How to Guide the Amount that Employees Work?


I run a well-funded startup. We're fortunate to have built a kick-ass team with a great product and good early traction. But I worry that our team's work ethic is sliding into stasis. Most of my employees work 40-45 hrs/week, which isn't my vision of what startups should be like.

I'd like to amp up the intensity and guide people towards the 55-60 hrs/week range. But, simultaneously, I don't want to become a slave-drive or create an acrimonious relationship with my employees. How can I drive these changes while still maintaining a positive work environment?

Note: posting this anonymously due to the sensitivity of the question. Addendum: Answers so far seem to focus on telling me that 55-60 hrs/wk is too much to make people work. That may be the case, but that's not the discussion I was hoping to have. Let's say all your employees were working 30 hrs/wk and you wanted to compel them to move to 40 hrs/wk without creating an acrimonious workplace. How would you do that? I don't want to get caught up in a discussion about the optimal number of hours for folks to work at a startup. Rather, I'd love advice on how to amp up the quantity of work produced, regardless of what you think is the optimal hours/wk number.

Management Work Life Employees

asked Jun 3 '11 at 14:13
Randy B
14 points
  • Just because you don't like the answers does not mean you should ignore them. If your employees were only working 30 hours per week and the contract/standard is 40 then you should fire them. 40 hours is standard - you can't hold it against them that they work 40 or 45. You are not being realistic. – Tim J 13 years ago
  • If you want to increase the amount of work employees put out, that's a very different question. – Bob Murphy 13 years ago
  • @Bob - and the more correct one. – Tim J 13 years ago
  • Based on the addendum- if you want to 'amp up the quantity of work produced' - that really is down to management. You need well defined projects with minimal changes to scope. You need to provide an environment where there are no unwelcome distractions, fewer meetings, etc. I doubt you will get very far with changes like putting pressure on your workers, rather it should be focused on better managing your projects. – S Hewitt 12 years ago

9 Answers


You are sadly deluded in thinking that your employees should work so much for you just because you think they should.

Why do you think making them work more hours is going to be a net benefit? It likely will not.

You think 55-60 is reasonable because you have a huge stake in the company. They do not. What makes you want to work there for so many hours?

Your premise that this is an easily answered question and that something that motivates one person will apply to everyone is naive. Each person is different.

What you should be doing is to get to know all your people and ask each of your slacker employees what will motivate him/her to give up their free time, children, spouses, health, etc. so that they can spend more time with you in your office making you wealthier. Don't ask us - have that conversation directly with each of your employees.

There may be a few who will want to sacrifice their lives for you and your company. Great. But realize the toll it will have on their long-term productivity, their personal lives, turnover, etc., and that most people will not.

To really improve your results as a startup you need to figure out how to make a better environment for your employees and how to attract the best people. You can do more good by making it a desirable place to work, rather than trying to figure out how to squeeze more work out of your minions.

Some resources for you:

Good luck. Hopefully you will come to understand that your job as a manager/leader is not to wring out all the productivity you can from people, but to create a great work environment that attracts the best people and allows them the ability and freedom to do great work.


If you judge people by how much time they are in the office you are going to have people putting in lots of face-time at the office but they are not likely to be more productive. You will have lots of water cooler chats, people doing internet surfing, people balancing their checkbooks, taking long lunches, etc - in order to fit in all the stuff that they normally would do when they were not at work.

Instead you should reward people for improving efficiency - not for working late hours. If late hours is your metric you are just going to spend more hours getting the same amount accomplished. Change your mindset.

answered Jun 4 '11 at 00:16
Tim J
8,346 points
  • +1 for the edit. Based on my 26 years' experience in the software industry, it's absolutely true. – Bob Murphy 13 years ago
  • @Bob - Yeah - I wrote that after your comment - I wanted to expand on your comment – Tim J 13 years ago


Ramping up your employee hours to 55-60 hours is going to end up ruining your startup. I get you think more hours equals more work which in turn equals a faster turnaround time for completion, but you're setting yourself up to fail.

An employer of which I will not name I previously worked at, well more-so the manager I worked with thought this was a good idea too. He worked us developers to the core and thought buying us pizza and beer would make us not resent the fact he was slave driving us.

The end result was I and several others including a very prominent systems administration leaving.

The more hours a developer works, the more mistakes he will make. Much like driving a car tired will increase the chances of an accident, increasing the hours of a developer will mean more work in the end because there are more bugs in the codebase.

What you want to do and as Ron M kindly put it before me is to increase productivity by setting a deadline with a measurable goal. I would even go further and set milestones and for each milestone reward your team with something.

Remember if you burn out your team, you're most likely going to burn out your startup simultaneously burning holes in your pockets.

answered Jun 3 '11 at 14:55
Digital Sea
1,613 points
  • + "[I]f you burn out your team, you're most likely going to burn out your startup simultaneously burning holes in your pockets." I left a startup like that last summer where people were expected to work 50+ hours during "normal" weeks, and 70 hours about two weeks out of six. They burned through almost $50 million in venture capital, and after two years had nothing to show for it. Long work weeks are okay for a push once or twice a year, but demanding those kinds of work hours on a regular basis is a "canary in a coal mine" for incompetent management. – Bob Murphy 13 years ago
  • @Bob Murphy: "those kinds of work hours on a regular basis is a canary in a coal mine for incompetent management" That's a over-generalization. I know plenty of companies that demand, and reward, people willing to work 60hrs/wk. The real problem is when there isn't alignment between management's expectations and staff's. – Alphadogg 12 years ago


I'd advise you to judge people based on how they meet their deadlines, not the time they leave for home. I managed people whose 16 hour work day produces less than what other people do in 5 hours. After 20+ years as a developer and development manager, I can tell you no one really codes efficiently 16 hours a day, at least not continuously.

Wanting to amp up is fine, but don't define it in hours. Define it in productivity. Set a deadline with a measurable goal. Let them throttle themselves to meet your expectations, tweaking either their concentration/focus levels or their work hours as they see fit to meet the goals.

answered Jun 3 '11 at 14:35
Ron M.
4,224 points


I run a company that creates and manages web based tools that businesses subscribe to. My staff are all over the world (only 1/3 of our staff are in our state). So we are far more likely to experience what you mentioned than someone with all staff in a centralized location.

Some of our successful actions for the exact situation you are talking about are:

  1. Basing production on actual products produced vs. hours. We always have had more success with that.
  2. Breaking up system development or add-ons to small manageable projects. The best I have found is when a specific project will accomplish something and is no longer than 2 days of production.
  3. I have worked out goals for them to accomplish, such as finishing certain projects and then allowing them 1/2 day to work on some other project that really interests them. I found that that time makes them FAR more productive and their other interests, such as with developers, generally help them get better with work related tasks as well.
  4. I remind myself constantly that since I'm the one running the show, I am the one with the most to lose...or gain. When I was running them hard and expecting them to spend as much time thinking about the business as me, I was going crazy (because they wouldn't).

I decided to sit down with every single one individually and talk about their actual goals, not corporate blah blah. With each conversation, both me and my employee could see that their goals could be forwarded by doing a really good job with us. It was a very positive turning point for us.

Hope that helps.

answered Jun 3 '11 at 15:24
Rafferty Pendery
466 points


If you're going to insist on ignoring the other responses and really want your employees to work that many hours the only thing that will really work is paying them overtime for over 40 hours. But even then, I doubt everyone will take on much more than 50 hours a week.

answered Jun 15 '11 at 06:27
Jon F
144 points
  • +1 - but note that the only thing he will get is extra hours - not extra productivity or real work. – Tim J 13 years ago
  • Yep, I agree with that. – Jon F 13 years ago


You'll burn people out and shoot yourself in the foot.

I would take a look at this post and my answer: It would be nice to avoid burnout in the first place and it seems like you have the opportunity to do that.

One note -

Do they have equity? That's a huge 'reason' for the extra hours that founders make, the idea being that they'll work less later when they're rich 'n all that.

answered May 10 '12 at 01:15
Michael Durrant
227 points


It's easy: if your workload is above the norm, so should many other intrinsic and extrinsic motivators follow.

Intrinsic ones are like empowerment to make important decisions, or education leading to growing mastery. Extrinsic's best example is bonuses. There's a growing trend to think that extrinsic motivation is weaker or detrimental to outcomes. Dan Pink is a notable individual of that camp. My belief is that you want both. A little bit of research in this area on your part should yield many ideas.

BTW, contrary to the above, there are people willing to work more than 40-45 hours a week. Someone I know works (happily) about 60-70hrs a week in the M&A field, but salary and bonuses are both six-figures each, they travel and meet people, there are other benefits, etc. Usually they are told what the environment is like, they sign up knowing what is expected, and they knowingly "play the game" before exiting if and when their life-work balance changes (for a multitude of reasons). It's just as wrong to assume no one will work 60hrs/wk as it is to assume everyone will.

The key thing is laying clear expectations. If you change your expectation silently to 60hrs/wk from workers, and they signed up under 40hrs/wk, and you "amp up" the environment to somehow trick them into a 60hrs/wk mode, you will find yourself in a bad situation very quickly.

This is a project you will have to drive slowly and carefully, lest you find yourself without staff.

Also, divorce the connection you make between an hour of work, and a person. There's no need to work one person too hard, if you can spread the workload over two, esp if the two are in different time zones and thus give you 24/7 work performed.

answered May 10 '12 at 04:28
1,383 points


While I agree with some of the issues raised by the other answers here concerning # of hours, I would use Agile Development to help make individual progress more transparent and track-able. Once you have a visible story/estimate tracking method in place, employees are generally more responsible about closing out stories that aren't complete.

You can further incentivize this by having periodic performance reviews that take into consideration the number of stories completed successfully each employee. Increase output by setting crucial release dates/deadlines - tell them where the goalpost is without having to mention how many hours they need to work. If you subtly add additional stories for them to complete each week, your employees may very well take the helm to complete them, and even if they don't necessarily put in more hours, they may be much more efficient with the time they do work. Adding a critical launch/release event every few iterations can also spur additional time commitment.

answered May 10 '12 at 04:46
Henry The Hengineer
4,316 points


How many hours you work per week is not tied to quality output. Are you really that excited to be in the babysitting / adult daycare business?

Be deadline and result oriented -- meaning pick a task to be completed by a certain date. Pick that date by a reasonable estimation of the number of hours (agreed by everyone).

Then shut up and get out of the way and let them complete it how they may.

If they drop the ball:

  1. Offer support / assistance from you or someone else
  2. Give support / assistance from you or someone else
  3. Give the responsibility to someone else to lead and get it done.

This is one way your team will self-organize and filter out the talkers from the doers. If you're a micromanager you are a part of the disease and will have to fix yourself too, or you will never get the high quality output that you dream of. Interruptions are the enemy of productivity for programmers, if you're a non-technical person you have to learn to understand it or give it the benefit of the doubt.


answered May 11 '12 at 01:17
Jas Panesar
244 points

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