One of the topics I get asked the most from non-Silicon Valley friends is “What is the working hours like over there?”. I think this is a very interesting topic, worth blogging about.
First off, I worked on only one Silicon Valley company (in Google) and heard stories from similar (big, public, software) companies in the area. These are my only sources in this writing 🙂
In general working hours are not enforced. It’s generally up to the individual engineer. It’s quite normal to see some who only come at lunch-time and also others who leave relatively early in the afternoon (maybe beginning 4pm?). However it’s not a wild west world where you can miss work to your liking. Probably, the minimum expectation is that
- you do your job and reasonably meet what’s expected of you,
- you show up for meetings when you’re needed (they are usually scheduled in hours friendly to both late-comers and early-leavers),
- you’re available in the office for certain duration during the day so that people can consult/discuss with you in person.
As long as you meet those, people, including your boss and teammates, will generally tolerate whatever time you usually come to work and leave.
For me, this is quite a departure from my previous working experience in Singapore. I worked for a company that was relatively relaxed in Singapore’s standard, but there was still general expectation of working at least 8 hours/day, being in no later than 9.30, etc.
Making sure things get done
I think the trick that enables working hour flexibility is the fact that the employees have other motivation to deliver. It’s not necessarily because the tasks are amazing -it is probably impossible to give such tasks to everyone in a company. It’s more because the employees have clearly defined objectives, for example quarterly ones, and a set of incentives make them want to attempt to fulfill it.
For example, managers or stakeholders regularly check and provide feedback on progress.Some projects may be a part of a big publicly-visible project, and you don’t want to let that down by being the bottleneck. And also, most importantly, fulfilling or exceeding expectation has a big impact on your career. There is a technical ladder, and your probability to get promoted depends to large extent on how you can demonstrate your past achievement to a neutral third-party. The consequence of the technical ladder is quite serious – higher level means significantly better compensation as well as respect and influence within one’s team.
Another trick is to make the workplace as attractive as possible. There’s food and beverages all the time at the pantry, and breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided in the office cafeteria. Also, there are the old-fashioned financial incentives like bonus and stock units that are based on performance – these makes up big part of one’s total compensation.
From the companies’ point of view, providing flexibility is also important to attract talent given the competitiveness in Silicon Valley.
The software engineers have various background and different needs with regards to working hours. Some have kids that needs to be sent to and picked up from school, and these employees might need to synchronize their commute with school schedule. Other employees are more of a night owl and free dinner is an incentive for them to stay late in the office. Also, business are not always open during weekdays, so you often have to go to bank, dentist, or mechanic during business hours.
Aggressively working or work-life balance?
A question I’ve often been asked: “Do people work really hard over there?” Of course people do work hard, but do they work all the time? Here, again, people have flexibility and choice. Some people choose to work really hard and they get rewarded accordingly (they get the respect that they deserve, promoted faster, etc.) But if you don’t want that, you don’t have to and you can have balance between work and other interests such as family, hobbies, or travelling.
In conclusion, I think flexible working hours is a workable concept – especially in this case where companies and employees both have interests to make it work. Companies need it to attract employees and increase their contentedness, but they also need to be sure that this won’t negatively affect productivity. Employees love flexibility, and with proper incentives they will still do their best at work. If it works out for both, there’s no reason not to do it.