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The Psychology of Working for Someone Else

Impressing the boss is still a big deal. We’ve flattened organizational structures, made workplaces more casual, and made communication even with the higher-ups much more open. Still, we knowledge workers are a bunch of ambitious over-achievers who have a deep-seated desire to get ahead. And most of us still see a strong correlation between the concept of getting ahead and the concepts of working hard, going the extra mile, and sacrificing for the company (at least here in America we do).

The Tech World: Two Attitudes About Achievement

Outside of Investment Banking, the tech world may be the absolute best at glamorizing ridiculously long hours. From the outside, it looks like we’re all hyped up on Red Bull and coffee, we’re up until 3AM every night, and some of us even sleep under our desks. In our world, long hours translate to loyalty for the company and a love for what we do. Some folks even make “Hustler” their job title (35 openings on Indeed this morning).

But, there is a large and growing group of folks who believe that this kind of attitude about work is actually unproductive. They’re the work/life balance folks. They think a well-rested developer is a more productive developer, and they think the hours = achievement equation is fundamentally flawed. They’re not clock punchers, but their general attitude is that a job is but one aspect of a rich life, a major part of which should be lived outside of work.

Perks and Incentive Alignment

So which of these approaches is correct? Both, and neither. What matters is cultural fit. Always. So here’s the problem:

Making work a more pleasant place and valuing work/life balance are two completely different things.

There are plenty of perks that make sense for both the hustlers and the work/life balance folks. Healthcare is a no brainer, as are retirement options, comfy chairs (or standing desks), and top of the line equipment. Then there are the outliers–the cool startup perks I mention in the title. Let’s look at a few:

Catered Meals: If you’re in the hustler camp, then catered meals make a ton of sense. They almost always cost less than you think (one meal per day for a single employee runs about $3,000 per year) and most applicants and employees see them as a luxury (especially outside of Silicon Valley). If your folks will be working later on a fairly regular basis, then saving them the 30 minutes it takes to cook something healthy–especially after a 10 hour day at the office–is a great benefit.

On the other hand, catered meals generally keep people at work. They tend to force what may be a less than optimal schedule, and having them available is all the more reason to push quitting time an hour or two later. For this reason, it’s an incentive we think work/life balance folks should potentially avoid. A better and equally luxurious perk? A gym membership for your employees (at the gym of their choice, of course). It says we care about your health and well-being, but we’re not going to make you stick around here to show us how much you appreciate that we care.

The No Vacation Policy: Traditionally, vacation was a way to give employees a break and reward longevity. Work at some place for more than five years, and you get three weeks vacation instead of two. In the tech world that doesn’t work so well, partly due to the fact that the average developer changes jobs every couple years. So some innovative startups (and even bigger companies like Netflix) have introduced a “no vacation policy” policy. The idea: take off when you need it. Don’t worry. Problem is, people actually appreciate structure, and if hard work is the main way achievement is measured, then a no vacation policy could potentially have the opposite of its intended effect.

We don’t recommend this approach for most companies. It takes a long-ingrained culture for it to work as intended. For the hustlers, we instead recommend using the standard two or three weeks and then sending folks to a conference or something similar as a reward for a job well done. For the work/life balance folks we recommend something like the brilliant paid paid vacation that the folks at Full Contact use (nutshell: they make you take vacation and pay you go to away and disconnect). It’s relatively expensive as perks go, but if you truly believe that a well-rested employee is a better employee, this kind of a perk can go a long way.

Tech Talks and Drinkups: Finally, there are the social events. These kinds of events are often used as a way to learn or to wind down, and they’re also used for recruiting. They range from presentations to happy hours and are generally pretty informal events where attendance is optional. The issue with “attendance optional” events is that we ambitious overachievers don’t really see them that way. If being social is part of the job, then social events are part of the job too. That may not work as intended if work/life balance is important.

If you’re part of the hustler crowd, these kinds of events are highly recommended. For you, it’s not really about a work/life balance so much as it’s about making work a pleasant place to be, whether it’s for 40, 60, or 80 hours a week. These events do just that. Recommendations for the work/life balance folks are a bit tricky, as many of these events serve a dual purpose and actually are great opportunities to meet people and learn a thing or two. One option is to go the Google route and host these kinds of things during business hours. Take some time on a Thursday afternoon to play badminton or hear from a guest speaker, and if you do want to host or attend events outside of work, do everything you can to show your team that they are truly optional.

In conclusion, it’s important to know what kind of company you are, and when you’ve figured all that out, it’s important to make sure that your incentives are properly aligned. If you’re lighting the world on fire with hustlers and hackers and Red Bull, then do all you can to make work a pleasant place to be. If, on the other hand, you truly value work/life balance, make sure that your perks and incentives are built accordingly. Pay your employees well, give them challenging work, and, at some point shy of 40 hours, tell them to go home. Period.

Thanks to our friends at Coroutine for helping to identify some of these issues. If you’re a Rails developer who values work/life balance, you should let them know. And if you want more advice like this for your company, you should check out PieWorks, our recruiting consulting and management service.