In a world that increasingly values hustle and glorifies burnout, it’s refreshing to hear leaders speak out against philosophies that advocate working yourself to the bone.
Jason Fried is one of those leaders. He’s the co-founder and CEO of an incredibly successful tech company called Basecamp, which was started in 1999, and continues to thrive today.
Two of the things that make Basecamp’s success story so remarkable are that Fried has intentionally kept the company small—they have under 50 employees—and that no one is expected to work more than 40 hours each week. It’s a lean, efficient team that has produced several products, including its signature project management tool, which the company is named after.
We recently had the chance to talk to Fried about the culture at Basecamp, including his strong sentiments around working more reasonable hours, and taking better care of our personal—and health—needs. Here’s a snippet from our conversation:
40-hours a week is more than enough time
Fried has become increasingly vocal about the need to work more humane hours. In a recent article for Inc., he named burnout the enemy of intelligence, patience, and creativity. I wanted to know more about his thought process, and asked him why he feels so strongly about this:
“40 hours a week is plenty of time. It’s a lot of time, especially when you start getting people together. When you have three or four people working on a problem, that’s 120 or 160 hours a week of time that people are spending on that problem.
“That is a lot of time. It’s more than enough time, if you squeeze out all the stuff that doesn’t matter, if you don’t pay attention to things that are distracting you, if you cut the noise down.”
As a leader, you need to model your philosophies
As we discussed the importance of moderating work hours, I asked Fried if he himself adheres to the 40-hour rule.
“Absolutely. You have to. In general people follow the leader, so if they see you working late at night or on weekends, no matter what you say, they’re going to think there’s a quiet expectation that they should do the same.
“I think you need to set the example and be really firm about that, otherwise people are going to end up sliding down that slope, and end up working too many hours or late at night.”
Vacation time is so crucial, that it’s worth incentivizing people to take it
Fried believes in the importance of taking time off, and noted that when employees don’t take sufficient vacation time, he proactively reminds them to do so. To further incentivize people who have a harder time disconnecting, Basecamp actually pays for part of their people’s vacations.
“Every year, we give everybody a list of 16 trips that we put together, and they’re able to pick one of those. We pay for them completely—for them, and their wife, husband, partner, kids. They’re always to really interesting places, and we take care of all the costs. By doing that—because we actually pay for it—there’s no question of, ‘Well, I can’t quite afford it right now.’”
They tried offering unlimited vacation time, but it didn’t work for them
One of the biggest challenges with unlimited vacation time is that people become apprehensive to take any time off because they’re too afraid of abusing the policy, or looking lazy. That’s exactly what happened at Basecamp before they switched over to the vacation package model.
“We used to have an unlimited vacation policy, and found that that’s actually a bad idea because there’s not really an expectation of what that means. People inherently have this conflict with, ‘Well, is it too much, or not enough?’”
“It’s just better to be clear with people, so we’ve revised that since. We give everyone three weeks off a year, so basic vacation plus holidays—whatever their national holidays are because some people live in different countries.
“We had a lot more success with people taking vacations once we actually specified the exact vacation time, versus the unlimited thing. I think the unlimited thing is a good idea, in concept, but it’s so hard to deliver on, and for people to use that, so it’s just better to be clear.”
They offer reduced summer hours from May to October
“We give everybody three-day weekends from May to October, so that’s a way to at least get people away from work a little bit longer during summer months.
“We used to do it all year round, but we decided that it wasn’t special enough when it’s all year round. I’m a big believer in seasons, and having different things happen at different time of the year. What’s cool with the 4-day weeks from May to October is that people anticipate them and get excited about them when spring rolls around.”
Every three years, Basecampers are entitled to a 1-month sabbatical
“Every three years, people are encouraged—and reminded—to take 30 days paid sabbatical. That’s on top of vacation time for that year as well, so it’s almost that third year or so, you get almost two months off.
“Scheduling is sometimes difficult for that. If they’re married, or they have a partner that has a job, and they can’t both get off at the same time, or if one year doesn’t work for someone and they have to wait til their fourth year, that’s obviously fine—we can work around that.
“We highly encourage and remind people to take the sabbatical, and we celebrate it. Some people go somewhere for 30 days. A lot of people just take a vacation plus do some stuff at home and catch up on life, and things they’ve been putting aside for a while. Someone redid their garage, another did some work on their house.
“It’s just a good time for people to stay away, and we highly encourage them not to check in with work at all. Most people are really good about that. Some people do check in, because they want to—they’re into it. But the clear expectation is, ‘We don’t want to hear from you. I don’t want to hear from you. Go enjoy your 30 days. We’re happy to have you back when you’re back, but please, stay away from work.’
“I think it’s a really important thing to do, and a healthy thing to clear your mind for a while. I haven’t taken one of those myself… I should do that.”
In general people follow the leader, so if they see you working late at night or on weekends, no matter what you say, they’re going to think there’s a quiet expectation that they should do the same. Jason Fried
Over to you. Do you think 40 hours a week is enough? How important is taking time to rest?
We’d love to hear your thoughts on what a healthy workweek looks like. Do you think it’s realistic to work just 8-hours per week day? Why or why not?
Are incentives like vacation time, summer hours and sabbaticals just perks, or truly important to the development of a healthy company?