The Great Myth Of Late Nights and Weekend Work

Many moons ago when I was in art school, like most other students I was introduced to a fundamental pillar of the creative industry: Late nights and weekend work. This practice was sold as an integral part of being a creative and was drilled into us again and again: Work every possible hour, day and night, and you might get an intern placement.

It was re-enforced once again when I started out interning at studios in Dublin, watching on as thirty-something year-olds huddled over the soft glow of iMac displays well past 9pm every night: Work every possible hour, day and night and you might get a get a job here.

Unfortunately, often this practice doesn’t end as an intern, a junior or even senior role. Of the university group with whom I studied with, over half consider late hours as normal practice in their professional career: Work every possible hour, day and night and you’ll keep your job here.

In the creative industry, late nights are often displayed as a badge of honour. Want to do do great work? You have to work late. Want to win a shiny award? You have to work late. Got a wife and kids? Forget about them. You have to work late. And the sad irony is that the myth of long hours is exactly that: a great big lie.

During my time as design director at Edenspiekermann (and even including my new role at HUGE since this article was originally written), I could count all the really late nights on two hands. And not to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty damn proud of the work I’ve done at these places. I’ve come to realise that the statement should read more like this: Work hard and you’ll do well.

Of course, as with any career path, the occasional late night before a deadline is a absolutely fine, and should done without question. But, if you’re working three, four, five late nights every single week then someone in your management is either failing at their job, or taking the piss. Sometimes, of course, it is not done with malice and is simply down to bad organisation. Regardless of the motive, there is no reason for staff to work night in, night out every week past six or seven o clock. Period. If they are, there is something wrong with how your company is managing resources and projects.

Our responsibility as creative and project leads is to protect young creatives from burnout early in their careers. As we know, every young creative is brimming with enthusiasm to prove themselves. Too often, agencies take advantage of this. But putting those cases to one side (after all, assholes will be assholes), how can creative agencies build a sustainable work culture and still produce great work?

One of ways that to achive a sustainable working environment is by using Agile working practices such as Scrum. In an Agile process, the client is heavily integrated into the team from the start in the role of a ’Product Owner’. They are involved in the planning of time-boxed work sessions called ’sprints’ (each sprint usually lasts two weeks). At the start of each sprint, together with the design / development team, they plan list of features (known as ’user stories’) that will be completed in that sprint, and the team estimates amount of effort required to complete these tasks. A ScrumMaster (the facilitator of the process) informs the team and Product Owner how many working days are in the sprint (considering budget and availability of staff members) and based on this number, the team commits to a set amount of features. For example, if the team has 20 working days in the sprint, and the estimation on the selected tasks is 30 days, then the Product Owner must remove some tasks before the teams commits. It’s simple math.

For Agile to work, transparency and trust is paramount. The commitment between the team and Product Owner at each sprint planning becomes almost sacred: The Product Owner agrees not to push extra work into the sprint, and the team agrees to deliver the work to which they committed.

Think of it this like this: sustainable long term product development, rather than the old-school ’fixed handover deadline’ model that results in unenthusiastic, burnt-out staff (and ultimately high staff turnover). And let’s face it, there’s no denying that building digital products should be approached in a sustainable, iterative process. The days of lengthy spec documents, waterfall processes and the ridiculous notion that digital product can ever be ’finished’ are long over. Long term evolution of a digital product requires a sustainable approach. And Agile is one way that agencies can achieve this.

As I write this (at 8pm on a Sunday evening to be fair), directly under my Berlin apartment is an design studio. There a group of sweating designers in there, who, week in week out, are huddled over the same illuminated iMac displays. Wake up. It’s time to get a life. And do some better work.

Originally published in NET magazine, January 2015.

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