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LAURA WHITMAN: What if work wasn’t crazy?

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- Belle DeMont

How many times have you arrived at a coffee shop for a meeting, asked someone how things are going and they answer with “Oh you know… crazy, but good” or “This is a crazy time of year” or “Things are a little crazy right now, but otherwise — everything’s fine!”

Perhaps you can recall a time (or several) when you’ve been the one answering the question this way; I know I can.

But what if wasn’t crazy at work … ever?

Disrupting always-on work culture

Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are bestselling authors and co-founders of a company called Basecamp, known for their project management and team communication software of the same name. Basecamp (the product) has more than three million users and according to their website, 4,863 companies signed up last week alone.

Basecamp was founded in 1999, has about 50 staff who are spread out across 32 cities around the world, and for the past 20 years its founders have been intentional about making it a calm company. One that isn’t fuelled by stress, ASAP, late nights, impossible promises, high turnover, consistently missed deadlines, or projects that never seem to end.

Fried and Hansson’s latest co-authored book is aptly titled It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. In it, they challenge dozens of norms that organizations of all sizes and industries abide by — in many cases, unconsciously.

“If you stop thinking that you must change the world, you lift a tremendous burden off of yourself and the people around you. The opportunity to do another good day's work will come again tomorrow, even if you go home at a reasonable time.”

From how many hours we work and how frequently we meet, to the impact and influence we want to have. From the ways we plan to launch our project, to the common ways we hire and compensate our employees. Fried and Hansson say it’s time to examine all of this and more — with common sense, respectful boundaries and brave disruption of habitual patterns in mind.

Enough already

With all the technology, hacks and tools we have at our disposal in 2019, you’d think work would be getting easier. But it’s not. People are working more and getting less done. Fried and Hansson say: it just doesn’t add up.

How many of the hours spent at work are really spent on the work itself? How many are spent in meetings? Lost in distraction? Building consensus where there doesn’t need to be any? Creating an always-on, more-is-better culture?

Fried and Hansson are calling for less waste and more production. Less anxiety and more work days that are limited to eight hours. Why? Because when it’s constantly crazy at work, that crazy creeps into life, affecting our relationships and our health — and it just doesn’t have to be that way.

“It’s time for companies to stop asking their employees to breathlessly chase ever-higher, ever-more-artificial targets set by ego. It’s time to give people the uninterrupted time that great work demands. It’s time to stop celebrating crazy at work.”

More isn’t better. Better is better.

Fried and Hansson’s philosophy appears to be rooted in one core belief: a business is a collection of choices. Every day is a new chance to make a new choice; a different choice.

Is how you’re working today how you’ll want to be working five, ten, 20 years from now?

If not, Fried and Hansson have one response: make the change now. Why wait?

After all, when the culture and circumstances surrounding you reinforces the message that faster and more is always better, there will always be a reason to wait. It will be easy to think your work is world-changing when it isn’t, to think your timelines can’t possibly by extended without dire consequences, or to believe that letting good ideas pile up without actioning them is the epitome of failure.

Creating a calm company, Fried and Hansson say, “requires getting comfortable with what’s enough. If it’s never enough, it will always be crazy at work.”

Walking the talk

One example of how Basecamp’s commitment to being a calm company informs their decisions shows up in their approach to customer service.

The Basecamp team once set out to respond to every customer inquiry within one hour. They achieved it and then set out to respond within 30 minutes. They did that too. Then the goal moved to 15 minutes, then two minutes and eventually: one minute. And they did it. But at what cost? Eventually, the cost started showing up in the team. They went from feeling proud to totally stressed out; feeling guilt and shame if they didn’t reply to a customer for three minutes. The goal of never getting back to people fast enough was unsustainable.

“It was amazing that it could be done, but we forgot to ask whether it should be done.”

What they found is that customers were just as delighted if they responded in 30 minutes or an hour; even a few! Their striving for faster turnaround times didn’t delight the customers any more — their expectations were already being met — it simply wore Basecamp's people down and out.

For reflection

What about the idea of a calm company resonates with you? What parts scare you or challenge your beliefs about what businesses should do, be or strive to become? In what ways might your behaviours at work — whether as a founder, executive or employee — be fuelling an unsustainable, “always on” culture? Is how you’re working today how you’d like to be working five or 10 years from now — why or why not?

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