« Monad and RSS, Part 2 | Main | Monad and RSS, Part 3 »

June 28, 2005

Flex Time

There has been some discussion recently in the Windows Server Division about flexible work policies.

I'm all for flexible work policies since keeping the workforce productive and happy is my main concern about Microsoft. An employee working part time, from home, on a flexible schedule, etc. is certainly better than no employee at all, and in most cases should be almost as good as a "normal" employee--and may well be better.

One idea being bandied about is the compressed workweek, where an employee works 4 days instead of 5. This notion in particular seems to stick in the craw of most Microsoft managers.

On the surface, a compressed week should be good. People only have to spend time driving 4 days out of 5; they only have to take up a parking space 4 days out of 5. They only eat 4 lunches on company time each week. If they are the type that waste X minutes or hours getting up to speed each day, they only need to do that 4 times. Although people's productivity may drop after extended time at work, I don't think this would kick in working 25% longer in a day. And the extra hours would presumably be early in the morning or later in the evening, when distractions would be fewer and employees could be more productive.

It's true that Microsoft isn't running an assembly line; the time you spend at work isn't completely fungible. Employees need to talk to each other, and the more people see and talk to each other the more likely they are to cohese into a team. Yet Microsoft already has people who work early and people who work late and don't overlap much. Certainly there are people on my team that I am shifted from by at least 2 hours each day, which adds up to one whole day per week.

I think if you dig down, the real reason managers don't like a compressed work week is because they want employees to work "as much as necessary" every day, and they want 5 days of that, not 4. They don't want you to take five 8-hour days and turn them into four 10-hours days, they want you to turn them into five 10-hour days. Or at least, they want to be able to count on you for 5 10-hour days during a crunch, and in exchange it's OK if you do 5 7-hour days other times.

In a sense they are right; Microsoft does not have its employees on a fixed work schedule, so you wind up with some months where you work harder and some months where you can goof off a bit. BUT, overall, this attitude is a reflection of the overall Microsoft attitude towards time management:

  1. Take all the employees who react to having too much work by working extra hours, instead of cutting work--in other words, the employees who don't have good time management skills
  2. Promote these people into management positions where they are responsible for scheduling software deliverables
  3. Scratch head when your software isn't done on schedule

I remember on Windows 2000 at some point we went into "7 day a week mode". This meant everybody was supposed to work 7 days each week (or at least that was the implication; they never actually told us that in so many words). So you do this for 3 months--assuming everyone actually works a full day every day--and you gain...26 days of work? One month, on a project that lasted 3 years? Is that worth burning out your whole team? This attitude needs to change, and forcing managers to deal with a compressed workweek would be a good start.

Posted by AdamBa at June 28, 2005 10:06 PM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


My boss has flat out told me that he was told when he started at Microsoft that our normal work week is a minimum of 50 hours and it goes up from there. He passed on this bit of advice when I started to work for him (halfway through my MS career so far). I proceeded to ignore it.

I work the hours that I need to do my job. I do my best to maintain a 40 to 45 hour workweek outside of crunches. It has never hurt my review and if they don't like it, that's too bad. I'm not pulling a 60 or 80 hour week except for the month right before ship or in a meltdown.

MS doesn't pay me enough to give up my life.

Posted by: MS Employee at June 29, 2005 12:53 AM

The biggest problem that flexible time arrangements (like 4-day enlongated workdays) pose in my experience is that not everybody wants to work them. If it were as simple as "our product unit will henceforth work on a new schedule, X, that gives us Fridays off", I personally would jump at it. However, when every member of your team is on a different schedule, it makes it difficult to do anything *as a team*. People aren't around for code reviews, you can't survey opinion on a touchy decision, it's nearly impossible to schedule morale or team-wide events, and generally there become some people on the team who are 'out of touch' with the rest of the team - trust me, I've experienced it. Software's hard enough to produce without setting your team up even more for failure.

That said, for superior performers and in circumstances when it's warranted (kids in daycare, taking care of relative, etc.), I've encouraged my folks to adjust their schedules and it's worked out well. It's just something that you should be cautious about and not try to roll out willy-nilly. We're not stamping license plates here...

Posted by: LarsBerg at June 29, 2005 07:34 AM

Regarding 7 day a week mode... it's no coincidence that I started interviewing for a new job less than two weeks after I'd spent 6 weeks working 80 hours a week on a project. I've had crunch time since then but never that bad, and I'm still in the team I jumped to after that dismal time.

I've been part time for five months now, and it's an interesting experiment to say the least. I have had to be much more strict with time management, say no more often and try to stop reading email so that I can grind on important specs instead of getting interrupted every 3 minutes. I am sure that me being part time has caused pain for others on my team who want to schedule me, but so far my management has been supportive of it. If I stop delivering, I'm sure that won't be the case - I guess I'll know in a few weeks when reviews are back :-)

A lot of people nod and wink when I say I work 60% time, assuming that I'm really working 40 hours a week and only getting paid for 24. But I am actually sticking fairly closely to the amount of hours I said I was going to - having a kid around kind of forces the issue; on my days off, I just can't work when he's awake and when he's not, I'm so exhausted from taking care of him that I don't want to.

I personally believe that years, probably decades from now, Microsoft and other large companies will need to be capable of operating with workforces of which a significant percentage is on some kind of custom flextime arrangement in order to survive... whether that be a compressed workweek, telework, part-time, whatever. Especially if we want to keep high-performing women around.

Posted by: KC Lemson at July 1, 2005 04:45 PM

This one's wierd.

Fundimentally, an employee should be allowed to set their own schedule. As long as they're meeting their deadlines, it shouldn't matter.

I've had people on my team work from 4AM to noon, for example (or in Scott's case, from 4AM to about 3PM).

I've taken Fridays off early for years now (I have a 4PM Tui Na appointment, which means I leave at 3PM). My schedule is adjusted to make room for that.

But the problem is that managers look at that and say "Hmm. If they worked that 5th day, they could be SO much more productive"...

Of course it doesn't work.

Crunch mode happens. I still wake up in cold sweats stressing over things that happened in the NT 3.1 crunch mode (which lasted three years). I wouldn't be surprised if Adam did too.

The problem with crunch mode is that it's fundimentally unsustainable. I'm in crunch mode right now, after this weekend, I don't expect to be doing much other than work for the next couple of weeks. But that's a part of life. The good thing is that after it's over, I can relax and go back to a normal work schedule.

The other thing is that for the past ten years or so, my management has been generally supportive of my work/life balance choices.

Posted by: Larry Osterman at July 5, 2005 08:57 AM