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It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at Work - Part 1

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Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson have a new book out called It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, which pushes back against the toxic culture of overwork and unhealthy ambitions that’s driving much of the modern workplace. In this episode, Wailin sits down with David to talk about the book’s genesis, its intended audience, and the role of responsible software design in fostering calm work environments.

We’re taking your questions for David and Jason to answer in an upcoming mailbag episode! Leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850 and you’ll be entered into a drawing for an autographed copy of It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work.

The Full Transcript:

David: [00:00:00] It doesn’t have to be crazy at work is a book about pushing back at a modern interruption factory. The modern anxiety factory that is work in 2018. Work weeks don’t have to be 80 hours for you to do great work. They can be a calm 40. That 40 is plenty that you don’t have to pack and fill your schedule and your calendar to the brim. You simply need time to think and it doesn’t have to be crazy at work. It’s about creating that time and giving you arguments for why creating that time is valuable and productive and pushing back against the idea that you’re a slacker if you’re not constantly stressed to the tilt.

Wailin: [00:00:49] Welcome to rework a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:56] And I’m Shaun Hildner. As many of you know, last week Basecamp cofounders, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson published a new book. It’s called, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, and it reinforces and builds on a lot of those ideas in their previous books, Rework and Remote. Ideas you’ve probably heard us explore over the last year or so on this show.

Wailin: [00:01:15] The book is out right now and you can get it in all the usual places you buy books. It’s also available in audio book form, although not read by me or Shaun, much to the disappointment of listeners everywhere, I’m sure.

Shaun: [00:01:27] That’s correct, but the most fun way to get a book, or anything for that matter, is to enter a contest.

Wailin: [00:01:36] Have you ever won a radio contest?

Shaun: [00:01:37] Not once.

Wailin: [00:01:38] Have you ever called into a radio contest?

Shaun: [00:01:39] Absolutely not.

Wailin: [00:01:40] Oh, we’re doing a little giveaway. We haven’t even floated this past David and Jason yet.

Shaun: [00:01:44] What they don’t know won’t hurt them. Anyway, we have another one of our twice-yearly meetups coming up and that’s when we usually like to record our mailbag episodes. So, if you have any questions for David and Jason, you can leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850 and you’ll be entered into a drawing for a signed copy of the new book. We’ll have a few to give away, so don’t worry.

Wailin: [00:02:09] Maybe you want advice on how to work more calmly or how to make your company a calmer place to work for everyone. I think David and Jason get a lot of questions about how to put their ideas into practice at really big companies. So, I’m sure they’d welcome some questions on that.

Shaun: [00:02:22] Once again, leave your question in a voicemail (708) 628-7850, and leave some sort of contact info so we can get at you about your winnings. But in the meantime, Wailin recently sat down with David to chat about the new book. It was a little bit longer conversation, so we broke it into two parts. Here’s the first:

Wailin: [00:02:47] Why now for this book? Because you and Jason have been talking and writing about these topics for a long time, arguably since Rework. I think this book is a very natural extension of a lot of the themes found in Rework. So, you’re looking at well over a decade of talking about these things and why was now the right time to put them in a new book?

David: [00:03:06] I think one of the main motivations was this sense that things are getting worse. That a lot of the topics we covered in Rework kind of painted some of the lines for the work that we’re doing with It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, but it wasn’t as acute. I feel that the sense of stress, this overwhelming onslaught of interruptions and out of whack ambitions, and all the other topics that we cover in It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work has only gotten worse. There’s some weirdness to that in the sense that technology has gotten a lot better just since Rework. Rework is almost 10 years old now and we’ve gotten more tools, better connectivity, faster computers.

[00:03:55] We’ve gotten everything you would think someone would need to have a calmer, more productive work environment. And we’ve gotten the opposite. And some of the basics that we’ve known for a long time aren’t very productive or healthy for workers, like the open office is still just as prevalent as it’s ever been. So, in some ways the new book is a bit of an aspiration to say, we should be able to do better. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. Why aren’t things getting better? And let’s try to put a cohesive argument together for first of all illuminating that things are bad. I think one of the reasons things are getting worse is because very few people have stopped and felt the temperature of the water that’s slowly been increasing. That, we’re getting boiled and we’re getting boiled half a degree at a time. And, the frog isn’t noticing. We’re not noticing. We’re not noticing how bad it is now compared to A, what it used to be, and B, what it could be.

[00:05:06] And the primary argument in the opening of the book is to basically just take a step back and say, look at where you are. Is this a good place? Are you happy with how work is configured right now? Most people are not working in environments that are supportive to them.

[00:05:28] And then once we’ve come to that common realization that we’re not in a good place, then let’s examine some of the tools and techniques that we can use to get us out of that place. Because it’s all there. We’re not waiting for some revelation by either insights into organizational theory or technology that’s missing. All the pieces are there. It’s simply about putting those pieces together into a whole supportive structure where we can do all that great work we all want to do. All the work that can be done without all of these constant interruptions. All the work that can be done within the 40 hours of reasonable time spent on work. And then, letting life happen outside of that in a way where it isn’t stressful and we’re aren’t constantly being pulled back into work and we aren’t worrying about work. I think that’s the broad picture.

Wailin: [00:06:26] Do you trace this kind of increasing toxicity to a kind of benign neglect? In that we let ourselves get into this situation and we just didn’t realize how bad it got and maybe we don’t know an alternative so we’re stuck. Or do you trace it to actually something maybe darker and more malicious where there, are those of us who are selling this kind of toxic work culture as something that should be valued and pursued?

David: [00:06:59] I think it’s both and we try to address both angles. I think a lot of people, first of all, aren’t even aware what the situation that they’re in is, as we’ve talked about. But there certainly is also the other side of it where there are people who perceive a benefit or derive a benefit when work is cast in these terms, that it’s heroic to work as many hours as you can possibly squeeze out. Most of the eloquent songs about how wonderful that is, they’re all being sung by high-level executives, venture capitalists, other people high in the hierarchy of work and they’re singing these songs, clearly, to inspire the troops to follow them into this pursuit.

[00:07:47] When Marissa Mayer is talking about the fact that it’s possible to work 120 hours or 130 hours a week, if you’re just being strategic with your bathroom breaks… Look at me, I am so virtuous that I can work these hours. Clearly, you can work a leisurely hundred hours a week. I mean surely there’d be nothing in that. So, there’s the trickle down of both the value systems and then the practices of it where I do think it is kind of cynical and the cynicism may not even be conscious in the sense of someone like Marissa Mayer or anyone else who is spouting this philosophy of work. That, like, Oh, if I put this out there, then I can really crack the whip and I can get people to run faster and faster. I think there’s a deep-seated ethos of this is how work should be. Work is better when everyone pours in everything they have. And preferably even a little more. Then, we are doing a good thing here for people. We’re inspiring them to achieve more. We’re inspiring them to reach for greatness. All these clichés of overwork.

[00:09:00] There’s a lot of lines around the sense that it’s hard to get a man to realize what his paycheck depends on him not realizing. This is a Sinclair quote goes or something like that. And there’s a lot of, I think incentive riding on the fact that if managers and people who are funding companies can get the workers to put in evermore, they stand to benefit. So, they are naturally inclined to believe stories that doing so is good and great and everyone should really be on that.

Wailin: [00:09:32] Yeah. So it seems like you are making this argument on two tracks. On one hand when you speak to the managers and the people who have the power to make decisions over their employees lives, you’re saying you should be doing things differently. And then for maybe those who have a little less power, it’s saying, Wake up, it can be better. It can be different.” And then maybe giving them some things they can do within their spheres of influence to make their work lives better.

David: [00:09:55] Absolutely. That was actually one of the early discussions we had with both the publisher and editor who read the initial manuscript was who are we actually talking to? And the answer was, we’re talking to everyone. If you’re a worker and you’re just, you’re an employee, and you don’t, you can’t articulate why things aren’t feeling good. Why am I depressed? Why am I burned out? Why do I have this unease of work? Why is there no satisfaction of shipping things or being productive? Even though I’m pouring in all these hours, we’re giving you a diagnosis, and that diagnosis may not lead to any immediate action because you don’t have the power to just say like, well, I’m going to do things this other way. But hopefully, it plants a seed and that seed goes, well, next time I’m going to look for a job, I’m going to look at companies in a different way.

[00:10:53] I’m not just going to look for the mission. Or the compensation. Or these other factors. I’m also going to look at does this company have a healthy perspective on work? And again, that may not be a short-term solution. Not everyone has the luxury of just being able to quit their job and find something else. But, if you plant the seed, at least you’re blessing someone with a diagnosis of why things are not feeling right and giving them the analytical perspective that allows them to realize that it’s not just me. It’s not just because I’m not ambitious enough or I’m lazy or these other self-incriminating factors that I think a lot of people would be likely to bring up. There’s a larger picture here.

[00:11:44] And then, when we’re speaking to managers and entrepreneurs and people who do have the power to make a change, we’re, first of all, setting an example. Here’s Basecamp. We’re a successful small software company who did things differently. So, don’t believe the hype that it’s a prerequisite for success that you have to slave drive employees, otherwise you’re not going to make it. That’s just false. And we present our own company and our own experience as exhibit A. That this can be done in a different way and you can still have a successful outcome.

[00:12:27] Then, we also try to reset the ambition level for these people who do have the power. That the ambitions we have at Basecamp are novel or at least different, I think, from a lot of other companies in our industry that we aren’t trying to get to Unicorn status. We aren’t trying to destroy our competition. We aren’t trying to capture the entire market. We aren’t trying even to capture customers. We’re simply building great products, selling them for a reasonable price to people who would enjoy to buy them and that that can be enough.

[00:12:59] I think sometimes the greatest gift you can give someone is the permission to be satisfied that this constant entrepreneurial ethos of ever more ever higher striving is really damaging. And it seeps into the mind at a really deep level where it colors, all the actions that follow from that. So, if we are to make some fundamental long-term change, we have to reprogram that part first.

Wailin: [00:13:28] You know, it’s interesting how you and Jason have built the company in a very deliberate way where you’ve opted out of all of the things you find distasteful about especially tech culture and Silicon Valley culture. And in having done that now since basically the inception of the company, are there any ways in which you feel like the toxic culture around you actually affects Basecamp and the way you run things here? Or do you feel like you’ve done a pretty good job at kind of pushing back and not letting those things infiltrate the company and the culture here?

David: [00:14:02] I think the presence and our continued observation of Silicon Valley and tech culture in general provides us with a lot of motivation actually to do things better. I think it would be easier for us to simply fall into an unconscious mode of running the company where we’re just like, oh yeah, we’re just doing things. But the contrast is this sharp enough that it actually emboldens both me and I believe Jason as well to go even further when you see so much shit out there in the world, you just go like, well fuck it. We have the power to do something better. So, I’d say if anything, it’s leading, at least for me personally to double down on some of these things and really examine how we work at Basecamp and how the industry at large is working in a much harsher light. Just because I’m so offended, basically, about all these nonsensical work values and principles that are constantly being pushed that I feel it’s an obligation and we need to take an actually even stronger stand then what we perhaps naturally would have taken.

[00:15:23] Now, some of that also just comes from the fact that we’ve gone through similar paths on some of the topics. For example, one of the things we address in the book is the idea of vacation time. That, for a long time we used to have a policy basically called unlimited vacation. We don’t count vacation days. And we genuinely thought that that was a good practice until we started reading and examining the topic in closer detail and realizing actually this is, this is not very great at all. Unlimited does not mean unlimited. It just means fuzzy. Unknown. And what does it actually mean in practice? For Basecamp, it meant that there was a bunch of people who ended up taking very little vacation. And if the, final outcome is that people take only two weeks or a week of vacation every year, that’s not very generous at all.

[00:16:17] I mean it’s actually the opposite of a generous policy. So, after that examination we, we scrapped the idea of unlimited vacation days and went to a much more structured system that still had some flexibility that we weren’t necessarily counting, but that the guidelines were very clear that everyone can take three weeks of continues vacation every year that we do the, um, summer hours where everyone has a Fridays or whatever else day off for several months over the summer. That we just spelled out the expectations to alleviate this sense that, oh, if I take two and a half weeks, am I wrong? Am I doing something bad? Am I going to get fired for using this? No. Now it’s very clear.

[00:17:00] And that was an example of a policy that we had a bit unconsciously just adopted from other technology companies and thought like, oh, on the face of it, the cover of this looks great. And then when we opened it up, we went like, oh, it’s full of shit. And then of course, I think the fever with, which we become believers in pushing a better model becomes even greater, right? When we’ve gone through the path of doing something that really was not good, realized our error. We become even more a passionate spokespeople for a better way.

Wailin: [00:17:38] You were talking earlier about technology and how technology has really improved yet, kind of overall things have gotten worse and it’s like Basecamp, the company makes productivity software, right? So, it’s like all about how you use the tools. And I think you could see a way in which a Basecamp customer maybe uses the software in ways we wouldn’t and maybe they use it in a way that makes their employees very stressed out. Like you got t0 assign, a hundred to do’s and then you get like a hundred messages following up on those to do’s and then people are talking at you in chat all day and stuff like that. I mean do you think about kind of those things as well? Does it, do you ever stop and think like, oh gosh, like I hope people aren’t using the software and non-calm ways?

David: [00:18:20] No doubt. And I think we actually do have a responsibility to design the software in such a way that it nudges and encourages people to use it in healthy ways. I think it’s a complete cop out when makers of software or any other tools just throw up their hands and say, well that’s just people. They will choose to use whatever it is that we make in whatever ways and then completely fail to accept any responsibility for the thing that they’ve designed and what that thing encourages. I’ve seen that discussion a lot around chat in particular that, yeah, I mean, chat, it’s just up to how you use it and it just happens to be that lots of people use it—or misuse it or even abuse it—in terrible ways. Well, that’s just people being people. Oh, come on. You can certainly design software as you can design anything in lots of different ways that nudges people into lots of different patterns.

[00:19:16] Usually the tech companies in the software industry in general, they take great pride in that. Look at all these patterns we have for maximizing engagement. If you send push notifications to people, luring them back into your app, you can see at a 7.43 increase in engagement the following week. They get very specific when it serves their purpose. When it doesn’t serve their purpose, and when we were trying to move to a better place, then they go, whoop! It’s just all on the people. I think that’s seriously disingenuous.

[00:19:51] So, for Basecamp, what we’ve tried to do is to take some of these stands. We have a feature called Work Can Wait, which is very specifically named, not in a neutral way. Work Can Wait is a value statement. You could call that feature, um, turn off notifications or whatever. Something technical, where it just implies what it does. Work Can Wait says something more than just what it does. That we think work should wait and for most people, they shouldn’t be getting push notifications from Basecamp in the middle of the night. So, by having a feature that has some defaults where the Work Can Wait schedule [inaudible]. I think we haven’t set up from like nine to five or something like that. Perhaps with a little bit of flexibility on either end. We’re making a statement and we’re taking a stand and saying this is how we think the software should be used. You should not use Basecamp to keep peppering employees with tasks and follow ups in the middle of the night and forcing them to deal with those situations outside of work. No, employees should be able to simply just turn off Basecamp and then it wakes up the next morning and work will be ready when work is ready to commence.

[00:21:11] So, that’s an example of how we’ve done it. But I’m also sure that even with that, even with our intentions of nudges and so on, no doubt that there’ll be terrible bosses that use Basecamp and all sorts of ways that would make us pale. But, even so, that does not relieve us from making general steps forward to encourage that Basecamp is used in a certain way. That it’s not a neutral playing ground here. We not just supplying tools and then it’s up to people how they use those tools. We can suggest affordances, how you should hold the tool, how you should swing it in such a way that you don’t get an injury. And whether that’s a physical design or it’s a sort of creative or mental design, you can do the work. You can play through how is this going to be used? We’ve had a lot of other discussions over the years at Basecamp around permissions and disability and what’s the boss supposed to be able to see easily and not. There’s a lot of these choices where if you aren’t thinking about it carefully and you just think about it, oh, whenever the customer wants you end up designing some very unethical software that hurts people.

Shaun: [00:22:29] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me, Shaun Hildner. Our theme music is Broken By Design by Clip Art.

Wailin: [00:22:37] Remember, you can leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850. We’re collecting your questions for David and Jason about the themes in It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, and you’ll be entered into a giveaway for a signed copy of the book.

Shaun: [00:22:51] You can find show notes for this and every episode at our website, and we’re on Twitter @reworkpodcast. Next week, we’ll have part two of our interview with David focusing more on the process of writing the book itself.