The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0050

The Cult of Overwork

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We’re back from summer break! It’s time to get back to work, but it’s important not to overdo it. In this episode, Ty Fujimura, president of web design firm Cantilever, talks about how he escaped the Cult of Overwork; why it’s important to rethink the relationship between hours “worked” and actual productivity; and how establishing healthier patterns in the workplace has helped diversify his staff.


The Full Transcript:

Ty: [00:00:00] We don’t have working hours where people are expected to be around. We don’t have synchronous communication expectations very frequently. You can step away from your desk, you can be anywhere and that’s okay. We need to give people the latitude to work however they want.

[00:00:16] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:00:17] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. Or should I say, welcome back. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:26] And I’m Shaun Hildner, and yes we are back from summer hiatus with all new episodes of Rework.

Wailin: [00:00:33] This is the time when a lot of us are returning to work. School is back in session and if you’re in the US or Canada, you just celebrated Labor Day, which is kind of like the last hurrah the summer. With so much work on the brain, we wanted to remind you not to overdo it.

Shaun: [00:00:49] Today on the show we will hear from Ty Fujimura, who recently wrote an excellent piece on Medium called “The Cult of Overwork and How to Avoid It.” Wailin and Ty get into how he escaped the cult, how he communicates with clients who might have different expectations and how setting better boundaries helps build a more diverse workplace.

Ty: [00:01:07] My name is Ty Fujimura. I’m the founder of Cantilever. We’re a web design and development company. We have eight people between full- and part-time staff and we’re distributed across the US and Canada.

Wailin: [00:01:19] Maybe one place to start would be… you had come to a realization that you were modeling a culture of overwork, or kind of a system of overwork for your employees and you didn’t like that that was happening. Can you talk about what led to that epiphany?

Ty: [00:01:41] I think it was a slow process. I think I just started out ingrained with a lot of the ideas that most people have about the relationship between hours and and output. Especially early on, I really saw a lot of my value as just being able to crank away on projects and put in long weeks and sort of being the workhorse at the company. And so I kind of wanted people to see that, because I thought that it was a sign of my own dedication or ability.

[00:02:15] The reasons behind why I shifted that mentality are layered. I think one of them was having children. So, after I had children and I, obviously, I was prioritizing my time with them above work. And that led to me sort of reconsidering the way I looked at my working hours, but also just growing my team and seeing more people and seeing the ways in which people ended up doing the best and noticing that that was so rarely when people were up until two in the morning writing JavaScript.

[00:02:44] And as I mentioned in the piece, I’m still prone to long weeks and that’s also part of running a business and it’s a part of work sometimes. Sometimes you have a crunch and you need to get things done quicker and you need to push for a little while, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

[00:03:01] But I think what is an issue is when overwork is a pervasive part of a company’s culture because it has a lot of deleterious effects. Not only on actual productivity over the long run, but on the way that you can construct your team and on the character and attitude within the company.

Wailin: [00:03:21] If you would send an email or have like a commit recorded at like two in the morning or something like early morning outside of what’s considered normal working hours, would you expect a response back or were you just hoping that—and this could have been a subconscious thing entirely—were you hoping just that employees would see like the timestamp on that particular thing and be like, okay, this means he is really committed and working hard.

Ty: [00:03:49] Yeah, exactly. I think I was hoping that there was some sort of signal sent by the fact that people in the office would see me there as they were leaving and they would see me there as they were coming in and it would sort of rub off to the rest of the company that this is a place where you work really hard. And I think that’s pretty intuitive, especially in our cultural context of technology.

[00:04:14] I wasn’t going so far as to really demand a lot of insane hours from people. But I think I was just kind of hoping that my dedication would become other people’s dedication. And what I was missing was that, people can be incredibly dedicated without necessarily committing those kinds of hours to work. And I think that’s the mistake that a lot of companies fall into is that hours become kind of a proxy for devotion and attachment to the mission.

[00:04:45] And when that happens, it has the side effect that the only people who you ever consider devoted to your mission are people who have the time to put in that kind of energy. So what it does is it sort of artificially filters down who you consider to be a viable or a dedicated team member to the people who can commit that amount of time. And that’s just such a small segment of the population. And that’s part of why a companies that do this end up being homogenous and have kind of a monoculture that, certainly as a founder, I really want to avoid.

Wailin: [00:05:20] When you were starting to reconsider this pattern or behavior, did you think about where these toxic notions of work had come from? I ask this because I feel like I’m starting to think about this more for myself. Almost going back as like an anthropologist, being like, where did this come from?

Ty: [00:05:44] Yeah.

Wailin: [00:05:44] What was it? Was it something I saw modeled when I was a child? Was it, is it in the popular culture? I somehow absorbed when I was little, like what… I’m starting to interrogate for myself where these cultural of work and workaholism come from. And I was wondering if you did any of this same thinking, too? Because I think it’s an interesting exercise to try to like pin down the cause.

Ty: [00:06:10] If you think back to sort of agricultural or even prior to that, like hunter-gatherer societies, you have to put in a lot of effort in order to survive. And so I think there’s a certain amount of fundamental, ingrained bias towards seeing effort and seeing energy expended as sort of a proxy for your likelihood of survival or of being able to provide for your family or whatever. And is that kind of makes sense from a biological perspective. But I think the concept of the hour as kind of a unit of work is perhaps a product of industrialization. I think if you, if you look at work in purely mechanistic terms, it’s going to be very tempting for you to see things that way.

[00:06:57] One influence in my life that kind of snuck its way into the piece is my dad, who’s a painter. And as a painter, if he just tries to crank out as many paintings as he possibly can, that is not going to lead to the outcomes that he’s looking for. He needs to have time in his life to think and to explore different ideas and to reflect and to talk to people and interact with people. And that’s ultimately what allows him to make a painting. And the actual energy of doing it happens in a very short amount of time.

[00:07:27] The relationship between hours expended and output is not as clear cut as you think. And especially in a knowledge work context. The entirety of your life supports your work in some regard. If I’m designing a website and I can’t tell you how many times we’ve designed something where, because I saw something in my daily life, I saw some graffiti on the street or I was clicking around some website that I was interested in, or pursuing some other interests of mine or learning how to cook or whatever it is. All these different influences permeate your work and your design becomes drawn from that milieu. It’s so hard to pin down the reasons why your work was successful. And certainly spending more time at the office for a lot of people is not going to be the thing that they really need to do to take it to the next level.

Wailin: [00:08:23] Yeah. And you say in the piece that you started noticing among the employees and the people you manage that about 30 hours was a good baseline, right? That if you push them to go beyond 30 hours in a week, that there would be that drop-off in quality and in productivity, right?

Ty: [00:08:44] Yeah. I think that’s about right. I think Cal Newport, he’s a social scientist who I kind of referenced in the piece as well. He has posited that you can get somewhere between three and six or four and seven hours of really good creative or technical work in a day. That’s only going to be able to happen if you’re able to block off that time and really spend that time properly, which is another topic which I’d love to touch on, but that four to seven hours in a day would translate over the course of a week. That’s, 20, 30 hours where you’re really getting your hardcore, focused time knowledge work done. Whether that’s design, development, writing, podcasting, whatever it is. And you’re going to need the rest of your time to sort of support that creative output that you’re making.

[00:09:36] So you’re going to need to spend time researching, spend time interacting with people and networking and just doing all the day to day things that we need to do in order to work, like status meetings and stuff like that. Filling out your automated Basecamp questions, things like that. So—

Wailin: [00:09:52] Oh, you don’t just skip them like I do?

Ty: [00:09:55] Occasionally guilty, I try to remember. So yeah, I think that’s a pretty good benchmark if you have people working under you or if you’re a knowledge worker and you’re kind of wondering like what’s that optimum point? I think you should be shooting for something like that. And one model that I like to use and encourage people at the company to use is to block off some amount of time every day. So on my calendar, I have four hours in the morning from 8:00 to 12:00 or 8:00 to 11:45, that is no meetings. I try to do nothing but tackle the most important challenges in my day. And that’s a pivotal thing in me progressing and getting the things that I need to get done finished.

Wailin: [00:10:40] Yeah, I mean I think that feeds into this larger conversation about let’s look at units of time in a better way. Right? In the same way that you reject the notion that one pure hour equals some, is a pure proxy for productivity.

Ty: [00:10:58] X widgets, yeah.

Wailin: [00:11:00] It also, like if you’re saying we only need 30 hours a week, you also have to be like, well those 30 hours have to be real. Or those four to six hours a day have to be real hours, not like fake work hours, right?

Ty: [00:11:13] Yes, absolutely. Yeah. And there’s a corollary there with my main argument in the piece and something I think a lot of firms are realizing, which is that if you have people in your office for 80 hours a week, they are not doing 80 hours worth of work.

Wailin: [00:11:28] Oh, they’re not?

Ty: [00:11:29] Good luck with that. People who are working that amount of time just have to, just biologically need to be taking mental breaks in order to stay functional and literally stay alive. So people who are in the office for that amount of time are not giving you the output that you’re thinking and they’re filling that time with things that sort of approximate leisure, or approximate breathing room or space, but aren’t actually that. That people have an amount of sustained focus that they can realistically give. And as an employer, I think, certainly the way I perceive the optimal strategy is to give people that space and not demand any of their other time so they can spend the rest of their time the way that they want. And as long as we’re giving them that time to dig in on the most important challenges that they face, they’re going to be just as productive as if they spent twice as much time ostensively working.

[00:12:26] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:12:29] After the break, we’ll get into how to start making those changes toward a healthier work culture. But first, let’s talk about Basecamp.

Shaun: [00:12:35] Basecamp is the app for managing projects the right way. Without Basecamp projects feel scattered, things slip. It’s tough to see where things stand and people get stressed. That’s where Basecamp comes in. Everything’s organized in one place, you’re on top of things. Progress is clear and in a sense of calm sets in.

[00:12:52] In fact, let me have Basecamp CEO Jason Fried tell you a bit more.

Jason: [00:12:56] So a lot of our customers have something in common that’s not industry or company size necessarily, but it’s situation. They’ve gotten to the point where things feel like stuff’s getting a bit out of control. Maybe they’re growing a little bit too fast or they’re taking on too many projects and however they’re working, just they know it’s not quite working anymore. They’re doing it but something’s not right. So they begin looking for something to fix this. And a lot of them turn to to-do tools to begin with.

[00:13:22] The problem with to-do tools is that they let you make really long lists that you’ll never do. So people start there and they realize like this isn’t working either, and they start to look at a chat tool and chat scrape. But there’s a lot of conversations that don’t need to happen and it doesn’t really help you organize things.

[00:13:37] So eventually people start to look for something that integrates all these different things: tasks, schedules, communication and that’s when they land on Basecamp. And they pick Basecamp up and they finally realize that the work they have, that’s sort of scattered all over the place doesn’t have to be that way and they can get things back under control.

Shaun: [00:13:51] Find out more and try Basecamp for free at Basecamp.com.

Wailin: [00:13:58] In terms of practical changes that you put into effect as a response to this, you mentioned now blocking out your time in the morning for really focused work where you don’t have meetings. What were some other things that you did for the rest of your employees to create the kind of culture of healthy work that you wanted?

Ty: [00:14:15] A lot of it goes hand in hand with going remote. We had intended for it to be a New York-centric agency, sort of traditional style with an office. We had an office in midtown Manhattan and over time we found that the people who we were really vibing with and who got our philosophy, were remote. We slowly drifted into becoming a remote studio and it didn’t fully happen until maybe three years ago.

[00:14:41] That’s part of my shift or when I started thinking about or implementing more of these things was when you’re remote, you don’t really even have the option to embrace a culture of overwork, a facetime culture because there’s no facetime, so you can’t exactly breathe down people’s necks for not being in the office when you don’t know exactly when they are or aren’t in the office. So I think it forced us into a mode where we try to have very clear expectations about how long people need to be working, what people need to be doing, how long we’re expecting things to take. That’s all written. That helps to clarify that, no, I’m not expecting to get an email from you at two in the morning.

[00:15:24] We encourage people in the company to not have their pings on for most things because we don’t want to, to set that expectation that you need to get back right away. Going remote really lead us to naturally find a lot of these techniques that I think would be helpful for a lot of organizations. They just lead to people who are so much happier and so much more able and free to do the work that they want in the way that they want to.

Wailin: [00:15:51] How do you balance the protection of these boundaries that you’ve created with client work? They’re sending me the emails at all hours of the night and I don’t want to get fired if I don’t respond right away. And so you’re in the thick of it. You’re doing client work and you’re pursuing new clients and things like that. So how do you balance those things?

Ty: [00:16:10] When it comes to clients you do have to be a little bit more sensitive to what their working style is and you have to identify early on what they’re expecting of you when it comes to communication. But we find that even our clients who have a working style that’s very synchronous, very latest and loudest are generally okay with the way that we operate. As long as we’re clear and open about the fact that we’re doing that.

[00:16:34] Personally, the way I manage my workflow is I check my, all my inputs, AKA: email, Basecamp, any other Trello or Asana or anything we’re using on a project. I try to check those things once a day. And in most situations that’s fine. Clients, get an email from me every single day in the morning, responding to everything that they sent throughout the prior day.

[00:16:58] I have some clients who have a higher expectations and there’s no problem with that. So when I’m working on a project with those clients, I might check twice a day or three times a day, but I don’t have to check all the time because even for a client who is extremely sensitive to the timing of emails, if I’m answering their emails within three hours, that’s going to be fine.

[00:17:21] And the way that we usually explain this to clients is that what’s good for us is good for them. If we are able to focus, that’s going to be reflected in the final product. Our working style is most critically there to keep us sane. What it does is produces better websites. We write better code because we have time to focus and our clients are extremely invested in us writing really good code for them. Wailin: [00:17:46] And I wanted to go back to one thing that you mentioned that is a really big part of the piece you wrote, which is getting away from the monoculture and how creating a more healthy work culture then diversifies your employee base and allows more people of different backgrounds and contexts to be able to do good work for you. And in particular you had come to some realizations about working parents and moms in the workplace. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Ty: [00:18:17] So I mentioned earlier that part of my shift in my thinking and philosophy about work was when I had my children. Realizing that now I have an even more important job to do every day that can be just as time consuming as my career.

[00:18:31] The way that we try to approach anyone who has any sort of, extreme pressure on their time, whether they’re taking care of children or taking care of a parent, or they have a health condition, is to determine the working model that’s going to be best for them and their particular situation.

[00:18:49] Within our team we don’t have sort of one salary level with one requirement as to how much work you’re doing and how many hours you’re putting in. Everybody kind of has their own thing and it’s all designed specifically to fit that person’s life.

[00:19:04] So within our team we have a huge diversity of agreements with compensation and benefits and expectations. People work for your company not because they just love your company and want it to succeed. As much as that may be true, and it’s easy to fall into that trap as a founder, especially if you’re doing something really important. People work for you because of the effect that working for you has on their life. They are able to support their family because of the work that they’re doing within your company. Or they’re able to advance in their career because of the work that they’re doing for you. So I think when it comes to parents, you want to set things up in a way that they’re actually gleaning all the benefit from working for your company that they should when it comes to their children and what they’re able to do with their children.

[00:19:55] For a lot of people that will mean primarily, supporting their children financially. But for most parents it’s going to include time as well. We know also that parents are extremely good at avoiding distraction because in order to get anything done as a parent, you have to be able to shut something off mentally and get down to work. Being a parent trains you to focus in short and succinct batches of time. So we trust that the parents who we work with are going to be able to do that. And we don’t put particular expectations around them that would jeopardize their ability to enjoy the fruits of their labor when it comes to time with their family.

Wailin: [00:20:42] Yeah. And even going beyond that, you’ve now started to introduce some parental leave benefits, which seems like an enormous challenge given how small your company is. Can you talk a little bit about doing that?

Ty: [00:20:54] Yeah, so it was on our wish list for a long time. I always felt pretty rotten about it really, that we didn’t have any sort of policy in place. Especially because we really believe in these ideas and I want to talk about them and I want to evangelize them, but I feel like we have to walk the walk a little bit more.

[00:21:14] So we hadn’t had parental leave for a long time. We did some research and we were finding that most people who work in the US have no form of parental benefits at all. No time off at all. If you don’t have it through your state, which I only a couple states too. So we felt like having something is a lot better than having nothing. And so we just kind of decided on what we could realistically afford given the size of our team and the likelihood that someone would need it.

[00:21:41] We just set up a two week benefit for new parents where they’re going to receive two weeks of whatever their normal compensation is. It’s not the Cadillac of benefits that you can get from a wonderful company like Basecamp. But it’s what we can realistically do and it’s a starting point to grow. We can tell our people that you have this a little bit of extra security that we have your back. One thing that makes our policy unique is, as I mentioned, everybody has their own sort of agreement with the company. So we have a lot of people who are on a hourly compensation. My understanding is that most people who have hourly compensation, even if their company does offer some sort of parental leave, that wouldn’t necessarily apply to you. But since that’s such a big part of our team, we specifically carved that out into the policy. So if you are an hourly worker, your two weeks would just be an average of your normal two weeks of pay through Cantilever? And we hope that it’s helpful. We haven’t had to use it yet, but we’re prepared. It’s accommodated for in our budgeting. I feel a lot better about where we’re at and excited to improve going forward.

Wailin: [00:22:51] I really like that term, the Cult of Overwork, which you credit to James Surowiecki at the New Yorker and it’s like you escaped from that cult. Like you were able to unplug from it. You were able to get out. Because it’s like, I was thinking about, what does a cult do? And a cult is, it’s group thing, right? But it also, it takes your money. It takes all of your time. It cuts you off from your family and your loved ones. And it gaslights you to believe that everyone else who’s telling you there is a different way or another way, a better way, a healthier way, that they’re all lying to you. And that is actually what this culture of overwork does. It checks all those boxes of a traditional cult for me at least.

Ty: [00:23:39] Yeah, I think there’s certainly a reality distortion field when it comes to a lot these companies. That term “cult of overwork” is especially on the nose because it ultimately is something that doesn’t actually help you all that much. So it’s really about a cultural expectation and a setting of values that you’re going to share with people, but it’s not actually something that’s going to produce the results you’re looking for.

[00:24:11] I talked to people who work in environments like this and everybody knows from the CEO on down that this is not creating the best results, but it’s the way things have always been done. It’s a way that they can sort of signal to potential applicants and to clients that they’re serious. And you know, that means something. That carries some currency because the people who adhere to this philosophy, they seek vendors and partners who also share that philosophy and who are willing to, “Do what it takes to, be a part of their business.” So it creates this sense that what’s important is the adherence to the orthodoxy of the group and not necessarily the actual output that you’re exhibiting. So I think that analogy is really strong and helps explain why this pattern and this philosophy is weak and why there’s opportunities to change it. And I think we hope to be a part of the counter-revolution that will improve work for lots of people.

[00:25:11] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:25:19] Rework is produced by Shaun Hildner, and me, Wailin Wong. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.

Shaun: [00:25:24] If you’d like to read Ty’s full piece, we’ll have a link to it in our show notes, which you can find at Rework.fm. We’re on Twitter @ReworkPodcast. And you can leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850

Shaun: [00:25:53] Oh my God. Can you explain the plot of Wild Hearts Can’t Be Free. What is it called?

Wailin: [00:25:58] Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken.

Shaun: [00:26:00] Correct.

Wailin: [00:26:01] Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken is a film from my childhood. It was a Disney film—live action. And it stars the actress Gabrielle Anwar and the guy who is the love interest in 16 Candles.

Shaun: [00:26:13] Okay.

Wailin: [00:26:15] And it takes place in the depression era. And it’s about this young girl who gets trained to do this circus act where she rides a horse up and onto like a tall diving platform. And then they jump off the diving platform into a big pool of water.

Shaun: [00:26:36] Amazing.

Wailin: [00:26:37] And in the film and something goes wrong when she’s doing this trick. She has her eyes open, I think, when she hits the water. So she goes completely blind. And then the rest of the film is about her learning to do this trick while blind.

[Background sound is of dramatic music from the film, including the sound of the girl doing the trick.]

Shaun: [00:26:52] I’ve only ever seen the last, the final scene.

Wailin: [00:26:55] Oh, because our coworker sent it to you.

Shaun: [00:26:57] Correct.

Wailin: [00:26:57] What did you think?

Shaun: [00:26:58] It was super cheesy.

Wailin: [00:27:01] Well, our coworker Andrea, who’s the one who sent this to us because Andrea and I have discussed this movie a lot. I think it was like very formative in our childhoods. You know how like when you watch something when you’re little and then you don’t really remember all of it, but it becomes this kind of primal memory where you just have images that are just kind of stuck in your brain in a very, very deep place.

Shaun: [00:27:24] Mm-hmm.

Wailin: [00:27:24] And then sometimes you picture these scenes and you’re like, did I dream it or is that actually a thing? And then you Google and you’re like, oh no, this is just a movie I watched a bunch of when I was little.

Shaun: [00:27:34] Would you watch this movie again?

Wailin: [00:27:35] I would, but I’m worried that it’s not going to hold up on a rewatch. So I would rather leave it in this kind of like mylar wrapped—

Shaun: [00:27:42] Sure.

Wailin: [00:27:42] —container in my brain. I don’t know how this relates, though. Does this relate back to the culture of overwork?

Shaun: [00:27:53] Oh, it doesn’t, but we’re just getting back in the swing of things from summer break.

[00:27:57] Both laugh.