The clichéd perks of high-flying tech companies such as free meals, massages, and doggy daycare serve a dual purpose: They keep employees happy (office beer) and create an atmosphere that makes working long, intense hours seem not so bad.
A handful of tech startups have been touting a different approach to getting the best out of their workers: Make them work less. They’re making sure their employees go home on time, unplug at night, and enjoy their weekends. The approach, they say, makes workers happier and more productive when they are on the clock, which is also good for business. While there have been scattered calls in recent years to rein in work hours, the 9-to-5 professional life is all but extinct.
At BambooHR, a 50-employee human resource software company in Provo, Utah, co-founder Ryan Sanders enforces a strict 40-hour workweek. “If we see people here extra late, like 5:30, we tend to step in [and say,] ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” he says. Sanders worked long hours at tech startups until he started BambooHR five years ago. He recalls one boss offering incentives for people who logged overtime. “At 80 hours, you’d get a $400 Amazon gift certificate, to essentially work a full week extra,” he says.
The tech world, of course, isn’t the only business built on overtime: Finance, consulting, law, and medicine wring grueling hours out of staff. Labor laws don’t require employers to pay white-collar workers overtime as long as they make at least $455 a week, or $23,600 a year. Companies that strictly curb professionals’ overtime are rare, for sure. The idea “goes counter to our culture,” says Traci Fenton, founder of WorldBlu, which consults with companies that want to create more employee-friendly workplaces. “American culture, especially, is that you work all the time, and work is your identity,” she says.
But extreme hours have their own costs. “Our industry is famous for death marches,” says Rich Sheridan, chief executive of Menlo Innovations, a software design firm with about 50 employees in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Tired programmers start putting in lots of bugs,” he says, and the cost of software glitches can exceed the benefits of overtime. (Sheridan points to a software bug that caused Knight Capital’s crippling $440 million trading loss as a cautionary tale.) Menlo’s office is dark and locked by 6 p.m. Employees aren’t allowed to work from home. The result, Sheridan says, is a productive 8-hour day, happy staff, and work that pleases clients.
Some companies are taking more modest steps to restore the border between personal time and work hours. Last year Vynamic, a 75-employee health-care management consultancy in Philadelphia, instructed workers to not send e-mails on the weekends or between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. The policy, called Zmail (as in “catch some Zs”), came in response to employee surveys that showed staff were stressed out, says Chief Executive Dan Calista. When someone slips an e-mail in minutes before the 10 p.m. cutoff, it’s dubbed a “Z bomb” and frowned upon internally. “A colleague of mine sent me a Z bomb at 10 p.m. about someone’s appointment,” Calista says. “I was up for an extra hour.” As it turns out, they didn’t meet about the matter until the following week. The e-mail could have waited until the morning.