To Grow Talent, Don’t Move Fast and Break Things — Move Slow and Build Them
This is part one in a new series on culture-building, talent attraction and retention, and organizational development in technology companies.
“The dream employee for a lot of companies is a twenty-something with as little a life as possible outside of work — someone who’ll be fine working fourteen-hour days and sleeping under his desk. But packing a room full of these burn-the-midnight-oil types isn’t as great as it seems.” – Jason Fried and David Heinmeier Hansson, Rework
Technology culture is driven by an underlying ethos of agility, speed, experimentation, iteration, and hard work. This ethos — which can often foster incredible innovation, productivity, and change — is embodied by the Facebook-coined phrase, “Move fast and break things.” It’s come to define our culture and even permeate beyond technology companies into other industries looking to achieve the same gains at the same rate.
But when it comes to people, “move fast and break things” doesn’t work. Because the “thing” being broken is a person.
Long Hours Hurt Health, Happiness, and Work Product
An ethos focused on pushing forward as fast and as hard as possible does not foster employee happiness or a better work product. In fact, it does just the opposite.
American workers across all sectors are working longer hours than they have in decades, with data showing that we collectively work four weeks more a year than in 1978. That’s 480 extra hours per year, or broken down even more, 40 extra hours a month.
These longer working hours don’t necessarily mean that employees are more productive. The average worker only spends 45% of the work day on primary responsibilities. Plus, longer hours are shown to directly lower cognitive performance. In other words, this pressure to take a “no days off” and “hustle harder” approach to work decreases productivity and actually makes employees dumber.
Employees are pressured to work more, do more, and be more by their work environments, which increases the incidence of workplace-induced stress. The American Psychological Associate estimates that workplace stress costs the U.S. economy $500B and 550 million workdays a year. The same study showed that millennials — like the 20-something burning the midnight oil in this article’s opening — report the highest levels of stress per generation. This is notable considering millennials make up 33% of the American workforce.
Why does stress cost so much? For one, it increases the rate of mistakes and safety mishaps among industrial workers by 61%. Stress also causes major health concerns, with more than 80% of doctor’s visits occurring due to stress.
This combination of longer hours and more workplace stress also meaningfully impacts sleep. Estimates show that 30% of workers get less than 6 hours of sleep per night. Sleep deprivation results in a 23% reduction in concentration, an 18% reduction in memory function, and a 9% increase in difficultly in performing work. Sleep deprivation perpetrates a vicious cycle — exhausted workers are less able to cope with stress and perform their roles effectively, pushing them to work even more.
Unsurprisingly, exhausted, stressed out, and unhealthy employees are also more likely to leave. Workplace stress increases voluntary turnover by 50%, which means in addition to hurting a company’s bottom line by impacting the quality of work, it also leads to churn. And churn is expensive, both financially and culturally. The cost of replacing a single employee is about 20% of that person’s annual salary, and the process often results in encouraging others to leave, too.
How the Status Quo Masks Our Work Addiction
If this “move fast and break things” approach to employees doesn’t work, why do we continue to celebrate and incorporate it across our companies?
“Many of us still believe exhaustion is a status symbol.” — Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
Simply put, this attitude has become a cultural norm — the status quo.
But this status quo masks something darker beneath. The increasing technologizing of work has brought many of the addictive tools designed to capture and keep our attention into our offices.
In her comprehensive analysis of machine gambling in Las Vegas, Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, Natasha Dow Schüll examines how every element of the gaming experience, from the physical gaming environments to the machines themselves, are designed to play into human addiction. The casinos and game manufacturers seek to increase the rate of “continuous gaming productivity” and “time on device,” which maximizes profits.
On the other side, gamblers seek to reach “the zone.” While in the zone, gamblers are not focused on winning, and in fact often see wins as unwanted interruptions. Instead, their sole concern is extended play, which allows them to enter a trancelike state of repetition and absorption. The effects “the zone” causes are the same as we’ve seen infinite scroll on devices produce.
Schüll’s research on gaming casts an interesting light on our approach to continuous work productivity today. Our workplace culture’s obsession with achieving “flow” or “getting into the zone” looks a lot like the “machine zone” problem gamblers chase. The difference is workplace flow is smiled upon because it can maximize positive outcomes instead of negative ones.
But that good flow may spur work addiction and contribute to our inability to leave the office, stop checking emails, turn our brains off, and decompress.
“[Workaholics] try to fix problems by throwing sheer hours at them. They don’t look for ways to be more efficient because they actually like working overtime.” — Jason Fried and David Heinmeier Hansson, Rework
Changing the Narrative to “Move Slow and Build Things”
Clearly, when it comes to our talent, we need to closely reconsider our “move fast and break things” philosophy and focus on keeping our employees happy, healthy, and productive.
When it comes to people, we need to take a “move slow and build things”approach. This doesn’t imply expecting less of our employees or encouraging them to move at a painstakingly slow pace. It means taking the time to build relationships. It means creating an infrastructure that allows for reasonable hours, designated time off, onboarding and training processes, self-directed employee initiatives, and mentorship. It means building reward systems that privilege ideas over hours, elegant solutions over brute force, and holistic well-being over “machine-like” performance.
The good news is that there are blueprints to make that change.
In our very own tech sector, companies are switching to shorter work weeks and work days, and seeing profits stay the same or increase while also contributing to higher employee morale. Treehouse was one of the first and most prominent to switch to this model when it launched its 32-hour work week.
European countries across the continent have experimented with more vacation time, shorter work weeks and work days, and more employee health-focused initiatives. Luxembourg and Norway, which are two of the wealthiest and most economically stable countries in the world, respectively work 146 hours less and 363 hours less than Americans.
Limiting the hours our employees spend working promotes productivity, as Sweden’s experiment with shorter work days showed. Employees were less prone to distraction, exhaustion, and low morale, and the tighter deadlines pushed them to work faster and smarter. These employees reported feeling 20% happier.
But limiting the hours employees spend working is just the tip of the iceberg. To nurture and retain talent that drives results for companies inside and outside of the technology space, we need to invest in taking time up front to properly train them, onboard them, and get to know them. It means building diversity and inclusion programs that foster more connective, collaborative environments. It means allowing employees across departments or functions to assume leadership roles in establishing their own cultural initiatives, whether they are around employee-led education, shadow days, or career coaching.
In the follow-up’s to this first article, I plan to break down how we can combat employee burn-out and low productivity by:
· Attracting and Supporting the Right Talent
· Architecting Diversity and Inclusion Programs That Work
· Empowering Employee-Directed Organizational Initiatives
· Delivering Candid, Useful Feedback That Drives Growth
· Creating a Living, Evolving Culture Playbook That Actually Gets Used
· Structuring Designated Time Off and Vacation Policies
With this series, I hope to provide a way to keep the agile, iterative ethos that has brought so much success to technology companies while taking an empathetic, people-centered approach that supports positive results for employees and their companies alike.
Are you a startup founder or employee? What are your thoughts and experiences on talent development? What’s working, and what isn’t?