encouraging people to take proper lunches —not to just eat sitting in from of the computer— to shut off in the evenings. I’m not sure how many people are taking advantage of this. Work from home seems to have but many people into a worse place with regards to shutting off. There are no more boundaries. I think many people don’t have a proper “work from home” place in their house. Just sitting at the kitchen table is a recipe for disaster, the psychological superstition between home and office, or what was left of it, is completely destroyed. Too many people where taking their computers home and working in the evening before COVID lockdowns. Many people who are burning out are looking for a new job. As if a new employer will fix this. Too much of it is endemic to modern work culture. “Different company, same shit” I expect.

I’ve spent a lot of effort proving I can get my job done and done well in a ‘normal’ work week, 40 hours. Setting expectations about the amount of work I can and will do at the professional level of quality I want to work at and that the company values me for. I expect I drive my boss crazy, pushing back on extra assignments and arguing about what should be priority. He tells me every year in annual evaluations he appreciates the work and the honesty and all that, so I guess I’m doing something right. It’s going to make changing jobs a real challenge if I ever decide to move on. I joke with my colleagues that I don’t work for the company I work for my boss at this point. Changing jobs would mean having to reset all the expectations about work-life balance.

But I was not always like this. I was on the job 24/7 from the early 2000s until the mid 2010s. I was a crackberry addict. You can find some evidence of this history on this blog. I can’t decide if this was youthful energy, or because I worked at a startup and felt we were building something, that I was contributing directly to something, or lack of family.

Whatever the cause, I remember having a conversation with another youngish colleague back in the day about a couple of co-workers who were the 9-5 type. They came in, did their job for 8 hours and when home. There were times when they would work odd hours due to project constraints or what not but they were “desk jockeys” not in it for the passion but in it for the paycheck. At least that’s the conclusion we came to over beers, in a hotel lobby on a business trip.

I’m not so sure now. These people had families and they did good work. I’ve turned into one of them. I’m determined that I can spend time with my kids after work and on the weekends. To help with homework, watch a movie or play games with them while they are young enough to want to spend time with their father. The week-in, week-out business travel and the VP titles can wait till my girls are both teenagers and don’t want to spend time with papa.