Workplace Culture and Balance in the Tech Industry

For many Americans, last Monday may have looked a little like this:blog 1b

blog 1a

Hanging out by the pool, or enjoying a backyard barbecue. Relaxing with family on Labor Day, the last long weekend of the summer.

However, if you work in the tech industry in Silicon Valley, your Labor Day may have looked a little more like this:

Over the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about an article I read in TechCrunch the other day, “For Labor Day, work harder”. To summarize, author Danny Crichton argues here that Labor Day goes against the spirit of Silicon Valley. He contends that with the tech industry on the verge of so many monumental breakthroughs, we must “double down on the kind of ambitious, hard-charging, change-the-world labor that created our modern knowledge economy in the first place.” According to Crichton, “It’s a hustlers world out there, and the message that those who want to shape that world should be hearing this Labor Day is simple: work harder. Hell, work today.”

I agree with Crichton’s take, but only to a point. There’s no doubt that we’re on the verge of many great breakthroughs in the tech industry. But is there really anything wrong with taking a single day off to relax, recharge, and be with family and friends?

There’s no doubt that the relentless hustle encouraged in Silicon Valley has been incredibly productive, but more balance should be encouraged. In this opinion for the New York Times, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble author Dan Lyons calls out this culture of hustle. Lyons shares horror stories of the lack of work-life balance that are celebrated in Silicon Valley, including Lyft blogging about a driver taking fares even while she drove to the hospital while in labor. Furthermore, he brings up a startup founder featured on the Apple reality show “Planet of the Apps” that bragged how he barely gets to see his kids as he pursues success. Lyons reaction: “Good grief. The guy is developing an app that lets you visualize how a coffee table from a catalog might look in your living room. I suppose that’s cool, but is it really more important than seeing your kids? Is the chance to raise some venture-capital funding really “the ultimate reward?”

I find Lyons’ opinion, especially this example, sobering. So often we focus on and celebrate the products and innovations stemming from the hard workers and entrepreneurs of the tech industry, but seldom do we consider the sacrifices made and the health of the people making these changes happen. Obviously their hard work is generating tremendous value and worth to the world around them, but to each individual entrepreneur and startup worker, is any of this really worth more than time with one’s children? It’s hard to say. The cost of this incredible output may just be the health and sanity of the individuals producing it.

Nevertheless, I think that this kind of sacrifice and lack of balance is unsustainable, in just the same way as Jenna wrote in her great blog about how tech has outgrown the city of San Francisco. After all, as Lyons cites, a report from Stanford economists in 2014 found that productivity tapers off significantly after 56 hours in a week. As we’ve discussed in class, corporate culture is an incredibly important indicator of success and sustainability in these quickly growing companies. I hope that as more tech companies grow and evolve, they take these things into consideration and incorporate the health and work-life balances of their employees into their ethos. It certainly has been done before.

Some Silicon Valley companies get this right. Look to the example of Google. Google is consistently rated as one of the best places to work. They have generous vacation and parental leave policies, provide their employees with free meals, and famously had allowed employees to work on side projects during their workday. Google’s size and scale allows them to give employees resources and breaks that small startups simply cannot afford, but still, the company should be the standard that all entrepreneurs strive towards in terms of workplace culture.

google-campus-hq-headquarters-home-offices-720x720.jpg

So, there is a place for the hustle described by Danny Crichton, even on holidays. But there is also room for health and a balance between work and family life. These two ideas should not be mutually exclusive. The aspiring entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley should keep both in mind as they strive to build innovative, groundbreaking new products and platforms and grow massive, yet sustainable companies where employees love coming to work yet still get a chance to spend time at home. As we visit a wide range of companies, from startups to some of the biggest corporations in the world, it will be interesting to see how they foster an environment that is both extremely productive and doesn’t burn employees out.

9 thoughts on “Workplace Culture and Balance in the Tech Industry

  1. I read Dan Lyons’ book over the summer for my book report, and it really opened my eyes to tech company culture. I think it would be small-minded to say all tech companies across the board implement extreme work expectations, but I do think that there is a widely held drive to constantly be on the cutting-edge and ahead of the curve which I believe causes some people to pull away from a healthy work-life balance. The technology industry is indeed not the only industry that has high expectations and long hours for work, but it is an important conversation to have.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read this article over the Labor Day weekend as well, and it is crazy how cutthroat the tech industry is, especially for startup companies. We often take the hard work and commitment from employees on holiday breaks. I agree with you that there is definitely a way to balance work and life outside of work, but the need for success always seems to overshadow mental and physical health risks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It’s crazy how different working environments can be in the tech industry, particularly between startups and multinationals. If I remember correctly, Netflix actually encourages their workers to take more paid holidays than most companies do, because they believe that it boosts productivity. I don’t know how they figured that one out, but it’s definitely an idea I can get behind.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The information you found about google was really interesting! I’ve always read that a better more positive company culture does better work, and that is clear from your description of some of the perks of working for google. Entrepreneurship isn’t about working hard because you have to, one of the best parts of it is working for something because you love doing it. That should be what sets the tech world apart from the corporate grind, not an obsession with overworking.

    Like

  5. I think tech companies generally have a reputation for having a more relax and quirky work environment. However, I understand that at many of them they are working to quickly scale and are often under a time pressure causing them to work long hours. Although successfully growing a company seems very rewarding, I think it would be unfortunate to sacrifice relationships in the pursuit. Usually when I think of stressful and demanding careers, investment banking and consulting positions come to mind. Those companies seemed to have received a plethora of bad media highlighting grueling hours over the past few years. Therefore, I find it interesting that as those companies are adapting to incorporate more work life balance, tech companies are starting to gain negative attention.

    Like

  6. I found your point on the guy not spending time with his family to develop an AR app thought-provoking. On one hand, if he succeeds, it’ll be revolutionary tech that can be sold for a huge sum to home-goods stores. On the other hand that “success” comes at the cost of his personal life. As I’m starting to look for jobs, the question of work-life balance has been tugging on me. How much am I willing to pay for leisure time?

    Like

  7. Good post. I do think that kind of hard work is important at certain times of life. I worked 60+ hours / week getting my Ph.D. and as an assistant professor at BC. Of course, doing so then meant that I do now get to spend time with my kids. Working toward a goal is great, but many people work just to work.

    Like

  8. Great blog! I definitely agree that tech workers dedicate so much of their time and energy to their companies and deserve to enjoy their lives outside of work as well. Over the summer I read Peter Thiel’s book Zero to One in which he acknowledges the stereotypical startup culture, mimicking that of Google’s, where employees enjoy going to work because of the modern work space and great benefits, yet advises leaders to keep a professional workspace where employees come with the priority of getting the job done. I think Thiel is right to some extent because it is important to make sure employees are not distracted during work, but I also agree with your point that company culture is an important factor in a company’s success. I liked the statistic about productivity decreasing after 56 hours of work a week, and think that is important for managers to take into account when providing a work-life balance for their employees. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  9. More and more, it appears that the tech/startup world is transitioning from “work hard” to “work smart” as more emphasis is placed on that work/life balance and the culture of sacrifices becomes outdated. Relative to more extreme industries like investment banking, corporate culture in Silicon Valley seems to be shying away from putting in hours for the sake of putting in hours. There’s still a long way to go but hopefully it will keep progressing!

    Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s