David Heinemeier Hansson speaks to workingmums.co.uk about why we don’t need to work ourselves to the bone.
David Heinemeier Hansson is a Danish programmer and partner at the web-based software development firm Basecamp. He is also co-author of It doesn’t have to be crazy at work, described as “a manifesto to combat all your modern workplace worries and fears”. He spoke to workingmums.co.uk about why it is important to step off the hamster wheel and rethink work.
workingmums.co.uk: What has the reaction to the book been and have you noticed more interest from different parts of the world?
David Heinemeier Hansson: The reaction to the book has been overwhelmingly positive, but perhaps in no place more than the UK. It certainly helped that we received some very flattering reviews from The Economist and other British newspapers, but I think there’s more to it than that.
The UK is culturally placed right in the middle of the tug of war between the US and continental Europe. We wrote the book primarily from the context of being an American company pushing back against predominately American crazy-at-work patterns, but I think it’s actually very difficult for Americans to face up to their addiction to being crazy at work. And on the other hand, you have continental Europe where Germany and France and Spain and Denmark have all long been champions of better ways to work. Not letting work take over life.
And then there’s the UK. Heavily influenced by American success stories of business and entrepreneurship, but also close enough to continental Europe to be exposed to a calmer approach. So right there, in the moment of doubt – should we be more like America or more like continental Europe? – is where you’ll find the most receptive ears to our message, I believe. Even if the Americans perhaps need it most of all.
WMs: Have you noticed an increase in issues around burnout – not just among individuals but also from employers? Do you think there is a genuine concern to tackle this?
DHH: Burnout, depression and other mental afflictions are on the rise everywhere, and I believe the overworking encouraged by many modern corporations is a key factor. We’ve gotten stuck in this never-ending quest for more growth, more efficiency, and well, just, MORE of everything. All the slack has been squeezed out, all the fat trimmed. And that sounds lovely, but it isn’t.
Healthy organisms have a bit of slack, a bit of fat. These are our safety deposits of energy. If you’re constantly running at 100% – or 110%! – then there’s no spare capacity to deal with the unexpected. And the unexpected happens completely expectedly all the time!
So while I think there’s a surface level of concern from most employers, I think such a concern often ranks far below the quest to beat the next set of quarterly targets. We’re stuck in a dangerous loop. Never wealthier, never more frazzled. That should be a paradox, but it isn’t.
WMs: There is interest among UK employers in well being, but this can be about bolt-on solutions rather than cultural change. Many have set up mental health forums, but often they seem to talk about specific mental health issues and reducing stigma rather than what can be done to reduce workload, etc ie the specific things that work contributes to mental ill health. Do you think employers are prepared to take the step back necessary to address this issue?
DHH: It’s an uphill battle. But the first step we must take is to refute the eternal wisdom of growth uber alles, which is currently the key objective for most companies stuck in a 20th-century mindset. And part of that step is to come to terms with when enough is enough. Enough profit, enough customers, enough progress. Most companies are currently locked on the depressing idea that nothing is ever enough, and that it’s their morale imperative always to be striving for more.
We need a broader idea of what a successful company looks like. One that takes care of shareholders, yes, but also employees and customers too. If you optimise solely for one of the three, you’re going to end up out of balance. And if you optimise solely for shareholders, you’re going to end up the most crazy.
But such talk is easily seen as an attack on capitalism itself. So it’s easier just to pay lip service to a few easy slogans or programmes. Treating the symptoms rather than the disease.
WMs: What are the main business benefits of a focus on sustainable working/work life balance?
DHH: Happy, well-rested, fulfilled workers are simply better workers. They’re more creative, more empathetic and more likely to stay with a company that provides such an environment. And if you can reduce staff turnover, you end up with a lot of veterans who know what to do and how to do it. That’s the business part.
But I think it’s actually partly missing the mark if we try to justify a humane approach to work in terms of the bottom line. The human argument alone should be more than enough. We don’t just preach a calm approach to work because it’s better business. In fact, that’s very far down the list. We preach it because it’s better for people. Full stop.
We live in this incredibly prosperous age. Societies have never been richer. Yet far too many people are not seeing any of those benefits, particularly, perhaps, if they are well-paid. Because work just keeps taking and taking and taking until there’s very little life left. That’s monstrous, in a quite literal and depressing sense.
WMs: You challenge some received ideas that are really commonplace, such as the call to get out of your comfort zone. Do you think these things come in cycles and we are now seeing a backlash to all the self-help approaches to working and a focus more on systemic issues?
DHH: I wish we were seeing a backlash. And maybe one is brewing. But we’re not in one yet, unfortunately. The reigning ethos of business is still HARD WORK WINS THE DAY and REACH FOR THE STARS AND YOU’LL LAND ON THE MOON. All this cutesy aspirational bullshit that’s mostly just there to provide ethical cover for extractive, exploitive practices. Ugh. Don’t even get me started!
On the other hand, we are right in the midst of a political backlash in much of the western world. From Brexit to Trump to Yellow Vests to a myriad of other streams and tendencies. And I think you can tie a whole lot of that back to workers consciously or unconsciously feeling like they’re getting a raw deal, one that no amount of aspirational slogans can pave over.
I hope that political upheaval will spill over into a business upheaval. We need to shake things up, and at their root.
WMs: How do you think this focus on work life balance/sustainability ties in with the movement for sustainable living generally? And do you think the new intake of graduates, etc, will push even further in this direction?
DHH: Sustainability is a product of calm. When work is calm, you can keep going. You’re not looking to just make a quick escape with the spoils. You stick around and you take pride and pleasure in that.
In some ways, it’s a throwback. And throwbacks sound like they’re just nostalgic wishes for a past that’s never coming back. I don’t buy that notion when it comes to calm work practices.
There’s absolutely nothing in the modern demands of work that require us to go beyond the 40-hour working week, for example. Yet far too many companies do, and they keep blaming this on the fact that CHANGE IS HAPPENING SO FAST, GOTTA KEEP UP. Bullshit. Another empty slogan designed to lure people into giving up more of their lives for less.
But I do have hope. From an American perspective, I relish every article about how supposedly lazy or rebellious the millennial generation is. Good, I keep thinking! We need a new generation that isn’t just going to keep accepting the same rotten deal from capitalism that their parents did. We need people who will say no and insist on fundamental change.
WMs: Do you notice a greater interest in work life balance issues among younger workers?
DHH: Yes, in the ones who haven’t been sufficiently indoctrinated by startup and hustle culture at least. I think more younger workers see the charade of exploitative and crazy work practices for what they are, rather than getting slowly moulded by them.
WMs: What is your own work pattern? Do you work remotely? Do you work regular hours? Do you have family responsibilities?
DHH: I work remotely. Have done so for the past 20 years. I’ve lived in Denmark, Chicago, Malibu and Spain in that timeframe. And I’ve always sought to keep my work hours at 40 hours or less per week. Of course, there’s an odd week here or there where a crisis demands excess hours, but that should – and thankfully has been rare – at Basecamp. In fact, during the summer, when we write, we work just four days per week.
I have two kids and a third on the way. They’re a constant reminder of what an utter waste it would be of my life to plough more hours into work than the already high number of 40 per week.
WMs: The focus on flexible working in the UK began with parents [mainly mothers] and carers, but there is a new interest in a lifecycle approach to working which takes in younger workers’ interest in work life balance, parents’ need for flexibility, those coming back from career breaks, those approaching retirement who may want to reduce hours, etc. Does it therefore make business sense for employers to consider a flexible type of approach the new normal rather than just something for certain workers?
DHH: Absolutely. There’s nothing magic about the 40-hour work week. We just looked to that as the limit for a long time, based on workplace studies showing that working beyond 40 hours was detrimental to quality, creativity and all the other good aspects of work that companies are trying to foster. But a lot of jobs could be done just as well by two people working 20 hours a week each.
But even more than the hours-per-week count, remote working has been the number one way to unlock much of that flexibility for people working at Basecamp. Working from home, or a place near your house, frees up so much flexibility that most people who try working like that never want to go back to the old ways. Cutting out the commute, being there when the kids come home from school and living where you thrive rather than where you just happen to be able to find a job is such a monumental improvement in the quality of life for most people that it renders most other improvements secondary.
WMs: If everything that we have known in terms of working habits, such as meetings, etc, up for questioning? Does that mean that there should be a process of constant review of work structures, given ongoing technological and social change?
DHH: Yes. That’s been a key lesson for us over the past two decades running a software company that’s grown from four to 50 people. Times change. People change. Practices need to change with them. We like to think of Basecamp-the-company as our number one product, something we should be constantly tinkering with, improving upon. If it’s stuck in 1999, the year the company was founded, it’s not going to do a good job of serving customers or employees in the year 2019.
That said, I think that while practices may and should change from time to time, company values probably shouldn’t. I can’t see us waking up in the year 2029 and thinking “well, actually, CRAZY IS WHERE IT’S AT NOW!”. No. Keeping calm and working calmly is a value that is right for all ages.