The Unsustainability of Neverending Workplace Marathons

The following post is part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. The rest of the posts are presented here.

By  K. Bangsund

Living in the Bay Area means, among other things, that you have at least several friends who have chosen the “death march”:  working for one of the hot software companies here that essentially require employees to “sprint marathons.”  This means working at full speed, as if sprinting, for months at a time in the hopes that one’s effort will pay off big.

There are benefits – being part of the hottest company with all the buzz, competitive salaries – but these companies lack sustainability at their core.  Unmaintainable working conditions are the tradeoff for the ever-approaching carrot of the IPO.

The anti-benefits make it even worse:  free food and everything you need right here when you need it just means more time at work.  Several of these companies have an all-you-can-eat vacation policy, but it’s coupled with a culture of “company first” that negates the supposed benefit.  The core message is “suffer now; rewards later.”

Zynga is certainly not the only offender, but it is the easiest and most obvious example.  A recent New York Times article spoke of a recent study on job satisfaction at Zynga, and the results were brutal.  As John Moe writes, “At Zynga-ville, there’s a lot of hate-ville for people’s jobs-ville.”

Watching friends and acquaintances go through this new rat race for stock options strikes me as something like asking them to sprint marathons, week after week, with their jobs at risk if they don’t.  It’s incredibly unsustainable, and yet people are willing to suffer in the hopes of the lucrative IPO in the same way they’ll suffer for the 26.2 mile marker … but the IPO is not hours but months or years away.

A little blurb on business trends piqued my interest and sent me over to check out Atomic Object, a software company in Michigan.  Listed on their ‘about us’ page:

Caffeine, all nighters, and empty pizza boxes: at least one of these things does not belong. Untested software, unrealistic schedules, and overly complex designs lead to long hours and exhausted people. Along with our proven development process, we practice sustainable pace – responsible working hours that promote balance and quality work. (We remain big fans of caffeine and pizza, though).

As Carl Erickson, founder of Atomic Object, says, “It takes more than a good idea to get a business sustainable.”  He calls culture “the ultimate determinate of your sustainability.”  Watching his TEDx talk on sustainability, I think about the truest sense of the word:  something sustainable can be carried on over time, and companies that are to survive and thrive must do more than make something that people will buy, they must create a place where people can work and thrive.

We can brag about mandatory composting in San Francisco, but when will we catch up with the midwest in terms of this deeper sense of sustainability?

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.