In the late 1990s, when Kent Beck included “40 hour work week” in the original 13 practices of Extreme Programming, it was in the context of an industry that co-opted the term “death march”. Software development practices at the time were in a bad state: surprises around schedule were common (and almost always negative) because of deferred integration, poor code quality, unrealistic approaches to requirements, and a (false) belief that doing all the planning and design upfront was both necessary and sufficient.
The original idea behind Beck’s practice was to plan to work only 40 hours per week, and if you had to work overtime, be sure not to do so two weeks in a row. The practice came to be understood by some as “never work more than 40 hours”. It was eventually re-named “sustainable pace” as a more nuanced understanding of this important practice became common.
Today, the target of a 40-hour work week represents a progressive standard compared to the status quo in the United States. According to a Gallup poll, the average work week in the US is about 47 hours. I suspect the average for software development is higher than the Gallup poll found. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal describes the 40-hour work week as a radical idea for improving employee productivity and a recruiting advantage.
Benefits of sustainable pace
Sustainable pace has been a key part of our culture from the very beginning of the company. We see many benefits:
- It enables our makers to work productively and creatively for our clients. To no one’s surprise, studies show that working a lot of extra hours has a mean bite from the law of diminishing returns.
- While I believe work is a vital part of leading a fulfilled life, it’s not the only part. We work a sustainable pace so that we have plenty of time to be good spouses, parents, volunteers, and friends, and be happier people as a result.
- People who don’t work a sustainable pace are grumpy, un-collaborative, and no fun.
- Software creation is a profession and a craft. Our disciplines take years to master and constant work to grow and stay relevant. Working a sustainable pace leaves plenty of time for the professional development we all need to be doing.
- A sustainable pace means you’re prepared for those times when you have to work extra for a client or the company; it ensures you have those reserves.
A measure of success
Sustainable pace is one of the rewards that comes from having a predictable process. Predictability comes from skillful makers who:
- know what to build,
- manage code complexity,
- do good task decomposition and tracking,
- test all the way through a project,
- integrate continuously,
- validate with end users,
- communicate effectively with clients, and
- are disciplined about the meaning of “done”.
You can look at the ability to achieve sustainable pace as an indicator of successful projects. To the contrary, trying to fix a bad process, poor practices, or lack of skill and discipline by consistently working lots of extra hours is neither effective nor admirable.
Show me the data
Atomic has very accurate data for the activities of everyone in the company. We’ve always paid everyone on an hourly basis, and we invoice our clients by the hour so we can track against a project budget. Since our time tracking tool generates both invoices and payroll, we’re really disciplined about keeping track of our time.
Average work week
The graph below shows the average hours worked per week by each Atom for the last seven years. For each year (colored line), individual weekly averages are sorted from least to most and plotted on the chart. Each small circle is one person’s yearly average work week. The lines for each year have been stretched to cover the same horizontal distance, even though the number of full-time employees varies substantially from 2009 (15) to 2014 (35).
This unconventional use of a line graph helps visualize several things I found interesting and which are described below.
It’s interesting to note that the company average went up nearly 6% from 2009 to 2014. I’m happy to see that leveling off. On the low end of the scale, it’s good to see that the number of people not working full-time (2080 hours/year) has decreased over time. Clear communication around that basic expectation probably accounts for some of the increase in the average since 2009.
The high end of the scale shows a pattern I’ve observed over time: as your seniority, responsibilities, and past client relationships grow, you tend to work more hours. I’m happy that the upper end of our scale is still in the upper 40s, though that’s something we’ve learned we need to watch closely. We’ve recognized maintenance of prior projects as a source of stress for senior developers, and a challenge to our current structure.
In fifteen years, I’ve never observed our hourly pay motivating people to work beyond sustainable pace. And I’m glad that those putting in extra hours are compensated for that time. With the more common salary approach I suspect the 20% difference between the low end and the high end of average work week exists, but isn’t directly or fairly compensated.
Distribution of work week hours
Averages can hide a lot. Knowing that the 2015 weekly average across the company was 42.7 hours is nice, but doesn’t tell me how often people are working much more than that. The histogram below shows the distribution of weekly working hours for all full-time Atoms in 2015.
The distribution of weekly hours reflects both the week-by-week flexibility we offer employees, and the variability of client and company needs. In return for flexibility, we ask Atoms to put in extra time when a client or the company needs it. Being able to accommodate those needs is one reason being diligent about sustainable pace is important.
While the number of hours per week that is sustainable varies by individuals, this data is useful as a possible indicator of structural problems that can lead to burnout. Employees with the best of intentions and strong sense of responsibility may be trying to out-work what amounts to a structural challenge that consistently overwhelms their work day. It concerns me that 9% of the weeks worked last year exceeded 50 hours.
The advantages of maintaining a sustainable pace of work for all employees are clear. In the long-run, clients win, families win, employees win, and the company wins. Measuring, rather than guessing, and detecting potential structure problems, is one of the many valuable insights that accurate tracking of time provides my company.
- Atomic Ownership, Part 3: Valuation - January 2, 2019
- Atomic’s purpose: to be a company where work matters - November 5, 2018
- Elevating & distributing “glue work” flows out of our core principles - October 18, 2018
- Atomic Ownership, Part 2: How the Atomic Plan & our ESPP work - July 16, 2018
- Atomic Ownership, Part 1: Context, motivations, and accomplishments to date - May 17, 2018