What can universities learn from Netflix?

Universities are not companies and, for that reason, the lessons of the business world are often disdained by the academic work community. Good ideas for the development of the academic work culture can, however, sometimes be found from surprising sources – like Netflix!

A few years ago, I participated in a webinar on writing and publishing works of non-fiction. The individual leading the webinar shared experiences gained from their long academic career and multiple publications. They described how they write non-fiction books related to their field on a regular and systematic basis outside of working hours. The interest and enthusiasm I initially felt about the webinar topic when I signed up suddenly changed to desperation. Did this mean that I should be ready to carry out scientific work during my free time throughout my entire career?

As an early career researcher, I had convinced myself that grey work was only a temporary necessity, since competition is tough and, in a fixed-term position, merits must be gathered in order to help secure one’s future. I had repeated this mantra at home from one year to the next – it will all get easier once the thesis is done; it will all get easier once this project is completed; it will surely get easier now when I get this funding.

The realisation that someone who is already established permanently in the academic community views grey work as an obvious facet of everyday life did not paint a very positive picture for the future. Would the reconciliation of academic work and the rest of my life ever be easier?

When the separation between work and leisure time falls on the employee

The anxiety caused by the webinar returned when I read about the operational culture and management practices of Netflix, as described in the book “No rules rules. Netflix and the culture of reinvention” (Hastings & Meyer, 2020). In this popularised book, Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, and Erin Meyer, Professor of Management Practice, joined forces to share, among other things, Netflix’s working hour and holiday practices, which are exceptional within the context of the business world. Netflix employees do not have any stipulated amount of holiday time. Each employee is free to designate their own working hours and holidays, as long as they coordinate longer holidays with their immediate colleagues early on to ensure that deadlines will be met.

Netflix’s corporate culture encourages talk about holidays

This sounds quite similar to what is stated as the practice for total working time at universities. Since I recognised a similarity, I first assumed that it surely doesn’t work well there either. I had already learned that the concept of total working time combined with the university work culture simply meant an uncontrolled amount of grey work always and forever.

However, Netflix differs from the university world in one crucial aspect. According to its publicly stated objective, the corporate culture of the organisation is one that encourages particularly supervisors and managers to talk a lot about their own holidays. And specifically about real holidays, during which one doesn’t work at all! One example in the book describes a manager whose sole focus was on working all the time, making it difficult for any of the employees working beneath them to dare to request any holiday time. This manager had assumed that everyone on the team was so passionate about the work that they wanted to work all the time. The result was that the team members began to experience burnout.

Teachers and researchers do about 400 hours of work each year without compensation.

Unfortunately, an excessive work pace seems to be quite common among academics and researchers. In FUURT’s most recent member survey, more than half of the respondents who work at a university reported that they did more work than agreed on in their employment contract without any additional compensation.  According to the survey, teachers and researchers reported working an average of about 400 hours of grey work during the year (Puhakka 2020, 87–88). There are, of course, many reasons for this. The excessive use of fixed-term employment relationships at universities is surely one of these reasons (see Puhakka 2020, 99), but we’ll leave that discussion for another blog.

What examples are provided by supervisors and colleagues?

Keeping the corporate culture at Netflix in mind, it is interesting to reflect on the impact that the work culture at the universities has in terms of grey work. What examples are provided by supervisors? What reflections are provided by colleagues? What sort of work pace and workload is considered to be normal and desirable?

One of the greatest benefits of total working hour practices is that the work can be done flexibly according to one’s own timetable. Working evenings and weekends should not be viewed as representing an excessive workload, as long as the overall ratio between work and free time is balanced. In the academic world, this balance is unfortunately often missing, and imbalance is staggeringly often also normalised – and, at its worst, even idealised. This is a sure way to maintain a collectively unhealthy work environment.

In a community in which work is a passion pursuit for many, it is especially important to ensure that the work does not end up taking over one’s whole life. To this end, universities need to speak openly about the reconciliation of work and the rest of life and establish models that enable people to genuinely get free time and limit their working hours. The entire academic community bears this shared responsibility. We can, however, learn from Netflix’s example that the concrete responsibility for showing a good example and creating a healthy work culture rests, above all, with those who act in management or leadership roles (and in the universities, this also includes thesis supervisors). A work culture does not become healthier of its own accord.

Sanni Tiitinen

The author is Vice President of the Board of the Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers and worked for many years in the university sector until last autumn, when she began working as a Senior Researcher at Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. In her free time – which she now enjoys liberally – she jogs with her dogs, does yoga and practices creative writing.

Antero Puhakka (2020) Niin pitkä on matka…(still a long way to go). FUURT member survey of 2019.Finnish Union of University Researchers and Teachers.

Reed Hastings & Erin Meyer (2020) No rules rules. Netflix and the culture of reinvention. Penguin Press.

Photo: Jonne Renvall / University of Tampere