Sustainable pace is a theory that transformed thinking for software development. It was originally presented by Kent Beck to counter the idea that a 40 hour work week was something everyone should strive for. I 100% respect Beck’s approach to work being sustainable. Times have changed and more teams are going remote. As agile has taught us more than ever to constantly inspect and adapt our processes, I ask the question: What does sustainable mean for remote teams?
Team Dynamics Affect Sustainable Pace
Team dynamics are changing and remote work is becoming more popular. With this, and teams being dispersed globally across time zones, businesses will quickly realize that what is sustainable for one person may not be for another. I like the idea that together a team commits to what is sustainable, achievable, and down right absurd, but what if the agreed upon sustainable pace is counter productive for a team member? Will they speak up in fear of sounding like a slacker/whiner/non-team player? When teams are made up of people with different family, social, cultural, and economic demands, it can get tricky.
People naturally have a range of work rhythms meaning that they contribute at different cadences. One person may be able to continuously work 60 hours a week and feel energized, focused, and excited about the work. Another team member may realize that, after 32 hours of hard thinking, they have used every ounce of brainpower available to them. This has no correlation on what is being delivered and the “value” the employee brings to the team. For so long, the badge of a “hard worker” was found in the amount of hours clocked rather than the quality of work being delivered. When focus is placed on this, it is easy to let results fall by the wayside and instead compare how long someone was “present” versus how much output they contributed.
Personally, there are weeks I can easily go over 40 hours and still have time to have a great work-life balance and feel rested. Other weeks, I struggle to be present and productive, and am absolutely run down and feel like I’ve accomplished nothing. This doesn’t mean that on those weeks I am a worse employee or worker. It simply means that there were probably other factors that were impacting my ability to work a lot of hours. I still set goals to accomplish, but am more understanding of myself and realize sometimes I can’t accomplish all I set out to do for a given week. During these times, I try to remember that I am human and stimuli affects me and my ability to work just like it affects every other aspect of the world.
Deliverables matter more than hours clocked
When focus changes to results being delivered versus the amount of hours being delivered, employees can start to embrace life. This is a hard phenomenon for many managers to fully understand and support. This can especially be true when a team is remote, from both the managerial side and the employee side. It takes a great deal of trust to be comfortable with your team not sitting in front of you. To go beyond that, it takes even more trust when the team members are spread around the world and are not working the same 8-5 schedule. When a manager can get past the idea that hours = productivity, and instead allow results and deliverables to speak, trust can easily grow. The flip side of this is when employees can only reach desired productivity levels by working ridiculously long hours. This can be a sign of other issues such as too large of a workload, constant changes to requirements or perhaps they lack the right skills to be successful.
Remote Work = No “closing” time
From the employee side, and speaking mostly to my own experiences, I find that I end up working a lot more hours than when I had a crisp 4:30 PM “closing time.” It is easy to get caught up in wrapping things up. Your work is constantly available to you and easy to access. I regularly break what I consider a sustainable pace for myself. How can I get accountability from my team when this is happening? I am not looking for a high five by working long days, but again, with Slack alerts on my phone and my laptop sitting next to me, it is way too easy to just keep going. It seems as I speak with co-workers and read a lot of blogs focusing on remote work, that this is the norm. Do we fear we will miss out on something? Do we not have enough discipline? Or does everyone just love their work that much?
Sustainability won’t always happen
Speaking directly from the software development world, there will be times when sustainable pace is thrown out the window intentionally. Software development is complex and often unpredictable. We may need to have a short burst of unsustainable pace to address the unknowns that present themselves. There will be weeks when long hours have to be put in — whether it is to fix production issues, deploy a new application, or to support the team working. To Beck’s point, being sustainable doesn’t mean we will never have extenuating circumstances that downright stink, but try to limit those.
Maintaining a sustainable pace is about limits – both recognizing natural limits and setting limits to defend both yourself and your team from exhaustion through overwork and underperformance through lack of focus. As a project manager, I take great responsibility in ensuring my teams are able to manage their personal and professional time in a balanced fashion. While I cannot control what people choose to do in their free time (and sometimes I know people love to continue working), I can try to create working environments that encourage using vacation time or taking time to rest when someone is sick or just exhausted. A project is not going to fail or completely miss a deadline because someone needed 1 day off. If failure is imminent, it is my job to determine what happened, help the team grow and learn from it, and move forward in a way that we won’t hit the same issue twice. And hopefully, we can do that and still limit 80 hour work weeks.
In conclusion, the biggest risk to a team or individual’s ability to be sustainable is within themselves. Team members should encourage each other to rest, have a work life balance, and re-energize as needed, so that our time spent working can be productive. While it would be easy to say everyone should be able to always do 40 hours per week and deliver what is needed in that time, it’s just not that easy. Each person and team has to determine what that point is for themselves, and hopefully, it also falls into what is acceptable for their organization, clients, and projects. Gone are the days when being overworked doubled as a badge of honor. Energized employees, delivered results, and great products are what matter most.