Wellness culture doesn't cure hustle culture
A recent post on Reddit asked why remote workers are online over the weekend. I clicked, knowing I was that annoying green dot on Slack, and wondering if I was having a negative impact on my colleagues.
But when I thought about it more, I realized that I didn't care when my colleagues were online or off. We work asynchronously, which mean work gets done whenever it makes sense to do it. I replied to the OP, saying that monitoring Slack use as a top-down approach was a bad idea. Here's my attempt to explain why.
To be honest, most of the time I spend during the week on so-called productivity apps is unproductive. I'm saying hi, giving feedback, responding to emails and social posts, logging into meetings, starting discussions, asking or answering the dreaded "quick question." It's only when this noise dies down that I'm able to think, let alone work.
My colleagues echoed this sentiment in a recent discussion I started about whether they have fixed working hours. They mostly stick to 8-hour schedules, but with several notable exceptions.
Alexandria, our Customer Support lead, says that "any kind of project or report work tends to get done after hours."
Julien, a software engineer, says that he often signs in between 11am and 1pm when he needs "some extra focus time."
Some remote workers set hard boundaries. They work from 9am-5pm, Monday through Friday. Or they work between school drop off and pickup, and a little bit after their kids have gone to bed. They turn off all apps, and shut down their devices on weekends. Some companies and local governments are experimenting with mandatory 4-day workweeks.
But hard boundaries aren't for everyone, or every type of work task.
Consider the following work projects, typical of a B2B SaaS company:
Each of these projects presents a challenge to fixed work hours.
When you're writing copy, sitting at your desk and throwing energy at the blank screen often doesn't work. You have to take in inspiration from the world around you. The best copy I've ever produced has often come after stepping away from the desk for a while, and taking a walk or talking to friends.
Solving a complex engineering problem, such as rebuilding the technical architecture of a new product or feature, also doesn't come from plodding onwards in an orderly fashion. Often it requires a sprint, a concentrated collaborative effort by several team members to get one thing done at the expense of all other work. This uninterrupted focus time is crucial for achieving difficult tasks.
Pivoting the company strategy is not something that's easily done in a limited timeframe. CEOs need to gather the leadership team and work through the potential risks and benefits together. Leaders need to be open to intense conversations, and available to listen to the team. In moments of transition and uncertainty, unorthodox hours will help keep the team connected and stable.
Self-care and wellness culture have arisen as countermovements to burnout and hustle culture. Meditation apps and mental health solutions are as common now as productivity apps. But these are individualized solutions to systemic problems, such as chronic stress and inflated housing costs. It's not going to stop competitive companies from hustling to rise to the top of the market.
And if you look at it cynically, reducing hours may just be a recruiting and retention tactic. Losing people to burnout is costly, so a company that promises a four-day workweek is just trying to get a competitive edge.
The answer is not more regulation of workers' wellness and health habits, but a wider understanding of what "flexibility" in the workplace really means. As long as "Work anywhere, anytime" doesn't translate into "Work everywhere, all the time," workers should be able to manage their labor and rest without oversight. Even if that means working on the weekends. I personally do, because it's quieter, and because I'd rather do an hour on Saturday afternoon, then one on Wednesday night.
In remote work, the concept of "clocking in" is already abstract. Why not get rid of the clock altogether?