Work Life Balance

I’m Not Busy, I’m Working: Inside Basecamp’s Calm Work-Life Balance Culture

Walk into any successful Silicon Valley company or high powered tech firm and you might see motivational slogans adorning the walls, figuratively and literally.

These slogans might be urging the employees to “move fast and break things”, or “fail early, fail fast, fail often”, or better yet, “fear is the disease, hustle is the antidote.”

What you probably won’t see are mantras like:

Calm is profitability.

Calm is reasonable expectations.

Calm is about 40 hours of work a week.

Or, my favourite one:

Calm is about sustainable practices that can run for the long-term.

And yet, that’s exactly the workplace culture that Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson (DHH), the co-founders of Basecamp, have sought out to embrace for their company.

Eight hours a day is plenty of time to get great work done if you have 8 hours a day to do that work. The problem is when you have an 8-hour day but you only have 2 hours to yourself. And those 2 hours are made up of eight 15-minute chunks. It doesn’t work. There’s not enough time.

Jason Fried // Hurry Slowly

Over the past two decades, Jason and DHH have espoused this mentality, in various forms of media, including opinionated musings on Basecamp’s company blog Signal v. Noise, podcast interviews and books; REMOTE: Office Not Required, REWORK and It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.

Jason and DHH have pushed relentlessly for calm in the workplace; focusing on 40-hour workweeks, distributed teams, asynchronous communication and meetings as a last resort.

In a business world where innovation, scale, exponential growth are prioritised over all other measurements, Basecamp provides a refreshing alternative perspective to what success means.

At Basecamp we’re trying to provide an alternative role model – or at least an alternative narrative: Here’s a company who didn’t do any of those things that you say are required to become a successful startup.

DHH // Atrium

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The evolution of Basecamp from 37signals

Basecamp started in 1999, founded as a web design company under the name 37signals, by Jason Fried, Carlos Segura, and Ernest Kim.

Around 2004 – 2005, the company shifted its business model, moving away from web design services towards product, focusing on its flagship project management application, Basecamp, and rebranding the company to follow suit.

Within a year, Basecamp was generating more income for us than our web design business, so we shuttered the web design firm to focus solely on Basecamp.

Since its inception, Basecamp was all about limited hours in the week. Unlike other software companies shipping new products with endless deadlines and overnighters, Basecamp was born calmly.

As the sole programmer on the Basecamp project, DHH spent only 10 hours a week building the application, while juggling agency work for 37signals as well as creating the web-application framework, Ruby on Rails (which is now running on some of the largest sites in the world: Airbnb, GitHub, Shopify, Hulu).

When we started Basecamp, we worked LESS than what we work now. Basecamp was a 3rd client for 37signals, the consulting business, and my side-gig while in school. As the sole programmer on the project, I was working 10 hours/week on Basecamp. So we built habits of getting a lot out of a little right from the get go. When we then started working full-time on Basecamp, the 40 hours per week seemed like an abundance.

DHH // Medium

Inside Basecamp’s workplace

To get an understanding of how Basecamp can be so successful while working with such contrasting methods to other software companies, let’s take a look at how the company is set up and managed.

From a company structure point of view, Basecamp is broken up into the following teams: admin; customer support; executive; data; design (marketing, mobile, web/desktop, video/motion); product strategy; programming (core product, mobile, research & fidelity, security, infrastructure & performance); QA; REWORK podcast; technical operations (data centre, cloud).

The team is made up of approximately 50 people spread out across 32 different cities around the globe. While employees are free to work from Basecamp’s Chicago-based headquarters, they can choose to live and work wherever they want in the world. Out of the 50 people, around 14 people work out of the Chicago office: an environment designed for quiet, calm and productive work.

We treat the open spaces in the office like a library – quiet, calm, respectful. Lots of natural light and soft materials like carpeting, cork, acoustical tiles, and felt rape the hard surfaces. This reduces sound transmission and also adds warmth and texture to the space.

Basecamp HQ in Chicago

For the rest of the employees, working out the Chicago headquarters, they’re usually working from home, coffee shops or co-working spaces.

As part of working for Basecamp, the company offers a number of work balance benefits and perks, including paying their employees top 10% salaries, fitness & wellness allowance, paid parental leave, one-month sabbatical every three years, 40-hour work weeks, 4-day weeks during the summer and plenty more.

Notice that Basecamp doesn’t offer any of the usual office trappings that other tech firm provide like ping pong tables or free meals; incentives that are used to keep employees working longer in the office.

A lot of employee benefits, especially the tech industry, are all about keeping people at the office. Either by offering them free dinners so they’ll work late, or by doing chores for them so that they’ll work late, or by offering workout rooms or game rooms or whatever perks so they work late. These incentives, if not outright hooks, are intended to keep people at the office.

DHH // Atrium

All that aside however, none of these great perks and benefits matter as much as the calm workplace culture Basecamp instills throughout the company. This is where the real lessons can be learnt.

Working from home and need inspiration? Grab a copy of our Workflow book, featuring beautiful home office ideas and workspace inspiration from around the world.

Calm working culture at Basecamp

Basecamp’s workplace culture can be summed up in one word: calm. Jason and DHH have been very open over the years about how they run their company, publishing their Employee Handbook and Guide to Internal Communication online for all to read.

If you don’t have your own time, then you have no control of your day. And if you have no control of your day then you end up working longer than you should.

Jason Fried // Hurry Slowly

The key elements to their calm workplace culture can be attributed to:

Asynchronous communication

Basecamp’s internal communication is described as “real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.”

By focusing more on asynchronous communication and long-form writing, Basecamp is able to reduce needless meetings, disruptive video conferences, calls or real-time chat that typically interrupt an employees 8-hour day, and return time back to their control.

Independent over interdependence 

We’ve all had experiences working in companies where some projects depend on so many stakeholders and contributors that when one task hasn’t been delivered, the whole project grinds to a halt. Basecamp’s value on more independence, less interdependence helps counter situations like this.

There are no managers, no daily stand-ups, and no playbook on how to do our daily work. It’s up to us to figure things out and own the calls we make.

Dan Kim // Signal v. Noise

All employees at Basecamp are “managers of one”: someone who is expected to do a lot of self-management, set their own direction for work, figure out what needs to be done and take the initiative to get it done without waiting for a manager to give them approval.

6-week cycles

Unlike other startups or tech companies, Basecamp’s product development methodology doesn’t involve waterfall, agile, scrum, daily stand ups, design sprints, or anything like that. Instead, the team works in six week cycles.

Basecamp believes that there is a great six weeks version of almost all product projects. After that six week cycle is complete, the team working on the project takes two weeks off – a sort of cooling off period – to work independently on some side projects, before resuming the next cycle.

These are not sprints. I despise the word sprints. Sprints and work don’t go together. This isn’t about running all out as fast as you can, it’s about working calmly, at a nice pace, and making smart calls along the way. No brute force here, no catching our collective breath at the end.

Jason Fried // Signal v. Noise

40-hour work weeks

When it comes to the topic of long hours, the startup world is full of leaders and companies flaunting how many hours they work per week, as if it were some badge of honour. Marissa Mayer famously bragged about being able to work 130-hours a week by being strategic about with the necessities.

Could you work 130 hours in a week? The answer is yes, if you’re strategic about when you sleep, when you shower, and how often you go to the bathroom.

Marissa Mayer // Bloomberg

On the other spectrum of that, you have Basecamp, a company that is adamant about 40-hour weeks being the sweet spot for productivity, balance and long-term, sustainable success.

By keeping the work weeks to 40 hours (and to 32 in the summer months), the Basecamp team are forced to prioritise their work and not squander it on unproductive things like unnecessary meetings. When Basecamp works for 40 hours a week, they’re actually working productively during those 40 hours, unlike a lot of companies where the employees are showing up for 50 to 60 hours, but only get 10 to 20 hours to do actual work.

These workplace practices that Basecamp implements – value on asynchronous communication, no open calendars, 6 week cycles, 40-hour work weeks – are all done to foster a calm company culture; one that not only focuses on the outcomes, but also the process of getting there.

It’s not just about the output and outcome, it’s about how did it feel as we went? Are people burned out? Do people hate each other now who liked each other six weeks ago? Did this make our company stronger or weaker? Did this improve personal relationships or damage personal relationships? It’s a more holistic outlook on how this thing turned out. You could technically end up with a great feature that customers love, but it could have completely destroyed morale internally. To me, that’s not a good outcome.

Jason Fried // Farnam Street

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.