Can you foster a healthy work culture in a client services business?

When I tell people what I do for a living, I’m often met with looks of jealousy and disbelief. You see, I run a small web design & digital consulting business. I work at home, set my own hours, pick my own clients, and wear whatever clothes I like. (As I write this, I’m wearing no shoes.) I’m living the millennial dream — or so it would seem.

I suspect that’s the idea that most people get when they hear about my work. It sounds like a dream: free of traditional constraints like office hours, dress code, commutes, etc. But it comes with its own dark side: the complete erosion of the boundaries between your professional and personal life.

For nearly two years, I’ve worked almost around the clock. I work on evenings, during the weekends, and while on “vacation” with my family. Undoubtedly, this “strong work ethic” has helped fuel my business’s growth over that period from a struggling freelancer to a fast-growing digital agency, but that growth has come with a great cost. I’ve missed countless moments — with family, friends, and even alone with my thoughts — that I’ll never get back. And lately, I’ve started to feel the cumulative exhaustion of those nights and weekends mounting.

As the CEO, it’s my responsibility to set the tone for our work culture.

I want my company to be the best in the business at what we do — but not at the expense of the health and well being of my employees. I want them to proud of the work that we do, I want their friends and families to feel valued, and I want them to love coming to work at a company that values and respects them.

And none of those things will happen if I’m setting an always-on, workaholic tone as the CEO.

Clearly, it’s time for a change. But how do you create a healthy work culture within a digital agency whose primary clients work in the 24/7 world of political campaigning?

It’s important to be honest about the fear

I suspect I’m hardly alone in feeling this way. It feels like everyone I talk to these days is working harder for longer each day, and taking less and less time off each year. We in the creative industry have — at least theoretically — more freedom and flexibility than any generation in modern American history, so why are we working ourselves to death?

The truth is that we are all afraid.

Employees (often justifiably) fear that if they don’t put in those extra hours on the evenings or weekends, their bosses will fire them and find someone who will. Employers fear that if put in fewer hours, or limit their availability, that they’ll lose business to competitors who’re “working harder.” Both are paralyzed by the competition in very global marketplace that makes modern workplace flexibility possible.

I’m certainly afraid: it’s what’s driven the aggressive pace of my work over the past two years. I work in a business where my clients are often on call 24/7 (political campaigns are unforgiving), and I worry that if I’m not equally available I’ll lose clients to agencies that are. Add to that that I’ve been chronically understaffed as I attempt to grow my business without outside funding, and there seems to be no other way to meet clients’ deadlines than to work insane hours. But of course, that’s only how it seems. It’s not true.

Even with political campaigns and advocacy organizations, the vast majority of the work can and should be planned in advance.

With proper planning and time management, deadlines can be met without working around the clock. If you’re finding that you’re always over-capacity, that’s a good sign that you ought to be hiring. And if you can’t afford to hire, even when you’re beyond capacity, that’s a sign that you’re not charging enough.

Looking to others for best practices

So having said all that, what would it look like to restore a healthy work culture in a digital agency setting. The truth is: I’m not sure. But I’m trying to figure it out.

For now, I’m looking to others for best practices, new approaches, and philosophical guideposts to help light the way forward. Here are a few that strike a chord with me.

Treehouse and the 32-hour work week

Treehouse, an online school for taking adult students from zero to job-ready in as little as six months, has become a sort of poster-child for the 32-hour work week. That’s right: the folks at Treehouse work 8 hours per day, four days per week, and in that time they develop one of the world’s leading online learning platform.

In the video below, their CEO — Ryan Carson — explains why they took this approach. The TL;DR version is that he realized that he wanted to work to live, rather than live to work, and that lost time is never found again.

The older my children get (they’re 5, 3, and 2 years old), the more heavily this truth weighs on me. They’ll only be kids once, and I’m missing it by working through the weekends and never taking time off. I don’t want that for myself, and I don’t want it for my employees, either.

Moreover, I’ve often felt the hard truth that a two-day weekend really isn’t enough. By the time you’ve taken care of the things you have to do — like cleaning the house, running errands, etc. — there’s hardly any time left to spend with the people you love. Just as you start to get into the groove of the weekend, it’s over.

But can a client services business operate on a four-day work week? I think so — with a caveat: sometimes there are genuine client emergencies that need fixing, and someone needs to be on hand to address them during the off days. These are the same sorts of emergencies that you’d currently need to wake up at 2am to address, and ought to be treated as such. Important is not the same as urgent, and to maintain a healthy work culture you need to be able to differentiate between the two.

(A note about hours per day: I would challenge the notion that you get more done in a 10-hour or 12-hour hour day than you can in an 8-hour day. There’s a wealth of data that shows longer hours actually hurts productivity, and I want that reality to be a core part of my company’s culture.)

Basecamp and the idea that “Work Can Wait”

Yesterday, Jason Fried — CEO of Basecamp, one of the world’s most popular project management platforms — wrote an article about a fundamental pillar of their new product’s design: work can wait.

As Jason explains it:

If you’ve used a modern chat, collaboration, or messaging app, you’ve probably noticed that there’s a growing expectation of being available all the time. Someone at work hits you up on a Saturday, you get the notification, and what are you supposed to do? You could ignore them, but what’s the expectation? The expectation is “if you’re reachable, you should reply.” And if you don’t reply, you’ll likely notice another message from the same tool or a tool switch to try to reach you another way. And then the pressure really mounts to reply. On a Saturday. Or at 9pm on a Wednesday. Or some other time when it’s life time, not work time.

We believe Work Can Wait is an important notion. 9pm on Friday night is not work time. 6am on Wednesday morning is not work time. It may be for you, but it’s not for me. And I don’t want it to be work time for my employees either.

See, the next version of Basecamp will automatically snooze (defer) notifications when you’re off work. That way you can focus on the moment you’re in, rather than constantly being interrupted by your phone buzzing to tell you about a comment your coworker just left. (This is particularly useful when working across multiple time zones, or with clients on different work schedules than you.)

And while I love the idea of incorporating this approach into the apps and services we use, I think it’s equally important to make it a core part of my company’s work culture.

When you’re off work for the evening or weekend, you shouldn’t be expected to respond to messages. If you are, then you’re not really off — are you?

Again, sometimes emergencies do come up, and we’ll need to have a process for handling that. But by and large remote working shouldn’t need to mean always working.

The way forward

Approaching work this way will be a big shift for me (personally) and fairly unorthodox in my field, but I think it’s important if my business is going to have long-term health and sustainability. I know that I can’t continue working 60–80 hour weeks indefinitely (who could?!), and I want to be in this for the long-haul.

The biggest challenge in this process will be adjusting expectations: my expectations for myself, for my employees, and my clients’ expectations of me. We’ll continue to do top-flight, industry leading work — but with discipline & planning we’ll do it in a way that allows us to be people, as well.

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