The traffic jam ended hours ago, the parking lot is nearly empty and fluorescent lights are dimmed at PortalPlayer, where the nightly brainstorming...
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The traffic jam ended hours ago, the parking lot is nearly empty and fluorescent lights are dimmed at PortalPlayer, where the nightly brainstorming session is about to begin.
Instead of gathering the few remaining souls from their cubicles, three managers move into a conference room to dial India, where engineers 12 ½ time zones ahead are just arriving in Hyderabad.
As colleagues on opposite sides of the globe discuss circuit-board configurations and debugging strategies for a project code-named “Doppelganger,” it’s just the start of another endless day for the company. Within 12 hours, Indian workers will end their day with calls and e-mails to California, where managers in the Santa Clara headquarters will just be waking up.
“We keep passing the baton between California and India, and that way we can cram a lot more work into a 24-hour period,” said Jeff Hawkey, vice president of hardware engineering, who conducts evening meetings from the office or on his laptop at home. “A lot of nights, I go home, tuck the kids into bed and then get on the conference call.”
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Double the work
Executives at PortalPlayer, which makes chips and software for portable music devices such as the iPod, say having 90 employees in Hyderabad nearly doubles the amount of engineering work that gets done in 24 hours. That shrinks production cycles and lets the 6-year-old company stay ahead of bigger semiconductor rivals.
Thousands of other tech companies have similar baton-passing rituals. “Offshoring” — the migration of jobs to lower-cost countries such as India, China and Russia — remains politically sensitive because of the tepid U.S. job market. But executives insist that cheaper labor and faster work flow have made offshoring a fact of life for everyone in the industry.
Nevertheless, even the most unapologetic globalization proponents acknowledge that offshoring has resulted in longer, stranger hours for white-collar workers in the United States. Some business experts worry that the trend could result in massive burnout if offshoring isn’t properly managed.
Silicon Valley workers grumble that communicating with colleagues overseas requires midnight teleconferences, 6 a.m. video meetings and the annoying “pling” of instant messages and twittering cellphones all night long. Although many techies swapped social lives for 80-hour weeks during the ephemeral dot-com boom, the 24-hour business cycle seems even more stressful than the caffeinated ’90s: Today’s long hours are less likely to result in windfall bonuses or stock options, and there’s no end in sight.
“It’s definitely a case of work creep — everyone in this industry is working harder right now because of e-mail, wireless access and globalization,” said Christopher Lochhead, chief marketing officer of Mercury Interactive, a Mountain View, Calif., consulting firm in 35 countries, including Israel, where Sunday is a normal working day.
“You can’t even get a rest on the weekend,” Lochhead said from his cellphone in the Dallas airport after sales meetings in Mexico. “The reality is that when you do business globally, somebody working for you is always on the clock.”
Some executives who ask workers to burn the midnight oil offer flexibility — longer lunch breaks, telecommuting privileges and complimentary dinner if you work past 6 p.m. Others dismiss complainers as spoiled or provincial — after all, customer-service representatives in Asia have worked on U.S. schedules for more than a decade, so why shouldn’t Americans deal with time-zone challenges as the industry globalizes?
The staunchest advocates say whiners should find new professions. Richard Spitz, who leads the technology division of the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International, says corporate clients want employees who embrace a 24-hour business cycle.
“If you want to play in the A league, you have to take on some additional challenges,” Spitz said. “It might not mean that you have to work around the clock for your entire career — at some point, you can step off the treadmill. But if you want to be in the business, then you have to commit to this schedule for some period of time.”
At what cost, however?
Recipe for burnout
Some worry that the extra hours and unrelenting pace could have dire consequences — namely, widespread fatigue and brain drain in the technology and financial-services industries, the most aggressive exporters of white-collar jobs. Steep turnover among sleep-deprived managers could eventually lead senior executives to re-evaluate the benefits of offshoring, said Peter Morici, an international business professor at Robert Smith School of Business at University of Maryland.
“You simply can’t keep working a full day, put the kids to bed, take a call from Malaysia, then go back fresh the next morning — it’s one thing to do it for a couple weeks, but it’s another to put up with this pain in the neck permanently,” Morici said.
“When executives talk about the efficiencies of offshoring, they’re often not factoring in the long-term human toll on management.”
Staffing challenges may already be taking a toll. According to a study released in April by Deloitte Consulting, 62 percent of senior executives interviewed at 25 large corporations said offshoring required more management effort than they had originally thought. More than half said they couldn’t free up enough managers to supervise projects.
Worker advocates compare the trend to the automobile industry phenomenon of “speedup” in the 1920s, when Henry Ford increased assembly-line speed without paying workers more. Turnover mushroomed to 400 percent per year in some Detroit-area plants, and the frenzied pace helped the 1930s union movement.
Marcus Courtney, president and organizer of Washington Alliance of Technology Workers, the Seattle-based branch of the Communication Workers of America, said few employers pay overtime for midnight meetings or red-eyes to Shanghai. And while many techies are proud workaholics, dawn teleconferences and 9 p.m. hand-off meetings have stretched shifts to absurd lengths.
“In today’s global economy, employees are seeing longer working hours, greater job insecurity due to job exporting and fewer rewards and opportunity,” Courtney said. “I’m worried that the stress levels of employees continues to rise and we are seeing a further eroding of the 50-hour work week.”
Hours are particularly long at startups and when companies launch overseas operations. But offshoring needn’t result in burnout, seasoned executives say.
Peter Hazlehurst, senior vice president of engineering at financial-services software company Yodlee, supervises 170 engineers, including 30 in Redwood City, Calif., and 140 in Bangalore, India.
Managers recently began alternating weekly meetings between 8 a.m. Wednesdays and 9 p.m. Thursdays, so neither Americans nor Indians get the late shift every time.
“People are more receptive when they realize that this relatively challenging burden of working between time zones is a shared burden,” Hazlehurst said.