Aspiring to be a full stack employer

The key takeout for me 
" treating the people who work for you as human beings has a real effect on productivity, sales and the health of a company."

Just over four years since I permanently moved to California, I'm beginning to understand the differences in work style between the US and Europe. America still has a largely time-based view of productivity, even in Silicon Valley. But with tech industries in other nations catching up fast, and remote working becoming a more viable option, you need to compete for talent with companies all over the world. You have to be a full-stack employer.

What is a full-stack employer?

Over the past year in particular, there's been a lot of discussion about "full-stack employees", "full-stack developers" and "full-stack startups". The trend is that employees are expected to have a broader range of skills, and be able to switch between them seamlessly. Employees apply their skills in a more holistic manner, moving away from a dedicated position on an assembly line.

This is arguably related to startup culture, and the growing trend for even larger companies to innovate by creating much smaller, more autonomous internal product teams. It has worked for a number of corporations. But the full-stack expectation places greater demands on employees, which must be met by the employer. Simply put, to innovate, you need support.

I'm shamelessly repurposing the term "full-stack" to mean not just the technology you use to build your products and services, not just the skills you are expected to use in the course of doing business, but also the support mechanisms that humans need in the course of doing their job. A full-stack employer is one that sees their employees as a community of people, and that provides structures, support networks and services for them based on that understanding.

The good news is, treating the people who work for you as human beings has a real effect on productivity, sales and the health of a company.

What it's like to have a full-stack employer

The new reality is that you are expected to use a variety of skills in the course of doing your job. But those skills didn't just come to you, fully-formed. Nobody puts on a headset, Matrix-style, and emerges minutes later knowing kung fu: mastering a new skill requires time, effort and investment. Full-stack employers recognize that providing dedicated training and professional development for their employees creates a measurable return on investment. You're expected to join the company with intelligence, an enthusiasm for learning, and skills that relate to your core role - but the reality is that even those will develop as you continue at your company. Importantly, it's needs-led: as an employee, you can tailor your professional development based on your needs. Training isn't dropped on you from above.

You are not expected to be always-on. Phone calls at 3am, Slack messages late at night, urgent emails that need to be responded to out of hours are not on the table. It comes down to respect: the employer understands that you have your own life, and that your choice to work for a company is a relationship that goes both ways.

The ethics of this are clear, but it turns out that workers are more productive when they are rested and take more breaks. The same is true during working hours. Employees are trusted to do their work, and aren't measured in terms of the amount of time they spend at their desks. In fact, research suggests that they should build some break-time into every hour, and they may be encouraged to do this. Similarly, they may be encouraged to take a full hour for lunch, perhaps with a walk. And they're encouraged to go home after eight hours. It all results in happier, healthier employees, and more productivity.

Employees have some choice over their benefits, but they always have full medical coverage in countries where this isn't a given. Childcare is paid for (because the employer saves money by making it available).

Generous parental leave is provided, for both mothers and fathers, engineered in such a way that both parents take it more or less equally. Studies have shown that equal paternity leave helps to prevent against pay discrimination, and provides happiness (and therefore productivity) boosts across both parents. The company becomes a better place for women to work, allowing it to remain competitive.

Finally, the aspect that may make American managers shake their heads with disbelief. Every employee gets a minimum of six weeks of vacation time a year, and they are strongly incentivized to use it. In order to combat a culture of working all the time, full-stack employers may create a financial bonus for employees that go on holiday, knowing that vacations dramatically increase productivityHappier workers are more productive.

Why it's great to be a full-stack employer

While it sounds expensive, full-stack employers actually save money. Happier employees are measurably more productive, and arguably more creative, leading to more innovative solutions. These measure also reduce churn, which is important when the cost of employee turnover can be as much as twice their salary.

Providing a better place to work can be a differentiator, which can help companies compete for employees in a cost-effective way. By way of example, I was once offered a position at a very well-known Silicon Valley web company; one whose services people use every day. The salary was great, and it would have looked good on my resumé. At the end of our meeting, the interviewer remarked to me, "you do end up spending a lot of time at work, but it's okay, because your colleagues become like your family." I refused the job, and started noticing when employees posted Instagram photos of their office on Saturdays and after midnight.

Optimizing the workplace for people who have lives outside of work allows for more experienced employees (who are more likely to have families), and people who have outside hobbies and interests. All of these things provide more bang for your salary buck as an employer - as well as creating a far more enjoyable place to work.

What does this mean for employees and managers?

Although some of the benefits sound costly, most of them actually save the company money over time. The biggest adjustment it requires is an attitude shift.

I would argue that the American reliance on time-at-desk as a productivity metric is an ideological, rather than fact-based, approach. German workers, for example, are at least as productive as their US counterparts, while enjoying six week vacations, more regular working hours, and so on.

Therefore, the biggest required change is for managers to respect the time of the people on their teams, and to create conditions where employees don't feel guilty for stepping away from their desks, putting their phones down, and spending regular, quality time away from work. In fact, they should feel empowered to do so, because they will be better workers as a result. The same goes for asking for professional development resources, and expecting fair compensation in both monetary and benefit terms.

It's a seismic shift for a country so deeply involved in the Protestant work ethic.

What of the future of work?

Ubiquitous mobile Internet was supposed to give us more freedom and allow us to live more fulfilling lives. It has not necessarily lived up to this potential.

Just because an employer can contact an employee at midnight on a Thursday night, does not mean that we should do so. We have gained all kinds of new, amazing tools to help us be productive and create more innovative companies. Now it's time to learn to do so responsibly.

After the industrial revolution, Henry Ford and others learned that five-day weeks and eight-hour days allow us to be more productive. After the information revolution, it seems we now have to relearn these lessons.

Response :-

admirable goal! great writing (and citations!) as always. i strongly agree that
reasonable hours, job fulfillment, work/personal separation, etc result in
better and more productive work in the long run.

employers can definitely be the culprits, but in my experience (and in this
space), employees often pressure themselves just as much, if not more.
always-connected, interrupt-driven tech probably also drives a big chunk of it.
i’ve thought about that problem a bit,
but not re work specifically.

one question: how do you and erin work right now? i’d love to be wrong, but i’m
guessing you both work a bit harder than you’ve outlined here…? do you think
there’s a different standard for very early stage startups? or for founders? or
something else?

Ryan BarrettApr 18 2015 on


Great reply. I agree that employees often drive themselves this way - but I think it often still comes down to company culture. There is a general industry culture of doing this, and putting incentives in place that counteract this is one of the things I'm trying to argue for.
Erin and I actually have a 10am-6pm rule. We do sometimes break this, as you'd expect, but we find it to be productive. I do think working on something that you have a substantial stake in - generating value for yourself - is very different to working for someone else, where you're ultimately generating value for them. Nonetheless, the productivity findings I linked to still stand, so it's a good idea to institute rest, breaks, etc for yourself, too.

Ben WerdmüllerApr 20 2015 on