AeLa has always believed that quality work, even in quantity, doesn’t need to come at the price of personal wellbeing. Within the games industry, this is often referred to as crunch; as a three person team doing our best to avoid crunch, we’ve still managed to make 60+ hyper casual prototypes in roughly a year and a half, complete client projects, and start internal projects.
I want to cover some of the high-level aspects of our scheduling system as a team in this post, including how we handle meetings, how we integrate flexibility, and how we stay competitive, all while avoiding crunch. This post won’t be so direct as to guide you through implementing sustainability in your team, though. That may come as its own post, sometime in the future.
Before diving in, I want to make it clear that while our values have remained consistent over the years, the systems themselves are ever-changing. As our team members change and as our company’s focus shifts, our systems need to meet those needs! This may sound like a no-brainer, but we fell into the trap of getting stuck in our own systems quite often early on. Even the most sustainable system, if it does not adapt over time, will eventually become unsustainable when everything else in the system demands new accommodations.
And I want to clarify real quick what I mean by sustainability: in this context, I mean that a system/routine/etc. is set up in such a way that it doesn’t do harm to the person(s) involved. Crunch is, by definition, not sustainable.
So with all that, let’s dive in.
Long, boring, and unproductive meetings are often bemoaned as a huge pain, which can sometimes lead to the rejection of meetings entirely. Within AeLa, we rely heavily on efficient and meaningful meetings as a way of staying unified as a remote team. At the moment, this manifests in two meetings per week - one “main” and one brief.
Main meetings start our week strong; they act as a sync-point for everyone before diving into work, since we always have at least a few different projects to juggle. All projects currently underway get touched on, allowing people to do a standup on their work, ask for help, get the team re-acquainted with the timeline, and for us to agree on changes to the project, if need be.
Main meetings also serve as a catch-bowl for miscellaneous topics that need addressing throughout the week. If it’s non-urgent but needs some attention, it gets dropped into the next main meeting. This might include talking about the website, an expo opportunity coming up, an important update from someone in our network, or a debrief from one of our internal committees.
In comparison, brief meetings are just that, they’re meant to be short and sweet. The purpose is to sync on all projects (which still includes standups), roadmap review, adjusting course if needed… but as much as possible we avoid everything else. The goal is simple: at the end, everyone should feel like they’re on the same page and able to finish the week strong.
We keep to these formats with the help of meeting notes, which are slide decks created ahead of time with all of that meeting’s main topics and bullets. They vary from 5 slides on a really brief meeting to 20 slides on a particularly busy main meeting. These notes help us to be as efficient with our meetings as possible, and ensure that important topics aren’t forgotten.
In order to streamline the overhead cost of planning for these meetings, the main and brief meetings both have their own notes template - which includes all the different slides we might need. This turns the process of setting up a slide deck for a meeting into a 5-10 minute task, on average; very quick and easy. The templates are also pre-styled using our brand template, so they look nice without any added effort.
The freedom to have flexibility in our schedules is a must-have for us, and a key feature of our management style. This shows up in a wide variety of ways.
For one, a company workweek is typically Monday through Saturday, instead of Monday through Friday, but individually this varies. At the time of writing this, two of our team members take Wednesdays off and work Saturday instead. One person works a more typical Monday-Friday. This is just what works best for us right now as individuals, and we’ve adjusted the company to meet those needs.
Similarly, time of day at work also varies, usually spanning 10-11 hours of the day across all three people, though no person usually works more than 7-8 hours of that.
It should come as no surprise, but time off is really flexible, too. Because we as a team all understand the value of taking breaks for mental health & general wellbeing, we encourage each other to take days off whenever need be. That said, by virtue of being dedicated to running the company and driving our own success, folks don’t take days off too often.
So we also schedule studio-wide vacations and long weekends every so often as a way to give people breaks. These are huge morale boosters. They vary in length, from an extra day or two around a weekend to 3.5+ weeks around the end of the year.
3.5 weeks might sound like a lot. But it’s a great example of our belief that the ways we work should serve us as people - we as individuals need rest and recuperation in order to feel fulfilled and do our best work. Breaks throughout the year, both long and short, help with just that.
Part of our time working dovetails well with the fact that we work closely with publishers and partners around the world, not just in the US or on the east coast. This means working across time zones, sometimes up to an 11 hour time difference!
Such time differences mean we have to be flexible as a team - it might mean working later or earlier in the day than normal just to meet with that mentor or manager. And at times, this isn’t necessarily easy to balance. But we do what we can to ensure that this is as healthy as possible; if it means leaving work early because you came to work early, no problem!
It’s common for small business owners and small teams to work a lot, perhaps more than is really healthy for them as a person for the sake of the project or the company. Within AeLa, we try to be roughly equitable, on average, with our time contributed but don’t micromanage how much each person works - there is no requirement that everyone put in 40 hours or some other metric. Each person works what they feel is appropriate for them, and that varies person to person. We do our best to match work assigned to each person to their typical work capacity and make it roughly equitable in that sense, too.
After hearing all of this, some might be led to believe that we are sacrificing competitiveness in our markets in order to stay healthy. Of course, we disagree.
Setting aside the quality of our work and quantity we produce, both of which we still believe are competitive with our peers, the fact of the matter is that you can’t compete in your market if you’re burned out. Burnout not only makes an individual’s life quite difficult and painful, but decreases their capacity for good work. They might also choose to leave that job entirely.
Being a small business owner is difficult enough on its own, on top of the pandemic. And we are by no means the most financially secure at the moment, which compounds the baseline stress we experience, both as individuals and as a team. These all could easily snowball into burnout, if our day-to-day workload were not managed healthfully.
So sustainability for us is not only taking care of each other as people, but also ensuring that we are able to stay engaged as a company for years to come.