What is crunch culture and how can organisations avoid it?

teampause

We wish we were talking about crispy potato chips, but crunch work is not as fun as a freshly opened Lays packet.

Crunch work is pretty common in the run-up to deadlines. In this period, overtime shoots up, the coffee machine is whirring 25/8, and everyone’s hunched over their work for hours together.

But if there’s a cycle of working crazy hours, being forced to spend more time at work than at home or in bed, then there’s a huge problem brewing.

What is crunch culture?

Crunch work refers to unpaid overtime to work long hours over a project until stringent deadlines are met. Usually, in such a culture, crunch happens with each project and isn’t just a one-off situation.

Crunch culture first came to light when the lid was blown off the crazy amount of overtime expected in the gaming industry. Calling for crunch usually happens in these situations:

  • New feature requests or a change in direction without a budget or time extension
  • Making up for underdelivered work due to over-promising stakeholders
  • A giant unexpected bug (not the fun video game kind)

But crunch culture can be so toxic that people have ended up working more than 70 hours a week! Naturally, that meant no time or space for prioritising family, friends, hobbies and life outside work in general.

Are people pushing back against crunch culture?

Fortunately, yes! Game developers, in particular, are expecting workplaces to treat them less like robots and more like humans, as they should.

This is part of a larger shift in culture: people are prioritising their health and wellbeing and leaving if the work culture doesn’t suit them. For organisations still obsessed with crunch culture, this is a warning bell to revamp policies.

How can you avoid crunch culture?

Define your company culture

To begin with, lay down a set of values and cultural principles that you’d like to follow in your organisation. This will become your touchstone for everything that comes after. Oh, and don’t let this be a dense document stuffed into some box in the HR office.

Communicate these values with your team every day; it needs to be so internalised that anything going against it will be easily spotted and remedied.

Lock important dates

If you know you’re approaching a deadline and need all hands on deck, let your team know. This will allow them to plan any breaks from work around this period. You’ll be able to delegate work as usual and reduce the pressure that in-office teammates face when someone suddenly takes a vacation during high-commitment periods.

You’ll also give teammates the advance notice they need to mentally prepare themselves.

Pro tip: Use Pause to lock critical dates on team calendars and encourage everyone to be present during a particular time.

Establish compensatory time-off policies

If you absolutely need some crunch work put in without making it a habit, consider compensating employees for that time with an extra day off during a quieter season. This continues to show them that their time (and time off) is valuable.

Nobody should be forced to work beyond their contracted hours, and if they do it should be recorded and recognised with some form of compensation.

Philip Oliver, video game designer

Delegate tasks among teammates

While everyone’s able to stretch themselves beyond a limit once in a while, that’s not a good long-term plan. Instead, consider delegating tasks among teammates in a way that leaves them flexible and not overworked. Akhila Nagabandi, Head of HR at Pearl Lemon Group, adds:

Even if someone is willing to do the work, it’s better to divide it so that one person isn’t doing too much at once and they’re less likely to be overworked and stressed. We ask our experienced workers to train someone else to do the task too so that they can take a break and not lose productivity. I firmly believe that delegating and dividing the work is most important.

Hire seasonal staff

For many industries, there are times when the workload is much more than the existing team can handle. In such situations, asking teams to handle more work isn’t the answer. Michael Alexis, CEO of TeamBuilding, suggests hiring seasonal staff or contractors to delegate work to.

This is a great chance to bring experts in for a few months — they’ll do the job much better than an under-pressure team and will reduce the stress that comes with chasing deadlines.

Talk to your team about crunch culture

We’d always recommend asking your employees if they’re okay with some periods of overtime or crunch. If they’re not, it’s best to find another solution. As Shaun Rutland, Chief Executive Officer at Hutch Games said:

There’s always enough work and urgency that we could easily ask them [game developers] to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week. There’s just no let-up in our opportunities so we simply never allow it to happen; it’s zero-tolerance attitude towards crunch.

Overall, empowered teams who have control over their own time and bandwidth will ultimately do better work — and that’s a win-win for everyone!

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