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For ‘hardcore’ workers, sleeping at the office makes a comeback

At Twitter, Elon Musk is pushing a workplace culture focused on long hours and intense workdays — a familiar trope in Silicon Valley

(Washington Post illiustration; iStock)
6 min

Twitter’s return to office has taken a hardcore turn since Elon Musk’s takeover: One employee tweeted “#SleepWhereYouWork” after a photo of her in a sleeping bag and wearing an eye mask went viral earlier this month.

Musk this week sent an email to Twitter staff asking that people commit to “long hours” at a “high intensity” and be “extremely hardcore” if they wanted to continue working there. Workers of bankrupt cryptocurrency firm FTX also spent some nights sleeping in the office, following the example of their leader Sam Bankman-Fried.

The focus on face time in the office and self-sacrifice for work is a reversal from Silicon Valley work culture, which was the first to adopt permanent remote work and tout options such as four-day workweeks. And experts say the change in course could mean more stress, burnout and even an existential crisis for workers.

“[It’s the idea] that work isn’t just work,” said Carolyn Chen, author of “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley.” “Work is your reason for living, and work gives you meaning, purpose and identity. It’s your source of belonging.”

Putting work above all played a big role in the bro culture of the region, giving workers a way to prove they’re tough, Chen said.

On Thursday, Musk rolled back the return-to-office mandate after many Twitter employees opted to leave rather than work under the new conditions. Now, he says employees can continue working remotely if their manager deems that they are making “an excellent contribution.”

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Whether long hours equals true grit is a perennial debate on tech Twitter and a source of conflict between generations of tech workers, managers and employees, and venture capitalists and everyone else.

In recent years, hustle culture’s celebration of the grind has gotten a bad rap. But Silicon Valley is where many of those tropes began. Companies have a long history of celebrating the all-night coding session or weekends at the office as the key to unlocking a killer start-up idea, a new feature, or closing a deal.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs pushed this work style, as did former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, believing that the environment breeds innovation. Before Twitter, Musk had Tesla workers pulling grueling 12-hour shifts to meet production deadlines. And he himself has been famous for sleeping on the factory floor. This week, he claimed he’s been sleeping at Twitter, too.

Tech campus perks such as free food and foosball were meant to make never leaving the office seem like a no-brainer. In some ways, the perks helped workers have more work-life balance, as they were able to do laundry or work at the office. But it also kept them chained to the office.

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Millennial workers, sick of girlbossing and tech-bro-ing, pushed back against some of these trends. Now, several tech leaders are once again trumpeting support for the ideology.

Sleeping in the office often was viewed as a badge of honor at Silicon Valley workplaces. Disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes often publicly referenced her sleeping habits — boasting that she could work long days on only four hours of sleep. Similarly, Bankman-Fried of FTX said he operated on four hours of sleep from his bean bag chair in the office — though that was in his penthouse in the Bahamas.

Companies such as Google and Uber made room for workers to nap by installing sleep pods at their offices. They hoped giving workers a place to rest would boost productivity.

Esther Crawford, Twitter’s director of product management, is the employee who retweeted a photo one of her colleagues took showing her asleep in a sleeping bag on the office floor. “When your team is pushing round-the-clock to make deadlines sometimes you #SleepWhereYouWork,” she wrote.

Now others in the industry are chiming in on Twitter, fueling the rhetoric.

“For many/most work is a paycheck to take care of themselves & their families,” tweeted angel investor Jason Calacanis, who’s been helping Musk run Twitter. “For a lucky few, it’s a mission or obsession. I’m at peace with this & founders should be too.”

And some suggest there’s no such thing as finding the perfect balance between one’s personal and professional life.

In recent years, tech companies appeared to pull away from promoting that culture, instead flaunting perks such as allowing people to work from anywhere, introducing four-day workweeks, and investing in mental health initiatives. During the pandemic, many companies put an emphasis on health and wellness and promoted work-life balance to reduce burnout.

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Twitter was one of the first companies to commit to permanent remote work just a couple of months into the pandemic. And former CEO Jack Dorsey took annual 10-day meditation retreats abroad and considered relocating to work from Africa before changing his plans due to the pandemic.

But the economy has put a strain on the tech industry that might force companies to do more with less. Along with Twitter, hundreds of tech companies, including big firms such as Meta and Amazon, have laid off tens of thousands of workers. And many leaders have suggested that they plan to reduce or eliminate discretionary spending.

“Growth will have to come from a smaller team, especially with so much uncertainty in the market,” said Kyle Stanford, lead venture capital analyst at research firm PitchBook. “Unfortunately that’s going to lead to … asking more from employees.”

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In a recent tweet, San Francisco-based venture capital firm Founders Fund said it’s looking to invest in companies “that believe in The Future of Work,” defining the term to include things like working in an office, believing in “actually working hard,” and focusing on making money.

Musk’s recent statements, coupled with the turning tides of the tech economy, also may give room for more companies to push employees harder.

“You have to think of Silicon Valley as an ecosystem,” said Chen, the author. “Companies are competing with one another. So they’re going to look at what is Twitter doing.”

Chris Rice, partner at San Francisco-based start-up recruiting firm Riviera Partners, said tech workers still have options and should ask questions about what is expected of them, as well as communicate their desires. But if they’re looking for a lax, plushy job, they might be in for a disappointing response.

“In this current market, a lot of tech companies are tightening their belts,” he said. “Candidates should expect that the luxuries they have seen in recent years may be less prevalent.”

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