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Strong opinions, weakly held

Working conditions for designers

Peter Merholz on the habit of overwork among designers:

One of the things I’ve seen among many in the design profession is a willingness to put up with crappy jobs. Jobs where their talent and labor is exploited (this is doubtless true in other fields, but I suspect it’s especially true in ours) . The thing that cheeses me off most is overwork. It’s not uncommon for services firms to have their staff work 50+ hour weeks. I wouldn’t mind that if people were compensated accordingly. But most are simply compensated for “full-time” — there’s no over time. The thing is, I know their employer is billing out every one of those extra hours to the client. Which means that person is bringing a LOT of money into the firm, and not seeing it herself.

He suggests that designers put up with this because they don’t understand the economics of the business, but I doubt that’s right. It doesn’t take a degree from the University of Chicago to know that generally the rate your agency bills your time at is usually much larger than your hourly rate if you divide your salary by the number of hours you work per year. Indeed, in many cases people fail to understand the more complex economics of agency work. You have to fit office rent, employee benefits, non-billable employees and all of the other costs of running a business into that gap between the salary of billable workers and the amount that’s being billed. Plus, no matter how efficiently an agency is run, nobody bills all of their time.

That said, I do think that any agency which has built its business model around paying people for a 40 hour week and then “encouraging” them to work 50 hours a week is poorly run and operating in an unethical fashion, and it’s incredibly common. I remember being told in an employee review at an agency job years ago that I was perceived as going home too early. I was already working more than 40 hours a week, but my boss always worked later than I did and expected the people who worked for him to do so as well. It was that sort of corporate culture that contributed most to people working lots of extra hours.

It’s also worth noting that this sort of practice is common in many industries, and it has little to do with prestige. Graduates of the best law firms in the country are worked extremely hard in their early years as associates, and the entire medical profession is built on the exploitation of residents at hospitals. Game companies are notorious for overworking and underpaying their employees, and they have the luxury of doing so because so many programmers are eager to work on games rather than business process automation or other less glamorous projects.

Ultimately it’s up to the employee to decide what they value. If you’d rather work 80 hours a week on the new edition of Starcraft than work 40 hours a week on a payroll application for the state government, that’s a perfectly valid choice. Or if you’re working 50 hours a week and picking up skills and experience you couldn’t get any other way, who’s to complain? In the end, your relationship with your employer is like any other — just be sure that it’s one that works for you and that you’re getting out of it what you put into it.

In any case, if you’re are a Web developer or Web designer in the Raleigh area and want to work at an agency that doesn’t exploit its employees (by rule or by convention), please send me an email.

2 Comments

  1. I remember being told in an employee review at an agency job years ago that I was perceived as going home too early. I was already working more than 40 hours a week, but my boss always worked later than I did and expected the people who worked for him to do so as well. It was that sort of corporate culture that contributed most to people working lots of extra hours.

    Oh, that one is my personal pet peeves. When my children were young, I used to work an early day–arrive at the office earlier than most so that I could leave at a consistent time in order to have a couple hours with my kids in the evenings. If I stayed late at the office, they’d be in bed when I got home, and I effectively would not see them for 24 hours.

    And if I did have to work extra, I would try to arrange it, if possible, so that I still left at the same time but finished my work at home later in the evening after my kids went to bed.

    Of course, the people who buy into the long hours=better employee myth tagged me as someone who didn’t work as much as they did, therefore yada, yada, yada.

    What cracked me up, though, was that on days when I did stay later, I saw that 95% of the other employees left within 30 minutes after my usual departure time, including many of the self-sacrifice junkies.

    It was all just a big game of making yourself feel superior to others.

    That attitude still cheeses me, but in general, I feel that if perceiving yourself as working longer hours is all you’ve got to distinguish yourself (vs. you know, actually doing more or better work), then more power to you.

  2. I should add: in my current job, management has a realistic idea of who really contributes more. Being in a place where management buys into the self-sacrifice myth really sucks.

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