For many Americans, last Monday may have looked a little like this:
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.
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.