We believe, based on our experience and decades of research, that a certain type of culture provides higher productivity, more motivation, and more dedication than the classic “crunchtime” culture.

This post aims at explaining how we will achieve more results, faster, more efficiently, and with higher quality.

If you want to know more about the background and how our journey lead us to those conclusions, read about it in my other blog post about culture as the new work order .

Delivery is everything

Everyone in a company needs to strive to make it successful. Everything we do, all decisions we make are towards the success of the Company.

This often is forgotten when talking about culture. Which is a problem. Things then tend to get an idealistic spin and in the end, things that are done and implemented are counter-productive. This, of course, does not do good to the company and, not surprisingly, also does not motivate to those that work in it.

People want to be productive, work towards a goal.

Delivery is everything

Motivation

Key to a successful and productive company, are motivated people. As research shows, in order to have motivated knowledge workers, an organization needs to provide them with autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Additionally, as we want to constantly and continuously deliver real value and real products extremely fast to the market, we focus on lean operations, including devops and product development flow, continuous improvement, and respect for people.

You can motivate knowledge workers with more money, but only up to a certain point. That point is when “money concerns” for the individual is off the table and has been researched in various studies done across the world.

Motivation after this point can only happen intrinsically, i.e. from inside the individual. This means that one does not have a direct lever to motivation, only indirect.

Management’s task goes from providing direct incentives, to providing the environment for motivation to grow within individuals. Research shows that this environment can be described in the following way:

Autonomy

Give employees control over their environment, what they work on, whom they work with, where and when they work.

Mastery

Give employees a way to become masters of their craft. This includes training, conferences, etc. but also includes leeway to spend work hours reading, or simply practicing, not just always building direct value.

Purpose

Give employees a reason to be here. Paint a picture of why their job is important; why they are important.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose) by Daniel Ping

Concrete policies which make this possible

Flexible work conditions and remote work

This pays into autonomy. When people get to choose where they work, what they work on, and whom they work with, it provides an immediate and measurable motivation boost.

Flexible work hours and work-life balance

Sometimes work demands extra dedication, e.g. during a server outage. Sometimes life demands extra dedication, e.g. sickness in the family. If life stress constantly demands attention from employees, they will be less productive. We accept this reality and allow our people to master the balance themselves.

Support from management for mastering their craft

Employees who feel like they are just workers in a factory rapidly lose motivation. If instead they feel like their managers have a stake in their growth, they rapidly gain motivation.

Sustainable pace

30-40 hours per week is a well-researched pace which most humans can maintain almost indefinitely. This applies only considering they do not have a lot of private and other non-work responsibilities.

If you go above this, you will initially gain slightly more productivity, but almost immediately you will lose it again, resulting only in more problems than before (see appendix).

Empowerment and integrated work

Decentralized decisions are key to work efficiently and a requirement to deliver fast in high dynamics (fast changing environment and requirements).

The classical model of hierarchical line organization is very strong in solving low-dynamic-problems (in most environments this is limited to people management, alignment with core business goals, vision, mission and values).

They fall short under fast change.

Organizing and orchestrating work amongst departments and making centralized (hippo (highest paid person’s opinion)-based) decisions on operational topics are prone to fail. Instead we want to work integrated and cross-functional and make decisions the closest to the operational work as possible.

Empowerment therefore is crucial on all levels.

We strengthen dynamic-robust aspects of our culture when we worship non-hierarchical and integrated behaviour as well as taking responsibility.

Creativity

Our employees need to innovate and create. Research has shown that high facetime (too much time) spent in front of the computer in the office-environment has a negative effect on creativity.

Instead, people tend to be more creative when they gain distance from the problems they are trying to solve (after getting stuck in them).

Creativity happens when you conversate with new people and experience new things.

We therefore believe that people need room to let creativity bloom.

This relates to the amount of working hours, facetime in the office (vs home office, free time, remote work).

Effectiveness and scale

We believe that it is more important to increase the effectiveness of our team than increasing team size and working hours.

This can be achieved through retrospecting, inspecting, adopting, coaching - striving for continuous improvement.

We are aware that we decrease our lever effectiveness every time we increase team size and individual workload.

Diversity (and part-time-work)

It is a well-researched fact that diversity within a team leads to better results.

Most companies today should agree on being multinational and on english as the primary language.

We strive to hire people that bring new aspects, new cultural insights and learnings and that are better than us (in something).

Value part time work. This allows to hire people who might not be available full time, opening the door to certain types of experts or people with a niche set of skills.

This will directly increase the diversity of the team, as currently that is more likely to be women and parents.

This also pays directly into autonomy. When people get the feeling they are measured by their impact and not by the amount of time their seat is occupied, their feeling of worth skyrockets, leading to high motivation.

Output/outcome vs. working hours

Strive for a culture that values delivery and output/outcome, not working hours.

We believe that the continued/regular need for extended working time is an indicator for bad time management, missing focus, inefficient environment, insufficient skills and you should value fixing inefficiencies problems higher than managing the symptoms.

Employer competition and looking forward

The market for employers for the kind of employees we strive to hire is extremely competitive. So most of the aspects of our culture are also things that employees demand/expect from an organization. If we are to retain and attract talent, we must stay competitive.

This includes all of the above and more. 30 days of holidays as a competitive match have become a standard and not an extra. Perks like food, drinks, health, entertainment, social gatherings, conferences and the like are expected and not something to put in your job ad.

Looking forward, we strongly believe that the work models will shift significantly. Employer-employee relationships will need to be redesigned from the current models. The current models cover selling time for money with added risk covers/commitment from the employer (perm employment) vs selling time for more money (freelance).

We believe that the future work models will allow a lot more flexibility for the employee than in today’s perm relations. But they will also need to provide more reliability and commitment for both the employer and the employee than today’s freelance agreements.

The future work agreements will need to be based on trust, commitment and outcome instead of hours. As strongly as the work relationship needs to be.

We still do not have all the answers but we welcome the current dynamics fueled by COVID-19. If there is one good thing resulting from the first big crisis in this millennium it will be this: we have a global test of our cultural habits and we will learn from it. Both: which aspects are indispensable - but even more importantly: which aspects that we thought are indispensable are actually hindering success instead.

Challenges

Any culture has its challenges. Our culture shares many challenges with other cultures, including how to provide direction, how to be good leaders and managers, and more.

Even the challenge of coordinating people is not uniquely connected to flexible or part time work. In a “crunch time” culture, we would still need to solve coordination and collaboration issues, let alone dealing with vacation, sick days, and absenteeism due to crunch time. Flexible and part time work does not make this more difficult, it in fact makes it easier. Dealing with coordination challenges becomes the norm rather than a deviation, and so it becomes a core aspect of our culture.

Additionally, due to our focus on continuous improvement, our team members themselves take responsibility for coordinating their own absences with their teams. This leads directly to more collective responsibility, which leads to more motivation and to better results.

There is however one important challenge which we do not share with a classic “crunch time” culture. Motivation. We do not need to motivate our people. They are intrinsically motivated. This is a direct result of our culture. We show them that we respect them and support them. In return, they give us incredible focus and dedication. This is not measured in terms of “hours of butts in seats” but in terms of direct business results.

In the end, this is the only thing that really matters.

Final words

No matter what we do at Zeile7 , how we create value for our customers, we are always involved in cultural matters. And in the end each gig - from high level support to hands-on coding - involves an aspect of cultural change that we actively manage.

Culture matters. I started to realize that the way we are working, co-located in big offices, big offices located in big cities, suffering from big office-culture, does not have a future back in 2014. I you want to know more about my journey to come to those conclusions, read my other blog post about culture as the new work order .

Appendix

The professional sports analogy

In professional sports, in order to reach the highest heights of success, teams build extraordinary focus. They fight for their goals, and make (personal) sacrifices in order to achieve them.

However, they also are not driven like slaves. They and their coaches and managers know that they must stay healthy, mentally and physically, which means not too many hours, no isolation from family, plenty of time to socialize when needed, etc. i.e. a healthy balance.

However the driving factor is the goal to succeed, while the enabling factor is the goal of having a good balance.

The professional team has the overall goal of success, with the enabling goal of healthy players.

Effects of overtime

  • As the work week gets longer (whether by hours in a day or days in a week), the week’s productivity tends to remain exactly the same. In some instances, it even decreases. This is true for both white collar workers and manual laborers.
  • As employees work longer hours, companies are more likely to experience serious, catastrophic accidents
  • overtime only increased company productivity in short bursts.
  • After a certain number of weeks, employees become too burned out to perform at their fullest abilities. For most employees, productivity starts to fall after only one full week. In one study, it took only eight weeks’ worth of 60 hour work weeks for employee productivity to decline significantly. In fact, the drop in productivity was so severe that it eventually matched the productivity levels of their original 40 hour work week. And the more overtime employees worked, the fewer weeks they were able to sustain the pace. For 80 hour work weeks, it took only three weeks for employee productivity to fall back to that of the 40 hour work week.
  • Several reasons have been found to account for declining productivity resulting from scheduled overtime:
    • Work Pace Inertia
      • People tend to pace themselves based on the timebox they have. Work expands to fit a timebox. If an employee is prepared for a 10 or 12 hour workday, they have a deep unconscious bias towards working slower.
    • Absenteeism
      • Absenteeism is pronounced when the effects of cumulative fatigue, desires of employees to spend more time with their families, and the need for time away from the job to take care of personal business combine with lack of economic necessity to work all available hours. Absenteeism of even a few employees seriously disrupts daily operations and reduces total efficiency.
    • Mistakes
      • As fatigue increases, alertness and sharpness of mind decreases. In knowledge intensive work this will lead to engineers introducing errors into the code, making unfounded decisions, circumventing process, and other potentially serious mistakes. These mistakes are hard to quantify, but can range from minor (introducing a minor UI glitch) to major (bringing down a whole platform. However, even more dangerous than an isolated incident is the overall degradation of quality. If maintained over a long period (more than a couple weeks), the overall degradation of quality will create orders of magnitude more work in the near future, possibly even rendering improvements impossible without perform some large scale refactoring. This is not a risk any IT company should ever take.
    • Fatigue
      • Physical and mental fatigue build up at an accelerated rate from excessive hours on the job and lack of recuperative time off the job. This fatigue manifests itself even when overtime work results in little or no additional work being accomplished.
    • Morale and Attitude
      • Anything which adversely affects morale and which lessens cooperative and positive attitudes toward work, the employer, and customer will result in lowered output. Fatigue causes a deterioration in morale and positive attitude. In addition, a focus on “face time” or just the number of hours can quickly result in an attitude that people simply fill up their hours, instead of improving their situation to work more efficiently. Why try to do things in less time and effort, when spending more time and effort is rewarded?
    • Turnover
      • Turnover can be expected at an ever accelerating rate as overtime schedules continue because of fatigue, poor morale and attitude, and lack of economic need to continue working. Berlin is experiencing a boom in IT, and it is increasingly difficult to find engineers, let alone good engineers. If we create an unfriendly environment, people will leave. We need to stay competitive on the employer branding level.
    • Supervision problems
      • Because of their greater responsibilities, supervisory employees are likely to feel the fatiguing and demoralizing effects of prolonged overtime schedules even more than production workers. Pressures resulting from scheduled overtime also cause supervisors to become careless, to make errors in judgment and to become irrational thus adversely affecting their relations with workers and others.
    • Misalignment of daily operations
      • When schedules begin to misalign, due to some people working even longer hours, people sleeping longer or coming earlier into the office, working on weekends, absenteeism, and other reasons, coordination becomes more difficult. This is similar to the challenge of working with a team distributed across multiple time zones. Add in the fatigue and morale factor and you end up with a system which is exceedingly difficult to coordinate. Recent advances in devops and agile processes show that collaboration and coordination are at the core of reaching a fast, stable release pattern. Too many hours worked will severely impact the speed and stability of the team’s releases in a negative way.
  • Productivity varies over the course of the workday, with the greatest productivity occurring in the first four to six hours. After enough hours, productivity approaches zero; eventually it becomes negative
  • Productivity is hard to quantify for knowledge workers.
  • Five-day weeks of maximum eight-hour days maximize long-term output in every industry that has been studied over the past century. What makes us think that our industry is somehow exempt from this rule?
  • At 60 hours per week, the loss of productivity caused by working longer hours overwhelms the extra hours worked within a couple of months.
  • Continuous work reduces cognitive function 25% for every 24 hours. Multiple consecutive overnighters have a severe cumulative effect.
  • Error rates climb with hours worked and especially with loss of sleep. Eventually the odds catch up with you, and catastrophe occurs. When schedules are tight and budgets are big, is this a risk you can really afford to take?
  • Workers can maintain productivity more or less indefinitely at 30-40 hours per five-day workweek. When working longer hours, productivity begins to decline. Somewhere between four days and two months, the gains from additional hours of work are negated by the decline in hourly productivity. In extreme cases (within a day or two, as soon as workers stop getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night), the degradation can be abrupt.
  • The ability to do complex mental tasks degrades faster than physical performance does. Among knowledge workers, the productivity loss due to excessive hours may begin sooner and be greater than it is among soldiers, because our work is more affected by mental fatigue.

If there is an emphasis on hours worked, rather than results produced, there is little incentive for individual employees to think rigorously about whether they are using their time wisely.