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The Unsustainability of Neverending Workplace Marathons

CCA LiveE | Monday January 2nd, 2012 | 4 Comments

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?


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  • Anonymous

    Let’s not forget the “people” component of the triple bottom line. Personal sustainability for a company’s workforce is important to maintain in order to maintain a completely sustainable company.

  • http://profiles.google.com/bsenftner Blake Senftner

    This is the entire consumer software and entertainment software industry. It’s been like this for decades…

  • SIX

    I used to work for the “McDonald’s of the Midwest” for about two years and it was insane. When your development team is always on a “production push” what do you think is going to happen? It took upper management over a year to figure out what was going on. During this period, their turn-over rate was in the upper 90% – the same as their sales force!!

    Completely agree with the importance of sustainability. Avoid burn out and keep your staff stable. It will save you sooooo much money in the long run.

  • http://superkinz.com Andrew Kinzer

    It’s amazing to hear a college posting an article like this, for multiple reasons. First off, I graduated from the CCA design program and I happened experience “never-ending marathons” in graphic design thesis. Architecture students were worse, many of them sleeping under their desks on mattresses for multiple semesters.

    Secondly, you’re a college. You above all should know that people do what they do for *passion*, not the rat race. People work at startups because they want to change the world, and they want to work with people who want to change the world. I was employed by a startup here in Seattle that pushed me in 65-70 hour weeks for nearly 3 months straight, and do you know what I remember most? The work I accomplished, the friendships I created. The late nights drinking energy drinks and going a little crazy. Coming up with that smash idea at 3am because a lightbulb turns on – and rather than running it by some chain of command, we spent the next four hours just building it to surprise the company.Long hours with your teammates are some of the best times of our lives because we build things that are lasting and useful. These are the reasons to get up in the morning and charge for the future.The one thing I agree with here is that when you sprint for months at a time, you will definitely burn people out. I think an article on this topic would be better written by somebody with some direct experience who can offer some tips for companies on how to balance heavy sprints with corporate culture.