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Working on the weekends

A company is little more than a community of people pulling together in an organized way to achieve the same mission and vision. Like many communities, there are leaders who adjudicate and set direction, and there are norms to follow. Underlying it all, there is the culture of the community: the cues that dictate how it behaves, what its true goals are, and which norms are adhered to as the community grows.

In startups, there's often a cultural belief that if you're not burning the candle at both ends - if you're not pulling 18 hour days and working on the weekends - you're not trying hard enough. "All the high performers here work late," someone once told me in my first week at one startup. It was the reddest of red flags.

Most knowledge workers can muster up to 4 to 6 hours of really productive work a day. After that, you get into make-work; the going through the motions, non-reflective phoning-it-in work that isn't going to rock anybody's world. Likewise, constant interruptions, eg on Slack, through random calls, or half hour meetings sprinkled throughout the day, interrupt flow state and dramatically drop productivity and well-being.

With more free time between working hours and more room for reaching a flow state when they're at work, these workers have more time for reflection, introspection, and rest. We all do better work when we have more time to think about it; we all do better work when we're well-rested.

Beyond these matters of productivity, it's important to consider what kind of community culture you're building: one focused on building the right things and moving forward, or one focused on performatively keeping seats warm. Even more importantly: it's worth asking what kind of person you're optimizing for.

Remote working during the pandemic has amplified biases against working mothers. Only 8% of companies have revised their productivity expectations to account for the challenges of parenting at home during lockdown. Women still tend to carry the heaviest load of parenting; women are more likely to be carers; women are judged more harshly on their productivity. As the Brookings Institution concisely described the problem, "COVID-19 is hard on women because the U.S. economy is hard on women, and this virus excels at taking existing tensions and ratcheting them up.."

Zebra co-founder Mara Zepeda observed this effect in the startup communities she's a part of:

In the last year, it's men that magically have the time to keep showing up for the meetings, working late on that proposal. The selection bias of who has the time, and how easy it is to just shrug this new reality off...I see how easy it is to become blind to who's being left out.

Setting a norm of longer working hours isn't just bad management: it's a literal dick move, ensuring that your startup and your community will be dominated by mostly younger, predominantly white dudes with few personal ties outside of work.

If you're still wondering why that matters - if the advantages aren't obvious - you don't have a company or a community that I'm interested in taking part in. But, sure, if you need to have the benefits of being welcoming to 51% of the global population, let's spell them out: more gender-diverse companies are more profitable, more collaborative, and better at employee retention. And it's easier to hire if you're welcoming to more people.

Women need to be well-represented at all levels, but it's still relatively rare to have a gender-diverse board of directors, or even C-suite. Which is exactly why we still see people making the mistake of focusing on performative productivity instead of creating a culture to support the collaborative work that really matters.

As a manager, I want to see the work get done - collaboratively, in a non-toxic environment that supports people in doing their best work. I want there to be room for creativity and reflection. I want a diversity of contexts to be well-represented. I want people who will push back on each other's blind spots. And I want to share ownership. It's not just the right thing to do; it's also the path to success.