Can We Stop Saying “Work Hard, Play Hard”?

When Reilly—my partner at GAN Ventures—and I are in the final stages of talks with a company we might invest in, we always ask a question to every CEO…

How would you describe your company culture to someone who was thinking about joining your team?

Somewhere around three-quarters of the time, their response is something to the effect of, “We have a ‘work hard, play hard’ culture.” As far as I’ve heard, they seem to repeat this same response to candidates in their hiring processes, too.

And I think there are a handful of reasons people say it. First, it’s a short, easy way to get across a simple message that everyone generally understands. Second, it sounds good. Working hard sounds good, and so does playing hard. Third, people think that others want to hear it. When talking to an investor, it seems like a pretty safe response—one that reiterates how much you’ll grind every day. And finally, it probably feels like there aren’t many other quick answers to the question. What’s another clear, insightful, but also fast way to explain something as nebulous as “culture” to someone who’s on the brink of investing in your company?

Still, I think the answer isn’t a good one (and I mean both as a practice—how you actually operate—and as an answer), and I really want us to consider cutting it out of our offices and our vocabulary. Here’s why.

A Call for Rest

If you do, in fact, have a “work hard, play hard” culture at your company, it means you’re—well—working hard. And that can certainly be a good thing. But, as we all know, operating at a pace that’s harried for long periods of time usually means you won’t be able to sustain that pace forever. How will new hires respond when they come on board and they’re immediately expected to work 60+ hours a week? When they do step away to take a break, there’s a good chance they’ll use it as an unhealthy counterbalance, trying to have too much fun in order to “make up” for how hard they’ve been at it. Meaning, there’s a good chance they’ll get into a dangerous cycle of working too hard and playing too hard, which will pave the way for burnout to happen sooner rather than later.

Plus, notice that there’s no focus on rest in the “work hard, play hard” setup. It’s assumed you’re either pounding the pavement or you’re pounding the bottle (or your own particular version of a “let-loose” vice). Your body and mind are constantly going—whether it’s working OR playing. You’re not recharging. And, given that the startup world has a reputation for high rates of burnout, it probably doesn’t feel like there’s anywhere you can go to avoid it. After all, if you leave this company for another one, who’s to say the pace will be any different?

What I’m saying is that a “work hard, play hard” mentality doesn’t include real, practical rhythms. Yes, there should be times and seasons for working hard. There should also be regular, built-in opportunities to play (individually and collectively—play builds connection and camaraderie!). But this is just half of the equation, no? Just as there are seasons in the world for things to grow and things to lie dormant, our bodies are no different. We need time to rest, to lie dormant, to just be.

What To Do About It

When people ask you what kind of culture you have, I believe it’s okay to stop and say “Unfortunately, this is a longer answer than I can probably give in the next two minutes.” And then, consider following that statement up with some resources you can point them toward that demonstrate your culture.

As an example, in a recent conversation with a job applicant, my answer sounded a bit like this:

“This is something I could talk about forever, but the short answer is—we live by our values. There are countless ways in which everything we do emulates from our values and all of our actions are a direct result of living out of—and holding each other accountable to—these values. But the best place to get a sense of them is from our website. Our values are clearly outlined there, and our company manifesto (also online) outlines the ways we agree to work together as a team. You’ll notice it includes how we work through conflict, the type of work products we deliver (not just to our clients but to each other), and how we rest.”

But even if you don’t yet have a set of outlined values or a company manifesto, just stop and give a few examples of how you live out your culture. How do you handle conflict? How do you show up well for your teammates? That will go so much further than just saying “we work really hard.”