The headline for this post probably strikes most of you as a joke — at least those of you working in motion design in the US, and especially those of you working in LA or NYC.
But it’s no joke to J.D. Meier, a Principal Project Manager at Microsoft for over 10 years, who uses the 40 hour work week as his barometer for project management success. As he says on his blog:
In my experience, a 40 hour work week is a benchmark of the most effective teams. They have work-life balance. They have buffer to respond to opportunity and to deal with crunches.
Meier has overseen projects large and small, with budgets ranging from zero to over a million dollars. A self-avowed workaholic accustomed to slaving over 100 hours a week — and enjoying it — he finally came to realize that such an approach was not only unsustainable for himself, it was also unsustainable for Microsoft.
Inviting inefficiency to tea
Without the constraint of a 40 hour work week, all sorts of inefficiencies become the norm. It’s as though they’re being invited to tea — and to supper and a late-night snack.
The primary problem, as Meier describes it, is the tendency to “throw hours” at projects. When the sky is the limit, why not schedule another meeting? Why not ask everyone to stay late? Why not hire more freelancers and expect them to work weekends, too?
According to Meier, some of the issues that arise from the 60-80 hour work week mentality include:
- Nothing is a priority because everything is a priority.
- Working faster and harder to make up for bad planning
- Lots of meetings because there’s more time to throw at them
- Lack of priorities because there is no forcing function like time
- Lack of focus because of a lack of priorities and throwing time at problems
- Bad estimation because it’s spread out over too much work or too much time or is too ambitious
- Bad resource planning because of bad estimates and lack of clarity or feedback loops on results
[For the full list, see Meier's post.]
In business terms, this spells doom. Every bullet point above saps profit from the budget. It’s no wonder that so many motion studios complain of razor thin profit margins. They’re probably the same studios ordering pizza every night for their dedicated staff.
The return on reduction
When limiting yourself (and your team) to a 40 hour work week, you earn the following:
- Increased focus
- Increased job satisfaction
- Improved physical and mental health
- More accurate estimates, due to a clearer understanding of accurate throughput and capacity
- More focused communication, both internally and externally
- Better control over profit margins
Putting a 40 hour cap on the week means there can be no waste. It means working smarter. It means zeroing in on the 20% of output that constitutes 80% of a project’s value. It means testing and refining ideas instead of dumping an army of employees on the first sketch.
Efficiency is your friend
One key note that needs to be underlined: Implementing a 40 hour work week mentality isn’t easy. You must commit to it with monastic focus and understand that reducing hours means drastically improving efficiency.
There’s that “E” word again: Efficiency. For many creatives, it’s a four letter word, banned from their vocabularies. Efficiency is for factories and robots, not artists.
But it’s efficiency that allows you to focus your entire self on a project. It’s efficiency that makes flow possible, that magical headspace when creativity and effort are aligned and productivity explodes.
It’s efficiency, in short, that makes work fun.
“Yeah, but that’s Microsoft. We’re different.”
That’s right. Creative services studios are even more sensitive to inefficiencies than most other industries.
At the heart of every studio — and every talented individual — is the creative spirit. It is a fragile and temperamental thing. It’s also the most valuable asset any studio can hope to claim. The “normal” demands of a 60-80 hour mentality threaten to tear that precious spirit to shreds.
And if you talk to anyone who’s burned out in this field (you don’t have to look far), you’ll find the creative spirit is not a thing easily repaired. Motion design infamously “eats the young” because the young burn out and never return, looking for careers that protect their talents instead of exploiting them to exhaustion.
Guilty as charged
I want to take a moment to confess that I’ve leaned on the 60-80 hour mentality as both an individual and as a manager. I’ve often responded to big challenges with bigger time sheets, believing it was the only way.
Like Meier, I like work. I do it a lot, and I’ve never burned out. And like so many Americans, I’ve prided myself on the number of hours I’ve logged while simultaneously playing the martyr.
As I head into my mid-30s and start to make plans for a family, I realize this must stop. It’s not only unhealthy for me, it’s unhealthy for those with whom I work.
And it’s bad business, plain and simple.
The “That’s Impossible” response
Maybe you’re a producer or creative director reading this, shaking your head and thinking, “40 hours!? That’s impossible.”
And now for a trip down memory lane, back to my post as Executive Creative Director at a fledgling studio in Austin. During initial client meetings or at the end of a pitch, I knew damn well when I was getting our studio into hot water. I knew when the budget was too low, the timeline too short and the expectations too high.
Of course, we’d always agree to do the work anyway. We’d tell ourselves, “We need this. Without this, we won’t be able to pay everyone’s salaries. Without this, our portfolio will stagnate. Without this, our competition will slaughter us.”
Some of those fears were well-founded. Some weren’t. The point is that we created a scenario in which the only solution was to say “yes” and commit ourselves to the consequences. The result was often a skinny profit margin, which of course only perpetuated the cycle. The whole thing started to feel like a long, magnificent death spiral.
Moving past impossible
Thankfully, we broke the cycle. We realized that we needed to ruthlessly focus on our core strengths. That meant turning down work. It meant dropping a couple offerings from our website, no matter how cool or promising they sounded. It also meant potentially trimming staff (which thankfully never happened).
On the flip side, we could sleep at night. We resumed normal lives. Sure, we pulled occasional all-nighters, but they weren’t vital to the success of the business. We did them because they were fun, and they were always optional.
The “You Can’t Schedule Creativity” response
Another rebuttal to the 40 hour approach goes as follows: Creativity is a fickle friend. You can’t schedule bursts of inspiration. You can’t put genius on the clock. So how in the world can you expect great work to get done within a tidy, 40-hour box?
This entire line of thinking — this myth that creativity requires a muse, and that this muse cannot keep appointments — is a natural byproduct of believing that one must work late nights and weekends in order for things to get done. It’s what happens when you become accustomed to working without time constraints.
Ever notice how inspiration strikes three hours before a deadline? Ever entered the “zone” with just an hour left and been amazed at how much you were able to accomplish?
Time, in limited quantities, is an incredible motivator. While you can’t schedule a great idea, you can benefit immensely from adding structure to your week. Try it.
Worms, be fruitful and multiply!
Obviously, this is a huge can of worms I’m opening here. A fully fleshed out proposal for applying Meier’s approach to creative services would take much more thought and testing than this meager blog post. And it’s not entirely up to the studios to “fix” a system that clearly needs some retooling. Everyone from the client down to the individual freelancer must play a part in reform.
I’m simply trying to challenge the notion that things are the way they are because that’s the way they have to be.
I’ve accepted that for a long time, but now I’m looking for alternatives. I’m looking for different perspectives. And so a software project manager’s ideas seem like as good a starting point as any.
Tell it like it is
How many hours do you work? What do you see as the challenges of a 40 hour mentality? Do you think you could, in theory at least, make a 40 hour work week a reality for yourself or your organization?
Devil’s advocates are welcome. Comment away!
For those who are interested, Meier uses the Agile system of project management. It’s specifically tailored to software development, but it’s worth checking out. The idea of iterative development, which Agile promotes, maps well to motion design, up to a point.