Shawn Stratton Systems Architect

6Apr/09Off

Startups and Working Environments

 

I've recently been studying a lot about getting a Startup off the
ground, getting the work environment just right, financing,
recruiting skill, and seeing what it really takes; Keep in mind when
I talk about a Startup I'm talking about the Technology sector, I'm
talking about what everyone has seen in the movies with the extremely
expensive Aereon Chairs and the such.  Regardless, I've come to
several conclusions after making observations on several articles by
successful founders, thinking back on the startups I've seen and
interacted with, and seeing the common mistakes that have been made
thus far in the businesses and projects I've been involved in and let
me just state that it has been a most interesting journey.

In a perfect world we'd all be paid top dollar for working 5 hours
a week in a job that we love, from home, but that doesn't take into
account reality.  In reality, at least here in the states, we
all work 40+ hours a week, get paid less than what we deserve for our
investment and generally get little to no vacation time.  At the
end of the day though the companies that are being started now, those
that will shape the future of this country, have a obligation to not
only ensure that they have a healthy return to their investors but
also to make sure that the employees, today and tomorrow, have a
reason to invest their time in the company and to believe in the
company.  Here are some thoughts that I hope to implement in the
future company I'm working hard to start, hopefully these will
greatly increase employee loyalty, drive down churn and increase
productivity.

In my last "active" position, my employer expected me to
work 60 hours a week while paying me for 40, expecting me to come in
at 7:30 am, leave at 5:30 pm, work from home after hours, and be
available on the weekends. While I generally wouldn't have minded
working 60 hours, it was the constant pressure to work the extreme
amount without incentive.  I've been reading a lot about the
French work week (yes I know, eww France) the workweek there is 35
hours per week with no allowance of paid overtime and it's really got
me thinking; What if a salaried employee is salaried at 35 hours vs.
40 hours, allowing the employee to chose to work past the required 35
but not forcing them to?  In my opinion, knowing the people I
have worked with in the past, requiring only 35 but paying as usual
would be an incentive as the people I've had the pleasure to work
with would work the extra hours when they were needed and enjoy their
time off when not.  Perhaps this seems a little crazy, but after
all if you have the perfect job wouldn't you make sacrifices to make
sure it can be kept (not from fear of firing but by making sure the
company succeeds.)

While we're at it, the French require a minimum of 5 weeks of
Vacation time per year, while I don't necessarily disagree with
amount, it doesn't work well with a Software company where a single
employee owns a piece of code and is responsible for its
maintenance.  But at the same time I think a minimum of 3 weeks
of time off per year, plus holidays and sick time, is necessary to
keep employees from feeling dragged down in the company and to allow
them to refresh their "battery."

So by now you all probably think I'm crazy because I'm saying 1.
Give people full pay, benefits, etc at only 35 hours per week, and 2.
make sure they have enough time off during the year to stay happy by
being able to actually enjoy their lives, well just wait it gets
crazier.  Let's talk some about the office space, you know that
place that we usually call a "cube farm" even at 35 hours a
week an employee spends the significant amount of their awake week in
their office, just think 24 * 7 = 168, but then you have to subtract
8 hours a night (recommended sleep for an adult) 8 * 7 = 56 so now we
have 112 hours a week left for the person, subtract another 2 hours
per the 5 work days for commute time, 5 hours for lunch during the
work week and we're left with 97 hours for the week, so at 40 hours
we spend just under half of our time at the office, and thats taking
in account the weekend!  So while we should never turn an office
into a home like setting it is important to ensure that employees are
comfortable in their environment.  The easiest way to do that is
actually also one of the cheapest ways, take away the fancy glass
walls, the water fountain in the entry way, the marble floors, etc
and give your employees a warm, open, and collaborative environment. 
Allow employees the opportunity to decorate their surroundings (no
that does not mean allow them to offend others,) dress casually, cut
loose when appropriate, and give them ways to relax in the office. 
In Software, and I'm sure in other settings, allowing people to come
together and collaborate is a very powerful tool, create open space
with couches, open light, and easy ways to connect to the work and
don't constantly expect the employees to sit at their "desks"
or "cubes."  In my opinion in a good office, Software
developers should have a laptop and freedom to float around to
whatever desk or couch or conference room they feel the need to be
in.  

One of the big fears as a potential manager that I have about
future employees is stagnation of skills, letting an employee become
so comfortable in what they're doing that they are not expanding
their skill-set or keeping their skill-set honed.  In my opinion
the easiest way, as a developer, to keep your skills up to date is
read books, keep up with blogs, and have access to Wikipedia's
articles; the easiest way for a company to do that in these days and
times is to provide an employee with an Amazon Kindle, these devices
are relatively cheap considering how expensive training is. 
Take for example the cost of the Kindle 2, $359 + $25 for a cover,
and an allowance of $50 dollars a month, that's just at $1000 for a
year vs. a training course on Zend Framework at $899.97 per seat
(price pulled from http://www.phparch.com/c/training/course/phpzf.) 

So let's recap, 35 hour work week (as a full time employee,) min.
of 3 weeks vacation per year, relaxed and open office area, incentive
for keeping up with industry trends and keeping skills honed, perhaps
I'm mad, but what if I'm right?  What if decreasing the amount
of expectation and increasing the amount of enablement creates a more
productive environment allowing employees to spend less time doing
more effective work as well as gain trust and loyalty to the company
they work for while enjoying their own lives.  After all, who
wants to work for a company that doesn't take them seriously, doesn't
consider the fact that people need their own lives, and that drains
all freedom during the work week.  I will be coupling the ideas
I've outlined here with a lightly modified version of Scrum
methodology on an idea I'm seeking funding for now, adding that with
the fact that the area I'm seeking to found in is rich in available
talent, perhaps I will fail but most likely not, only time will tell.

I'm hereby making an open call for people to argue with or
contribute to my ideas, let's fix what's wrong with the current
corporations and thereby making our economy and our lifestyles sick
and dying.