A collection of characters, stories, and other elements
Work is only one part of our lives, but until remote work, it occupied a sacrosanct place in our schedules. You were to work between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm, not including your commute to and from the office, and the rest of your life had to flow around that block.
Remote work offers the opportunity to rethink work from first principles and ask ourselves: What does life look like when our jobs work for us, rather than the other way around? When you don’t have to commute, when no one is watching you work, when code shipped at 2 am is as valuable as code shipped at 10 am, what can your life become? Maybe your day will become nonlinear; maybe you’ll split your workday in two; or maybe you’ll work 4 days instead of 5.
This is r/battlestations by way of Google Calendar: When your calendar is a creative space, what will you make?
Loïc Guychard, engineering manager at Sourcegraph, compares work time to closet space: “If you have it, you’re going to use it. Whether you use it for things that matter, that’s a different story.”
To compress his closet space, Loïc only works four days a week. He works from 10 am to 7 pm and takes Fridays off. The four-day work week constrains him in a creative way, forcing him to make better decisions with his time.
“Time-spent-at-desk is the worst measure of efficiency in software engineering.” - Loïc Guychard, engineering manager
He’s able to make better decisions partially because his longer weekends give him more energy. “You get a very good reset out of a three-day weekend,” he says. Plus, “when I do get to my holiday, I’m not crawling like I used to.”
Loïc extends his flexibility to his reports, arguing that “Input hours are a bad metric for any sort of efficiency.” According to him, “Time-spent-at-desk is the worst measure of efficiency in software engineering. I literally don’t care what hours my reports are working. I just care about output.”
For Loïc, the goal is to maximize output and minimize synchronous work. It’s up to the team to set a “minimum viable guaranteed availability”–outside of that window, he says, work should be entirely flexible.
Loïc believes this so strongly that he’d refuse an offer from a company based on flexibility alone. I asked him to consider an inflexible dream job but he disagreed with the premise: “I doubt that it would be my dream job if it’s completely inflexible.”
Flexibility isn’t just a benefit to be tallied up against other benefits–it says something about your company. “In our industry,” Guychard argues, “if you’re inflexible, you’re ignoring how we actually work and how software actually gets produced. Software is not something that gets produced on an inflexible schedule.”
Stephen Gutekanst, software engineer at Sourcegraph, gets bored during vacation. As much as he’d like to relax, his distance away from meetings creates the perfect headspace for inspiration. That unique headspace inspired him to make a change.
Every once in a while, on an ad hoc, as-needed basis, Gutekanst marks a vacation in his calendar, turns off Slack and Zoom, and focuses entirely on coding–for as much as two weeks at a time.
The workplace can get noisy. For Gutekanst, it comes in waves.
Over the course of two months, he says, half of his time might go toward helping other people: “It’s a weird conundrum because it’s a completely useful way to spend my time. On the other hand, it’s completely unrelated to what my focus area actually is, which is working on a product feature or something like that.”
Part of the reason for that comes from working at a high-growth startup: “A lot of the time, we don’t have an owner for an area and I’m the person with the most context, so it’s useful for me to help out there.”
Being able to contribute everywhere is useful, he says, but also a dangerous temptation: “It’s really tempting, as an engineer, to say ‘Yeah, this is the main thing I’m working on but oh, this person needs help or someone has a question, let me jump in and help them.’ You can end up losing context a lot of the time.”
Workations are a way to combat distractions and regain focus. To make them work, Stephen builds a clear consensus about what he’s doing and about what others expect him to do. “I know what I need to work on, I just need the time to go and do it. In those situations, detaching from everything else can be really powerful.”
He takes a workation “whenever there’s a time where I’m like ‘Hey, I’d love to just sit down and write this code for a while.’” The result is a situation “where you can completely focus and get a lot done.”
“Switching to a 4-day work week was the best decision as the primary caretaker of two small children.”
Vanesa Ortiz, community advocate at Sourcegraph and co-host of Dev Tool Time, had brain fog after her first child. When she came back from maternity leave, she struggled to code the way she used to be able to. “I couldn’t focus correctly,” she said. “I felt like I was constantly deprived, which is literally what happens when you’re a milk factory 24/7.”
Vanesa was struggling to juggle a full-time job, a new baby, and her portion of the household work. Weekends were no longer a space for recovery; they became stressful days for housework and childcare: “I was exhausted after the weekend.”
Together, Vanesa and her then engineering manager decided to try a four-day work week–it was an immediate success. Communicating the change to her team only required marking the time in Google Calendar and the occasional reminder that she was unavailable for a Friday meeting. The schedule served her during her time as an engineer and she’s maintained it since becoming a community advocate.
Now, she has the time she needs: “On the weekend I get to enjoy my children. It’s not like I’m trying to push them away as I deal with household chores.” The success of her new schedule has lasted through to her second child. “I can’t imagine going back,” she says, “especially with the second kid.”
Vanesa recommends the four-day work week to everyone, but especially to primary caretakers: “If you are struggling with work/life balance, and you need that extra time to practice self care and to deal with all the messes in your life, then it should really be considered.”
“I could work in the middle of the night for two nights a week and if I ship all the same amount of stuff, I don’t think people would mind.” - TJ DeVries, software engineer
TJ jokingly acknowledges it’s not his ideal schedule. “My preferred hours would be working in the middle of the night but that doesn’t work with a family,” he says, laughing. TJ has an 11-month-old baby boy, a wife, and responsibilities at church: all of which make weeknights busy.
Working four tens allows him to handle those responsibilities at night and have Fridays free for streaming his live coding sessions.
Many would rightfully worry that lopping off one day a week wouldn’t sit well with a manager. TJ had the opposite experience: “No one minds how you’re working as long as you’re getting done what you say you’re going to get done and staying healthy.” As long as his new schedule wasn’t a detriment to his team, TJ says, then he had his manager’s full support.
TJ is frank: “I could work in the middle of the night for two nights a week and if I ship all the same amount of stuff, I don’t think people would mind.” Though they might reach out about his health if it looked like he weren’t sleeping, otherwise, his manager and his team just care about output.
When considering how to build your own work schedule, TJ recommends carrying over some software development principles over to your work calendar, namely: Don’t waterfall your calendar. “It’s unlikely that you’ll know the optimal schedule ahead of time,” TJ warns. “That’s not usually how we find the best version of something. We iterate on it over time.”
Robert Lin, software engineer at Sourcegraph, likes bouldering and hates queues.
“For some activities,” he says, “you just can’t do them at night. And if you do it on weekends, then you’re competing with all these people who want to do the same thing on their two days off.”
Robert works a split schedule, meaning that for three days a week, he works from 8 am to 12 pm and 6 pm to 10 pm. On the other two days, he works a normal 9 am to 5 pm. Robert, who’s currently in the United States, usually lives and works from Taiwan. There, he maintains a similar schedule, the hours shifted only slightly to maximize overlap with his American teammates.
Robert is used to some degree of flexibility. When he was a student, he optimized his schedule for his primary hobbies–taking advantage of daylight hours to be out and about. Robert decided he didn’t want to change that as he started working full time.
When he onboarded with Sourcegraph, there was nothing that said he had to be working from 9 am to 5 pm so he set his schedule how he wanted it. “I don’t think there was any particular response to it.” The team was supportive when he communicated his preferences.
Robert is wary of the exhaustion that can come with a traditional schedule. “There’s something about 9 am to 5 pm that’s kind of exhausting,” he said. “What would often happen is you’d charge through the day and then you’d get home at the end of the workday, maybe hit the gym for a while, come back and cook dinner–and that’s pretty much your whole day. There’s no room for anything else.”
Work is important to Robert but it isn’t his life–it’s just part of it: “The key thing for me is being able to structure work around things I want to do. That is super liberating.”
Robert recommends building a company culture that prizes independence. A company culture where everyone needs everyone else to do anything is one that can’t accommodate different schedules. Robert says the first step to experimenting with flexibility is to “build up a culture on your team where everyone isn’t tightly interdependent.” It needs to be a foregone conclusion that “you’re not 100% available all the time.”
Jean du Plessis, a director of engineering at Sourcegraph, considers his calendar “an experimentation over a long period of time.” Located in South Africa, Jean has reports all over Europe, Asia, and both coasts of North America. “I have a big time frame to cover,” he says.
The nonlinear workday, according to GitLab, the company that popularized the term, “decouples time from work and acts as a forcing function to embrace asynchronous workflows.”
For Jean, this means using the morning to take care of the chores that most would do after work, such as grocery shopping and walking the dog. From the late morning to the afternoon, he focuses on meetings with his teammates and completing work leftover from the previous day.
“I’ve found myself playing video games in the afternoon and I’ve found myself meeting up with friends.” - Jean du Plessis, director of engineering
In the afternoon, Jean is frank: he might just nap. After, around 3 pm (his time), is when most people in the east coast of the United States start to wake up, so the next three hours have some of the best overlap for meetings. From 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm is family time: “We have supper together, kids get bathed, and I put them to bed.” And from 8:30 pm to 10:00 pm, he handles any stray follow-up meetings and completes some light work.
For Jean, the nonlinear work day isn’t merely a traditional workday, fragmented: “I’m picky about what I do in the evenings.” He tends to schedule meetings that he doesn’t have to lead during his evening sessions–meetings where he only has to listen or provide input. He optimizes his entire day based on what he does best when.
And that includes rest: “Friday is my recovery day,” he says. “If I felt like I put in a lot of effort on the days leading up to Friday, I’ll take Friday easy. I’ve found myself playing video games in the afternoon and I’ve found myself meeting up with friends.”
One benefit of the traditional 9 to 5 is that some sense of work/life balance is built into its limited 40 hours. Even still, many people find themselves burnt out. Does a nonlinear day threaten to make this even worse, given the potential for even more hours worked?
Not for Jean. “For me,” he says, “maintaining a healthy work/life balance isn’t about the time. It’s about how I feel: does my work let me focus on my personal life when I need to? Does my personal life allow me to focus on my work when I need to? Are the stakeholders in my life, my personal and my work life, feeling like their needs are met?”
If the answers to these questions are “yes,” “yes,” and “yes,” then Jean feels balanced. And for him, a nonlinear workday makes it easier to keep answering “yes.”
Whether you’ve worked remotely and flexibly for decades, or just started after this recent wave of remote work, now is the time to reconsider your calendar.
The 40-hour work week is a relic of the late 1800s, a right hard won by labor organizers but not a tradition we should hew to unthinkingly. Since then, we have moved from economies primarily defined by widgets produced to economies primarily defined by knowledge work.
In this brave (not so new) world, time-input is not an effective way to measure productivity, nor an effective way to structure your life. If you have the privilege of remote, flexible work, take the time to rethink your calendar and see how best it can work for you, your family, and your life.
If you want to learn more about how your fellow developers work, tune into Dev Tool Time, which streams live on Twitch every other Wednesday.