Restoring Sanity to the Office

Sarah Green-Carmichael from the Harvard Business Review IdeaCast interviews me about sanity at work, how over-collaboration and excessive real-time communication/chat are destroying our work days, and plenty more.

What follows is a word-for-word, unedited transcript of the recorded podcast:

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Sarah Green-Carmichael. How is it that you can come away from a full day of work with that unmistakable feeling that you somehow didn’t get any work done? You were super busy all day. And then you go home at night and you just think, what did I really accomplish today?

It happens to me. I think it happens to all of us. Somehow you start what seems like a full day, only to see it sliced and diced into small little pieces of work– meetings, emails, online chats, catching up with your manager, things you get done, tasks completed. And then somehow, it doesn’t really feel like it amounted to anything productive.

Jason Fried thinks that there’s a better way to work. One that’s so productive that a 40 hour week is more than enough. He’s the CEO of the successful software startup Basecamp. Jason, thank you so much for talking with HBR IdeaCast.

JASON FRIED: Thanks for having me on today.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: So WHEN did you start getting annoyed with the way that workplaces work?

JASON FRIED: Um, kind of always.

I just always felt this way. It seems like, yeah, like you said. You know, people go to work. And when you actually ask them when they get the work done it’s not typically during the day. It’s early in the morning, late at night, on the weekends, on a plane, on a train, somewhere else. And that’s always bugged me. It just doesn’t seem right.

It seems like something that, for whatever reason, people put up with. But they really shouldn’t. That’s kind of a very broken system. Companies spend so much money on offices, so much money on productivity stuff, yet we just seem like we can’t get stuff done in those environments.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: It does seem like that companies have sort of made more of a push for work to become more and more collaborative. And yet it does seem like we’re maybe talking to each other all the time and actual work is maybe not actually getting done.

JASON FRIED: Yeah, I think there’s actually an epidemic of over-collaboration and over-communication. Collaboration is something managers seem to look at and think is particularly good. Because they see activity. They see people working. They see people moving. They hear buzz. Stuff’s happening.

But real creative work, especially, is usually done quietly, solitary sort of work, where people are in a flow or in a focus mode where they’re able to just focus on the stuff and not be distracted and interrupted. It’s very hard to do really good work when you’re constantly being interrupted every 15 minutes, every 5 minutes, every 20 minutes, every 30 minutes.

You know, people don’t have hours anymore. Like, you don’t have hours at work. You know, people say they work 8 hours a day or 10 hours a day or 12 hours a day. They don’t. They work 15 minutes and 20 minutes and 25 minutes and 6 minutes and maybe 45 minutes if they’re lucky. And that just seems broken to me. So I’m trying to push hard against that.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: You’ve suggested before that instead of casual Fridays companies should instead create “no talk” Thursdays so people can actually get work done. I thought that was a really interesting idea.

JASON FRIED: Yes, silent Thursdays. No talk Thursdays. Just be quiet for a day. Can you pick one day a month and just be quiet. Can we just keep the place quiet? And when companies do do that– because I’ve been talking about this for a while– and people email me and they say, hey. We tried this. It’s been great.

What people find is that, first of all, the world doesn’t end. If people aren’t talking to each other the world does not end. The business does not go out of business. It’s not this tragic thing that people are afraid of.

Actually what happens is, the people get a lot of work done. They feel really good about the day. They leave at a normal time. And they’re looking forward to the next time that that happens.

And so then maybe it’s every other Thursday or maybe it’s once a week or twice a week, whatever. At our company, at Basecamp, we actually Institute something we call library rules. Which basically means that you know, when anybody walks into a library anywhere around the world everybody knows how to behave. You’re quiet.

You recognize people are studying or learning or thinking or reading, whatever it is. They’re at work in their own mind doing something. And you don’t bother people. You don’t speak up and you don’t raise your voice. And you don’t tap people on the shoulder. You just be quiet. And if you want to talk to someone you go pull them into a room, and usually libraries have rooms where you can have full volume conversations. And so we’ve instituted that in our company.

And so if you walk into our office at Basecamp– we have 50 people in the company and many of them work around the world, but we have 14 people in Chicago at our headquarters– it’s quiet. It feels like a library. It reads like a library. It looks like a library. And that’s something we do all the time.

But I recognize that’s not really appropriate for all companies. So we recommend the one day a month or one day a week kind of thing just to kind get into the vibe, get into the rhythm of that.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: You could walk through the HBR offices and not hear a peep. But we would all be furiously chatting with each other on email, or Slack or Basecamp. Or you know, on one of these other online collaboration tools that kind of let people send messages to each other without actually speaking out loud. So I’m wondering what are some of the ways that you’ve cut down on that nonverbal over-collaboration, as well?

JASON FRIED: Yeah, that’s a great point. Because there’s two sides to this. There’s the physical, which is sort of library rules or no talk Thursdays or whatever. And then there’s also the virtual which has actually gotten worse. Because it feels like there’s very little penalty to just chatting and typing and pinging people and IM’ing people and direct messaging people and emailing people. Because it’s something you do and you just send it off and it’s just like gone.

Which is different than if you’re in a physical environment and you keep bothering somebody. It’s sort of obvious that that’s happening. What we tend to do, what we’ve found works really well, is to figure out when should you chat about something and when should you write something up?

In other words, when should you be real-time and when should you be asynchronous? And it’s our feeling that asynchronous communication is actually the best way for groups to work together. Because when you have to sync up everyone’s schedule, meaning real-time, you have to constantly pull people away from what they’re doing to have a conversation right now about something that’s probably not related to right now.

So what we do is, we consider chat-based conversations to be sort of ephemeral things that– it doesn’t matter if other people see it. If someone’s around they can answer or that kind of stuff. But if you really want people to see something. If you really want people to think about something, if you really want people to debate something, if you really want people to discuss something, you write it up– in our case it’s in Basecamp, but it can be in whatever, whatever you use.

And you give people time to consider and respond on their own time versus on your time. And that’s the big difference is that when conversations are sort of owned by the initiator, you end up with a very distracting culture. When conversations are sort of controlled by the receiver, when the expectation is that the receiver can get back to you when they’re ready, then you have a much calmer environment.

And yeah, it’s not as fast. But so what? What is this obsession we have with speed all the time? Like if someone gets back to me in two hours, that’s fine. When they’re ready, that’s fine. So we break conversations down into does this really matter? If it does make it asynchronous. If it doesn’t matter so much, chat’s totally fine.

But one of the other things we found is that chat’s really good with three or fewer people in the conversation. Once you have 4, 5, 6, 10, 12, whatever, it just isn’t really a great way to communicate something important. It’s really wonderful for social stuff and for sharing silly stuff and links and whatnot, but it’s not a great way to have a really good, meaningful conversation.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: I think it’s so true. I’ve see that happen again and again in a couple of different ways. I think one of the challenges is if you are in a culture where you’re expecting instantaneous communication or where there are lots of people involved in an email thread or a chat conversation, I’m not sure how much you as an individual can do.

Because if you don’t respond for a couple of hours the whole conversation may have somehow resolved itself without you while you were in a meeting or having lunch or with a client. And then you somehow come back to it and it’s like, oh. Well, this is not a decision that I agree with. So can you just talk a little bit about, I guess the challenge of being an individual caught up in these eddies of communication that you can’t always control?

JASON FRIED: Eddies of communication, by the way, is a great thought. I’ve never thought about that. It does feel like that sometimes. You’re right. It’s all about expectations. And this has to begin culturally. Tools don’t solve this problem. Tools actually kind of create the problem.

For example, you just said, if you’re out of the office and there’s this conversation that’s happening and you’re not part of it, now you even feel like you have to be paying attention to things when you’re not around. When you’re focusing on other things and you have to start paying attention to everything. There’s this fear of missing out.

When conversations are happening on conveyor belts– which is what chat rooms are, they’re conveyor belts– once they pass you by it’s too late. And so people are actually focused on conversations all day long to find out if they need to be conversing in that conversation. Like it’s– we’re no longer just being pulled into things we need to be pulled into, we’re being pulled into things we don’t need to be pulled into to wait to see if we need to be pulled into something. It’s completely out of control.

So it’s a cultural thing though. The expectations at the managerial level, at the ownership level, team leads– people who are in charge of these things and these projects and these groups or whatever it might be, they have to be the ones that set the tone and say, look, nobody here is expected to respond to anything immediately unless, of course, it’s an emergency.

Emergencies happen, crisis happens. But that should be once or twice a year kind of thing. It should not be all the time. So it really comes down to setting the tone at the top. And letting everybody understand that– let’s have a conversation. If this takes two days to resolve over– it’s not like two days of constant conversations– it’s like you chime in, someone else chimes in an hour later, someone else is free 90 minutes so they chime in. And let’s let this resolve over a couple of days. Let’s give this a couple of days to be discussed.

Then everyone calms down. They slow down. They think harder about the thing. And when they respond, they’re not on the clock as much as, like, when you’re in a chat room you’re kind of on the clock because this conversation is moving while you’re watching it. It’s moving out of the way. That heightens anxiety. It forces people to sort of be a reactionary and not calm down and think and deliberate and consider and even sleep on it.

I think most conversations are worth sleeping on. We just encourage people to take their time. There’s no rush here. Of course you shouldn’t like get back to someone seven days later. But tomorrow is fine. Tomorrow is fine. Or later this afternoon is fine versus right now.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: So we’ve been talking a lot about what’s going on in the culture inside your company. But what if you’re dealing with people from outside the company, customers, or clients, and they have very, very different expectations?

JASON FRIED: Yeah, I’m of a few minds here. So first of all, you’re right. You can only control what you’re able to control. So sometimes you just have to play by other people’s rules. But I’ve always had this point of view that people are always like, you can’t do that with your clients. My clients are demanding. My clients demand this, they demand that. They demand immediate responses. If they need to get a hold of me at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night, then I’ve got to respond to them.

And I’ve never understood that, because I don’t believe that that’s true. What is true is that if you do respond at 10 o’clock on a Wednesday night, then they’re going to ask you 10 o’clock on a Thursday night. And they’re going to ask you 10 o’clock on a Friday night. And they’re going to ask you 4 o’clock on a Saturday.

But if you tell them– or you don’t respond, and you get back to someone the next morning and you say, hey, you know, I was sleeping or I was with my family. And I work from these hours and I’m happy to be extremely attentive during these hours, but we don’t work at 9 o’clock on a Wednesday. You can just have a very clear, fair conversation with somebody and set those basic rules. And if they’re going to fire you because you’re not available on a Wednesday at 10 o’clock, then that’s the wrong client for you.

Setting the tone is something that somebody has to do. And so I just think if you have that discussion about what’s reasonable, people start to understand the rules. And they’re fair. And if you get back to someone at 9:00 AM Instead of 9:00 PM, that’s going to be fine.

Of course, I recognize some people are shaking their head probably listening to this going, you don’t know my client or you don’t know the situation. And there certainly are situations that are very difficult to handle. But I don’t think most are. I think the problem is people don’t discuss them ahead of time.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: As we are talking about this kind of always on culture, I’ve been seeing a couple of studies lately that suggest that perhaps younger workers who are, you know, sort of born with their phone in their hands might be more susceptible to some of this than older workers who remember life before email or remember life before messaging apps.

Is this something you see in the people you manage and people you work with? Do you think that this is a kind of generational shift we’re seeing?

JASON FRIED: There’s probably some of that. So I think that’s a good observation and seems reasonable and fair. But there’s another truth, which is that we’re all flesh and blood and human and have the same DNA and you know– not exactly the same– but roughly the same. And that multitasking is not something that humans seem to be very good at, period.

It doesn’t matter if you’re 20 or 40 or 60, it’s just not really a thing our brains are built for. And the idea that our brains are changing in one generation like that, I just don’t buy it. I don’t think it’s true and there’s actually quite a bit of studies that prove this out. That multitasking is not really a thing. That context shifting is actually extremely expensive mentally.

We think it’s easy like bouncing between things, but we’re not actually giving those things consideration. We’re just sort of acting and not thinking and there’s less thinking going on. And I don’t think that’s a good thing.

Part of it, too, is that people sometimes think that being busy is actually doing work. And so context shifting and popping between this and that and bouncing between this and that feels like a lot of work. But it’s actually not the work that needs to get done.

You know, that’s my general feel on it. I do think that the younger generation definitely is more adept at sort of navigating some of these things. But I think that there’s physical realities and just physics that get in the way, as well.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: I want to also just ask you about meetings and the problem with too many meetings sort of cluttering up our calendars. Because I realize we’ve talked a lot about, sort of, electronic communication tools and people interrupting people in an informal way.

For some people, their offices may actually have more of a problem with that. So what’s your take, as a leader, on cutting down the number of meetings and making sure that that’s not the thing that’s wasting people’s time?

JASON FRIED: Yeah, I think meetings are typically a major waste of time. It depends on the kind. So let’s qualify this a little bit. I think things like status meetings, where people go around a room and update the rest of the people in the room about what’s going on, are enormous wastes of time. That stuff is better served up by writing it up and distributing it and letting people absorb that on their own time.

There is nothing about a status meeting where people are filling each other in on what’s happening this week or what happened last week that needs to be done all at the exact same time. And this is the problem I have with meetings is that meetings basically force everybody to be on the same schedule for an hour. And talk about something right now that generally has very little to do with right now.

And that’s really very inefficient. People think it’s efficient to distribute information all at the same time to a bunch of people around a room. But it’s actually a lot less efficient than distributing it asynchronously by writing it up and sending it out and letting people absorb it when they’re ready to so it doesn’t break their days into smaller bits. So there’s that.

There’s also the fact that meetings are very expensive not just in time but also in money. If you have four or five people in a room for an hour, it’s a four or five hour meeting. You’re taking four or five hours of productive work from other people in total and compressing it into an hour of very unproductive– mostly unproductive work. Where you’re spending an hour talking about something that probably could have been handled without having to have this meeting at all.

Certainly there are some meetings that need to happen. But my point is that I want to push back on the fact that the meeting is the first resort. I think it should be the last resort. Only when people really truly need to come together because they’re unable to communicate in another way and another schedule do they actually need to get together in a room.

And I’ve been in so many of them. And everybody knows how inefficient they are but yet we just keep kind of having them.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: Say you were at a radically different kind of company. And you’re a manager and you want to try doing some of this stuff, at least on your team. And if you’re a senior executive, you might want to try doing it in your whole business unit. Or if you’re a CEO, maybe you want to try it at your whole company. What can you start to do to try to change some of the culture to be a little bit more like what we’ve been talking about here?

JASON FRIED: Yeah, I’d start very, very small. And it kind of depends on what it would be. But for example, let’s say, you wanted to start to allow people to work remotely or something like that. The best way to do that is, again, pick one day a month and say, you know, the first Wednesday of every month everyone can work from home.

And just start to get used to that. Because it’s going to not work initially, probably. And so people aren’t going to know what to do. Like it’s going to be this weird thing. So you kind of start a little bit slower. Give yourself some time to figure it out and don’t just go all in on something. All in is really hard to make work. And there’s a lot of reasons why people are going to point to the fact that it doesn’t work.

So I’d just kind of ease in and take one thing and do the simplest possible version of that. Kind of get some quick wins and some small wins in there. And then you can sort of parlay those into something bigger.

The other thing you might say is, instead of having– let’s say we always do this Monday morning meeting. We’ve been doing it for seven years. Monday morning status meeting, stand up meeting, whatever it is, 9:00 AM. Let’s just not do that next week and see what happens.

Or let’s not do that. But instead, let’s write something up and I’ll distribute to everybody some way, either in Basecamp or email or whatever you use, doesn’t matter. But we’ll send it out versus talk about it in person. And let’s just see what happens. So I’d pick off little small things and try it that way. That’s the best way to get going.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: Working remotely– that’s come up a couple of times. And I’ve heard from a lot of managers that they are just not comfortable with that. And I think especially if you can’t see what people are doing and you’re also trying to inculcate a culture of like, it’s OK if you don’t respond for a couple of hours to an email– if you combine that with remote work, I’m just wondering if for some managers that’s going to feel like, are people even working?

JASON FRIED: Yeah, it is going to feel that way. But I think it points out sort of a fundamental flaw of management. Which is, the only way to look at the work is to look at the work. The only way to evaluate the work is to look at the actual work.

And unless you work in a restaurant or a retail where, of course, you need to be there because you have customers there and whatever, most information work, writing, creative work, design, programming, that kind of stuff, consulting– the work should speak for itself. And should be visible and viewable from anywhere. It’s not something someone needs to be sitting down in your view to do.

It’s hard for people who haven’t done it that way to admit that. But if someone’s sitting at their desk, the only thing it means is that they’re sitting at their desk. If someone’s punching on their keyboard, the only thing that means is that they’re punching on their keyboard. If someone works 80 hours a week, the only thing that means is that they’re there 80 hours a week. It doesn’t have anything to do with what they’re actually producing and making.

So I’m a big fan of saying, look. Let’s let the work speak for itself. And most work that I’ve spoke of, creative work, digital work, is sort of reviewable or it can be considered from anywhere at any time. So it’s a cultural shift. And I think it takes a lot of sort of guts from a manager to say, I’m just going to look at the work and not feel like this person is here or not here. And if they’re not here, it means they’re not doing anything. You’ve got to get over that.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: So we’ve talked a fair bit now about the manager’s perspective. If you are not a manager you’re an individual contributor, and you are not in a company that’s doing a lot of that stuff, realistically, can you experiment with it on your own? And how might you try to do that?

JASON FRIED: It’s going to be hard. So let’s just kind of say that right up front. It’s going to be very challenging if you’re going sort of against the grain and against the management’s momentum and interests and plans. So that’s always hard regardless.

If you’re going to try, again, I would just go with the smallest possible task. Maybe you’ve just decided that you’d like to try to work from home a little bit. Which might mean, can I have Friday afternoons at home? Or something like that. Just make a case and ask, you know, again, your manager might say, absolutely not.

But make a case and say, let me show you what I’m capable of working this way. Give me a shot. And of course, if you’re a brand new employee, you’re going to have basically no leverage. But if you’ve been there for a while, hopefully you’ve built up some rapport and some goodwill and you’ve got some trust in the bank and you can spend a little bit of that trust and show. And the thing is that results always speak for themselves.

If you work from home on Fridays or Friday afternoons, and you’re actually getting as much or more work done as you would be at the office– and I would argue that you’d probably get more done and you can prove that to your manager– they are going to listen, because that’s what they’re after anyway is results.

But also the other thing is, it just may not be possible. And let’s just admit that, too. It might be if you really care about this stuff you might have to get another job somewhere else. I know everyone would still like, just snap their fingers and say, things are going to be better wherever they are.

But in some cases, it’s not. So you’ve just really got to figure out what’s important to you and what matters to you and find fits where you can sort of be your best, the way you want to be.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: You’ve mentioned now a couple of times in our chat today that you’ve talked to people. And that often the reaction you get is well, that would never work at my company. Or my boss would never say yes to that.

I’m wondering, have you found– have you heard any success stories of maybe skeptical people who have changed or who have found that to their surprise and delight it does work for them actually?

JASON FRIED: Oh, yeah, I mean you’re right. Most people hear this and they’re like no, that would not work for me at my company with my boss, whatever. And I get that. That’s probably true. But yeah, I hear from people all the time who especially around the no talk Thursdays thing. That seems to be the thing that really resonates because it’s a very easy thing to do.

And I get emails from people all the time saying, we tried this. And oh my god, this is great. This works. And now we’re doing it twice a month. Or we’re doing it more often now. I think it’s because it doesn’t require that much behavioral change. It’s not like work from home and figure that out.

It’s just like, can we just be quiet for a day? Like that’s something you can kind of do. And people kind of shush each other. It’s kind of fun. You know like not in a sort of a passive-aggressive way. But like, we’re all in this together. Let’s figure this out.

And so I do hear from people like that. People switching to more asynchronous methods of communication versus having meetings. One of the things we hear is that this has actually changed their business fundamentally. It’s actually freed up lots of time for people to do more work, because you’re expected to do other things. Meetings are things that don’t typically result in work. They result in discussion that then requires work. And so you’ve got to make up the time.

So people are actually finding more time in their day. So I hear from people with that. But, yeah, there absolutely is pushback. And there are failures. People try it. It doesn’t work– for sure. So I get that. I get that there’s different cultures. And it’s very hard to change things that are already in motion, extremely hard.

But, you know, if you care about this stuff and you want to give it a shot, there are certainly ways to do it. Take small steps. And I’ve heard from many, many people who have seen this work out really well for them.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: As an individual, you kind of know when things are clicking and the work is going well and you’re in that state of flow. As a manager and as a CEO, when you look around your workspace, what gives you a happy feeling of like, yeah, this is how it’s supposed to be working?

JASON FRIED: Yeah, great question. When I see work go out the door that’s really good and I didn’t know about it happening, I love that. Like, that’s my favorite thing. We’re currently, it’s funny, we’re in reviews– doing employee reviews right now this time of year.

And one of the things I often tell people is like, surprise me. That’s what I want at work. I want to be surprised. I want to see stuff happening I didn’t know about. I want to see things being shipped that are wonderful that I didn’t hear about and I had no involvement in whatsoever. That to me is what’s great.

Not that I’m micromanaging and paying attention to everything and making sure people are getting stuff done when they said they would. Like, I want to see things happening that I didn’t even know about, I didn’t even hear about. That’s what I love to see. So that’s the kind of stuff.

Also I love hearing from employees who are able to say, I picked my kid up at 3:00 today and we went for a 2-hour little excursion. And I didn’t notice. Like, I didn’t notice them not getting stuff done. I love to hear that people are actually using their day for other things besides work and still, from what I can tell, from the work that’s actually happening–

Again, not for people being in seats, but actually from the work that’s being shipped and from customers enjoying the stuff that we’re making, that we’re actually getting a lot of things done, even though people are taking off a couple of hours during the day here to pick up their kids or do this or do that. That’s wonderful.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: Yeah, so I guess I’m just thinking so many companies still– we’re frankly working too many hours. It seems like the trend line here is towards more hours and more multitasking not the other direction.

And I’m just wondering in five or ten years, where do you think we’re going to be? Do you think we’ll have reached a kind of inflection point and maybe clawed back some sanity? Or do you think that actually, the problem may, unfortunately just be worse?

JASON FRIED: I’m not optimistic to be honest. I don’t think it’s going to be a large-scale change. I think there’s going to be certain enlightened companies who realize that this is a complete mess and that they’re willing to change their ways.

So I think it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. That’s typically how humans are in basically every area of our existence. And so I think we’re on a sort of a bad trend right now.

I think one of the things though that’s kind of interesting is that one of the reasons why, I think, all this is getting worse is that companies seem to be valuing dependence inside companies. So they want more groups inside the organization to work with one another.

I actually think that’s the wrong way to do things. I think that you’re better off setting up very small autonomous, independent groups. There are very few things in our company that involve more than three people working on them. Every feature we build for Basecamp, every initiative we take, three or fewer.

Once you have more than three, things get exponentially more complicated and there’s more dependencies and then more people’s schedules. And someone’s out on this leave or someone’s sick and something has to be held up. It’s just, the more people you have involved the more opportunity there is for things to actually take longer, for people to be more dependent upon one another. For people not to be able to move forward without more discussion, all that kind of stuff.

So we cut the groups into really small tiny pieces and let them move independently. I think the more the organization can be built around that, the more chance you have for allowing people to work, you know, reasonable hours for conversations not getting out of hand. We can unpack that for hours.

But I think dependency is one of these things that it seems like it’s sort of the thing to do now is to get everybody involved. But I think that’s actually part of the root of the problem. There’s over-collaboration. There’s over-communication. There’s over-involvement. And it’s causing a lot of unfortunate side effects.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: Yeah, I think you kind of see this movement to enable employees and empower them and give them a sense of ownership over their work. But if everyone owns the work, then everyone has to be involved in everything. And there can be kind of a downside there.

JASON FRIED: Yep. A big one I think. Yeah.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: So on the hours question, you know, I think a lot of people will say, 40 hours a week in my job or my industry is part time. It just doesn’t cut it. And actually, I’ve known people who have managers who have come to them and said, you know, you’re in the big leagues now. 40 hours a week isn’t going to cut it. Or your job has to come before your family. Do you feel like 40 hours, realistically, is enough.

JASON FRIED: Yeah, I think it’s a moral question first of all. If there’s a boss who says their family comes second or that work comes first, unless you’re paying that person– actually, forget money. It doesn’t even have to do with money. I find that to be morally reprehensible and ethically off-the-wall. That’s wrong, I think.

As a business owner, I don’t feel like I’m entitled to anyone’s nights or weekends. And if I do, I think I have an entitlement problem. I think 40 hours is absolutely enough if you squeeze out all the stuff that doesn’t matter and you get really efficient about how you use your time. And I think that’s a noble pursuit.

The idea that we should just layer in more time because we’re inefficient with it and we waste it– I think, basically, if you really break down your day there is more opportunity to waste time than to use time in many companies. And I think that managers who ask people to work extra hours, significant extra hours– look, occasionally there’s a deadline or people need to put a few extra hours a week. Fine, of course. That happens sometimes.

But if that’s the norm and it trends towards more and more and more, I think you’re a pretty crappy manager to be honest. I think that if you think that you need way more hours from people and that that’s the solution, then you’re not really doing your job, which is to look at how people are working. What are people doing? What are people actually capable of in the amount of time that they have? And you’re not squeezing out the waste. You’re not doing your job. This should be your job.

Your job as a manager should be to help people be efficient– to protect people’s time and attention. Those are the only resources people have to use at work is their own time and attention. And if you’re stealing it or chunking it into smaller and smaller bits. And you’re surprised that people are saying, I don’t have time to do my work. And so you’re saying, well, you need to spend more time at work. I just don’t feel like you’re being a good manager to be honest, or a good owner or whatever.

So I think this is a manager’s job, to protect people’s time and attention and preserve it like the limited resource that it is. We spend time in businesses like it’s going out of style and like there’s an unlimited amount. And I find that to be reckless. Anyway I’m kind of ranting here. But that’s my general point. Which is I think it’s poor management.


JASON FRIED: Anyway, it just bugs me. It bugs me. It just bugs me.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: Yeah, well, no. Jason, I think it bugs a lot of people. And it’s really refreshing to hear you speaking out about it. So thank you for talking with us today.

JASON FRIED: Of course, I’m hopeful that this was useful for somebody.

SARAH GREEN-CARMICHAEL: That’s Jason Fried. He’s the CEO of the Chicago based software startup Basecamp. You can follow HBR on Twitter at HarvardBiz. And please do connect with us on Facebook and LinkedIn, too. I’m Sarah Green-Carmichael. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast.

This transcript was republished with permission from Harvard Business Review. You can subscribe to their IdeaCast podcast on iTunes.