Jonathan Cutrell

October 25, 2021

In my experience, most workplaces fall into three categories with relation to “work-life balance.” (Ugh, what a bad term for such a broad subject. I use it here because it communicates roughly the concepts I am writing about in this post, but I do wish to split hairs a bit with why this term is incomplete at best, reductive at worst. But we’ll tackle that semantic debate elsewhere.)

Type One: The “fast-paced” workplace

Generally speaking this is code for erratic schedules that bleed past your otherwise “normal” time boundaries.

I’ve encountered a few workplaces that even directly state that they work an average of 60 to 80 hours a week.

The “fast paced” reference is to the unexpected pace of demand. Usually, these organizations are not structured to normalize incoming demand, and instead are structured to build and grow as quickly as possible, even when growing risks malignancy.

Type Two: The “has a good work-life balance” workplace

Sometimes these are the companies that truly have some modicum of respect for peoples’ lifestyles. Usually, this means that you have a significant self-responsibility to set your schedule. You’ll work tightly with your manager to determine when you can be out without hurting your team.

Sometimes, “good work-life balance” may actually translate (roughly) to “we have an on-site chef, mental health resources, and transit credits to help soften the sting of late night pager duty.”

These companies tend to also have unlimited vacation policies.

These organizations typically fail to set clear expectations. The passivity of “unlimited vacation” has been discussed at length in many other forms for this reason; the result is that people do not feel the necessary permission to take vacation, and ultimately end up taking less than their more traditional counterparts.

The failing here is that defining what should be accomplishable, and providing flexibility “assuming all your work has been completed” is a backdoor way of overloading a role, even unintentionally.

Type Three: The “strict 40-hour a week” workplace

Interestingly, the strict 40-hour a week might turn out to be the most humane policy on this list, albeit with its own shortcomings.

Most older organizations are run this way, typically because of long-established policies.

The basic idea is that you are paid for five 8-hour days. You can take vacation based on the same time currency.

Your time is yours to manage; you use vacation as a resource. When you don’t use it, you don’t lose it - it typically accrues.

In a system where 40-hours is the established norm, generally a reporting and surveillance culture is assumed. Even when this surveillance seems ignored, the HR processes surrounding the accounting will feel a bit like fulfilling a contract, missing the sense of flexibility and relationship you might experience in a “good work-life balance” workplace.

Shortcomings

Each of these three models has its shortcomings. In a fast-paced environment, workers burn out and tempers run hot. People feel the chaos of the role, and especially in remote environments never feel totally unplugged. In the “balanced” environment, everyone walks on egg shells. Trust is eventually accomplishable, but it might take years of uncertainty or anxiety to get there; this is even more pronounced for people early in their careers. The 40-hour week is, ironically, quite inefficient; it assumes that work can fit neatly into those 40 hours, which is often not true. Additionally, its easy to feel that your job is transactional, not a process of developing mastery or artisanship.

The 39-hour week

Taking from each of these models, we can build a better way.

Instead of setting a strict number of hours for working, we set a soft ceiling at 40 hours.

But, we know that things will happen. Life doesn’t fit in whatever boxes you make for it.

If it’s 2PM on a Tuesday, and the weather is nice outside - wouldn’t it be great if we could go stand outside and take that in? Why should all of our 2PM’s be claimed except for on the weekend? This is where the 39-hour-week comes in.

We adopt the flexible demand mindset of the “fast-paced organization” - you determine what hours are optimal to work for you and for the job you’re doing.

We adopt the trust model of the balanced workplace. You won’t hear “as long as your work is done” - instead, you’ll hear “the work can wait if it needs to.”

We adopt the predictability and agency of the 40-hour workplace. Just because there is some flexibility in how your hours play out doesn’t mean you don’t have a clear picture of how things are going.

TLDR;

Your job is not to fill a specific number of hours. It’s also not to overextend and commit your whole being to the company. We won’t passively guilt you into working as much as you think is “enough.” Instead, we set an agreement - that you will seek excellence in your job, but you won’t sacrifice your personal life to do it.

It seems so simple, but making the personal health of the individuals in your organization a priority will create a work environment that is magnetic.


Written by Jonathan Cutrell, Director of Engineering at PBS and podcast host at Developer Tea. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.