Working Yourself to Death Isn't Worth It, and Silicon Valley Is Starting to Realize That
Silicon Valley has an overworking problem. And in many cases, it sees that problem as an asset, not a liability.
This isn't a new trend. It's been documented several times over the years. But over the last few weeks, it feels like there's a new momentum to the concept, fueled by Silicon Valley scions like Keith Rabois, a really dumb ad for Apple's new TV show and the downfall of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick.
But we're finally starting to see some pushback on the concept as well. And it's becoming more and more clear that you don't need to sacrifice everything to get everything.
One of the concrete solutions that came out of former attorney general Eric Holder's investigation into Uber's business practices was new efforts to make the startup an easier place to work. Gone is the internal mantra: "work smarter, harder and longer." Now it's just work "smarter" and "harder." In other words, it's not about the hours you put in. It's about how you use those hours.
"Uber is a data-driven company, and the data shows unequivocally that when you work longer, you are not working smarter," Uber board member Arianna Huffington told the company's employees during an all-hands meeting last week, according to leaked audio obtained by Yahoo.
Huffington also added that employees won't have to be "always on" and responsive to whatever is going on at the office, no matter where they are. Because "when you're always on you're depleted, you are distracted," and "not as creative" as you are when you're well-rested, Huffington also said, channeling the thesis of her new pro-sleep startup Thrive.
Assuming Uber actually implements the new policies, it'd be a major reversal from the work-until-you-drop ethos that powers a lot of the tech industry, and draws praise from the Silicon Valley elite. And it's a significant step to see Uber, the poster child for that ethos, at least try to reverse course a bit.
The fact that Kalanick was forced to resign this week is all the proof you need that long hours don't necessarily translate into a success story -- they can actually be a liability. Uber has had a great run, but its future is murky at best.
"A culture of overwork is damaging because it turns brief binges of hard work into a long-term strategy, and, worse still, an expectation. When managers start measuring the worth of their employees according to how quickly they return emails at 3 a.m., that particular work culture is broken," Adam Alter, a professor at NYU's Stern School of Business, told Business Insider in an email. (He wrote a book about how technology keeps us "always on.")
Even though it doesn't always work, the concept of overworking yourself has trickled down from the top ranks of Silicon Valley to the Rest Of America. It's now as synonymous with tech culture as Soylent-fueled coding sessions and rampant sexism.
The two most recent examples that have gained attention are ads for the on-demand chore service Fiverr and a Twitter promotion for Apple's new TV show, Planet of the Apps.
The Apple ad quotes a contestant on the show, an app developer who (spoiler alert) didn't get the funding he was looking for.
"I rarely get to see my kids. That's a risk you have to take," the Twitter ad reads. It was deleted after a lot of immediate blowback.
Then there are the recent print ads for Fiverr, the on-demand service that lets you hire people to do chores for you. The ads glorify practically working yourself to death at the whim of people who pay you through a smartphone app.
"You eat coffee for lunch... Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice," the ad says.
There's a danger to both of these ads bleeding into the mainstream. Tech is overtaking large parts of our economy, and it's a worrisome message to send to people that in order succeed, you need to give up everything else.
The truth is, it doesn't have to be that way. And glorifying that "always on" mentality puts us on a slippery slope. As tech's influences grows, a lot of the jobs we see as normal today are going to be eaten away by automation and other factors. It's going to be education and training that prepare people for the future. Not working yourself to death.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Insider.