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Learning to unlearn: kicking your workplace’s worst habits

By Mig Reyes / January 23, 2019

You know the symptoms: artificial urgency, countless meetings, packed schedules, wearing exhaustion like a badge of honor.

Workaholism is real.

So is the struggle to kick the habits. Unlearning what we’ve always known is hard and it’s also what’s keeping us from building happier, healthier, more productive businesses. It’s time for business leaders to recover from workaholism. It’s time to unlearn everything you think you know about working hard.

Jason Fried, founder and CEO of Basecamp, runs his company with modern ideals that fly in the face of workplace norms. His teams rarely meet. No one has a shared calendar. They ban ‘growth at whatever cost’ thinking. They work no more than 40 hours a week—32 in the summer. Their only stakeholders are paying customers. Basecamp has been in business for two decades and it’s been profitable every year, all while ignoring industry standards.

How?

Jason sat down with us at Sprout Social’s HQ for a fireside chat about Basecamp’s newest book, It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work, which offers ideas to put an end to workaholic norms. Having worked for him for four years myself, I was excited to have Jason pull back the curtain to share how he and his team think about work.

Complacency is bad for business

Business culture has arrived at a point where the perception of productivity matters as much, if not more than, actually doing the work. We’re working longer, later, on the weekends and wherever we can find a wifi connection. Work doesn’t happen at work anymore.

Jason dropped a hard truth: “Life has become work’s leftovers.”

There’s a good chance your own organization has conceded to these superhuman expectations and unhealthy ways of working. Employees have grown complacent with workplace-imposed stress. Imagine unlocking a more satisfied, well-rested team with better focus, productivity and efficiency. Senior leadership holds those keys.

Make experimentation the norm

Jason reframed building businesses: your company is a product.

Think about it. You don’t launch a product then ignore it. You test, you learn, you iterate, you improve, you repeat. As with any product, every company has its own formula for success. It takes trial and error to find it.

Senior leaders must rally their teams around the message that workplace rules aren’t set in stone. In fact, if any one rule is sacrosanct, it’s that we’ll regularly rewrite the rules.

Jason shared a few specific ways organizations can experiment to find the right balance of productivity and a healthy work life.

Quiet please, this is a library

Consider familiar environments that cultivate focus: libraries.

The Basecamp team designed its office and culture with “library rules” in mind. Everyone knows how to behave in a library—no loud talking, no interruptions, just focus. Even the office walls and floors were designed to curb noise.

Taking it a step further, the Basecamp team does “No Talk Thursdays,” when everyone agrees to uninterrupted problem-solving bliss. It’s remarkable what your teams can pull off when they actually have a full eight hours to themselves.

Try life without calendars

Jason pressed everyone on the quality of an hour. Do your teams have an uninterrupted 60 minutes to do their best work, or are their days broken up into four chunks of 15 minutes, or perhaps two slots of 30 minutes? Compound that over a full eight-hour day. It’s hard to imagine your teams solving meaningful problems with such fragmented attention.

At Basecamp, there are no recurring meetings. Teams hardly meet at all. Thoughtfully written updates have replaced daily stand ups and retrospectives.

There’s also no place for ASAP. Projects get generous—some would say realistic—timelines. Jason demands excellence from his teams, but he also demands the space and freedom for them to truly immerse themselves in their work. It’s the cultural norm to protect what’s most valuable to all of us: our time.

Leaders, leave on time

Jason challenged the optics of hard work and effort. If you’re the last car in the parking lot everyday, it sends the wrong message: If you aren’t staying late, you aren’t working hard enough.

“Naturally, everyone below that person is going to want to be like that person,” Jason said, “because they think that’s how you get ahead.”

As a business leader, you’re a walking role model whether you signed up for the duty or not. Leadership has to show that it’s important to unplug. After hours, employees at Basecamp are fully committed to their personal lives and families. When they come back on Mondays, they all share—including Jason—what they did outside of work.

“A lot of people share photos of their weekend, and I’ll do the same thing,” Jason said. “It shows that I’m not working on the weekend and I’m not working late at night.”

This simple Monday ritual is an opportunity for a leader like Jason to remind his team that he’s not working off-hours and he doesn’t expect his team to.

Put it in practice

Putting Basecamp’s workplace rituals into action won’t transform your culture overnight. Meaningful change takes effort, courage and the support of senior leadership. At Sprout Social, we can speak from experience. With an experimental attitude, we’ve seen our own successes.

When I started at Sprout, I took a look at how my team was spending its time. I hated how many meetings my direct reports were in. I had a meager request to all of the teams they worked with: no meetings on Wednesdays, please. We called it Focus Day. And it turned into an unexpected movement.

My team’s success and newly found freedom became infectious. Neighboring teams caught on. Neighboring teams grew into neighboring departments. Sprout’s executive leadership now encourages the entire company to keep Wednesdays clear of meetings and prohibits meetings past 4:00 p.m. every day of the week. Focus time was a workplace ritual that started with a handful of curious team members and expanded to over 500 employees.

Building a calmer, happier, more productive workplace is possible. As a senior leader, you have to prioritize it. If you want to lead an innovative team, start with an innovative environment.

Buckle up, there’s a lot to unlearn.

Mig Reyes

Mig Reyes

Mig Reyes is a Director of Product Design at Sprout Social. He spends his time thinking about the intersection of business, art, design, and technology. Committed to community, Mig is the founder of CreativeMornings Chicago and President Emeritus for the Chicago chapter of The American Institute of Graphic Arts. Outside of design, you’ll find Mig enjoying fancy cocktails, dancing to hip-hop, and traveling abroad with camera in hand.
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