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.