Long hours: a labour of love or toxic work culture?

This week Business Insider ran an interview with Revolut founder Nickolay Storonskyon his startup’s culture. As one of the world’s fastest-growing startups there’s no question Revolut are, to quote Storonsky himself, getting s**t done.

In the interview, the CEO claimed his team are “really motivated, really sharing the vision of where we want to go and as a result, they work long hours — they work at least 12, 13 hours a day. All the key people, all the core team. A lot of people also work on weekends.”

But this exemplified, to me, the very worst of the long hours culture that’s endemic in banking, tech, startups – and especially where those all meet in FinTech. So I shared this on Twitter, adding “and people wonder why there’s a gender diversity problem in Fintech”.

This generated quite the heated debate with replies coming from those (mostly women) who agreed with me, a handful of wearyingly predictable mansplain replies, and a bunch of more thoughtful contributors who believe there’s nothing wrong with employees working those hours if they want to.

I can understand why people might say that, but here’s why I think that argument is wrong.

Storonsky’s quoted as saying “No one is sitting there telling them they have to work long hours”. Which is probably true. In my experience, rarely are employees told to work 50, 60 hour weeks – but instead find they’re overlooked for projects if they don’t, side-eyed for leaving at 6pm when others don’t, looked over for bonuses and promotion, and generally saddled with guilt at not pulling their weight compared to others.

While there is a difference between people who work those hours for the love of the product/company and those who are coerced into doing so, it’s rarely clear-cut – and plenty of orgs harbour under the illusion they are the former when in fact they’ve just created a culture which normalises unhealthily long working days. Been there, done that – more than once – and while at the time it felt like passion, on reflection it was more like Stockholm Syndrome.

And if you like the people you work with, then of course you want to spend time with them, in the office and in the pub afterwards. Work quickly becomes your primary social circle, especially if you’re young and new in town. I get that too. Some of my closest friends are people I worked with and bonded over impossible deadlines, late-night tubs of M&S mini bites and rather too many glasses of post-work sauv blanc.

But there’s a fine line between healthy camaraderie and the siege mentality that comes from teams being under extreme stress (and for some this ‘work hard, play hard’ team ethic is a byword for an unhealthy dependence on alcohol for stress relief).

While of course it’s necessary to burn the midnight oil at crunch points to get a product over the line, if people are doing it all the time that’s poor planning and resourcing. As one commenter on the increasingly useful fintechinsidernews forum said:

“If you’re building software in a sensible fashion with a project plan, a project manager and product owner and a skilled, empowered team, then if they’re having to work 12-13 hours a day on a regular basis, your plan is wrong and your project is doomed. it might not show immediately, but give it 6 months and the signs will become clear. People will burn out, quality will drop, team members will leave and the end result will suffer. It’s not sustainable.”

Working at that pace long term is bad for business. People burn out and leave; replacing people and the organisational knowledge they take with them costs money.

It also makes the business less resilient. When a real crisis hits you won’t have any goodwill or energy from your team, or any slack in your resourcing to plug the gap as everyone is already at 120% burn.

And there is a limit to what people can really achieve in a day; when people are tired and stressed they make mistakes and bad decisions. What should matter is what you deliver, not how long you hang around the office doing it.

Excessive hours culture is bad for the product, too. If your team never experiences real life because they rarely leave the office and only socialise with one another, how is your product going to meet anyone’s needs?

If your team is drawn from the narrow demographic who can (or want to) stay in the office until 10pm, will they really understand how to develop products that meet the needs of a wider group of normal humans with social lives?

Reading Storonsky’s description sounded like a classic case of toxic work culture.

“The majority of people, they pass through but some of them, they just realise it’s not for them. It’s not because they are stupid – they just don’t share our vision and our passion.”

That reads to me like people who don’t conform to that culture – who aren’t sweating spinal fluid and pulling all-nighters – are considered lacking in the necessary passion and exit the firm. Still more, I would imagine, are put off joining in the first place. I’ve lost count of the number of capable developers and product managers in their 30s and over in my network who, when touting around for work, will explicitly say they’re not interested in fintech because of its perceived long hours bro culture.

Companies which make a virtue out of long hours are missing out on a wealth of experienced talent. Particularly, but not only, female talent.

I write this having worked the weekend, again. But I’m self-employed, so I have skin in the game and the only person making me do this is me.

As a leader, however, in bragging about the core team doing 12-13 hour days and weekends, Storonsky either explicitly or tacitly creates an expectation among those who work for him that they should do the same (perhaps to demonstrate sufficient commitment or passion).

When it’s your own company of course you’re going to give it all you have. But be wary of the example you set to your team or you risk creating a toxic work culture. Good leadership means modelling healthy ways of working yourself, and telling people to go home before they burn out or screw something up – because ultimately it’s you who carries the can when they do.

Startup life is demanding and isn’t for everyone. But for startups to truly scale they need to morph into sustainable businesses – ones which normal people can and want to work for long term – delivering great products in realistic, properly resourced ways, meeting the needs of real people. I hope high-growth players like Revolut can make that shift.

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