It's 3 a.m. — do you know where your employees are? If you're Andrew Sather, 24-year-old founder and president of Adjacency, a Madison, Wisconsin new-media design firm, the answer is yes — they're at work. But probably not at their desks.
They're scattered around the company's soaring loft space — located in a postindustrial-chic renovated Greyhound terminal — playing pool or tossing a Frisbee over the heads of those few stalwarts still glued to their workstations. The aggressive beat of Wu-Tang Clan is punctuated by the slap of a hockey puck and the whoosh of Rollerblades coming from the firm's "recreation room" across the hall.
The 21 programmers, artists, and marketers — not one over the age of 26 — are revving up to launch the latest in a line of style-setting Web sites, this time for Rollerblade. It's the second night in a row at the office for Sather. He's fresh from a two-hour snooze on one of the company's three hotel-quality rollaway beds. After a caffeine infusion and a piece of PowerBar ("astronaut energy bread"), Sather cranks up the music and sits down to his computer to review the site.
This is not some postgraduate fraternity reunion. Nor is Adjacency unusual in making "all-night" part of the workday. But, in contrast to their cousins on the assembly line, hospital rounds, or third shift at Kinko's, this cadre of entrepreneurs, software engineers, and designers is kept awake by the unprecedented challenges and opportunities of competing in the network economy. Survival on Net time means leveraging talent and technology, intensity and collaboration to deliver excellent results — fast.
Meet the new night shift. Peter Sapienza, 30, a market research analyst at Patagonia, the Ventura, California-based adventure gear company, works through the night about once every two weeks. Robert von Geoben, 33, until recently graphic arts manager at Geffen/ DGC Records, says, "Working with HTML is like building with a blindfold on. You get addicted to the process of working. You find yourself thinking, 'Just fix this last bug, put in this last link.' All of a sudden — it's dawn."
To many on the new night shift, the all-nighter is a symbol of the new work ethic: they're willing to sacrifice sleep for fast cycle time, but they demand fun and flexibility in exchange. Patagonia's Sapienza explains, "Our definition of work and leisure has changed. People are searching for more fun out of work, more adventure. They expect that work is going to satisfy other needs, so they're willing to give more."
To some, night work is built into the job description. Craig Kanarick, 29, is one of the principals at Razorfish, a bleeding-edge multimedia design firm in New York. Kanarick spends his days in meetings, then leads the night shift in designing Web sites — putting virtual scent strips into www.ralphlaurenfragrance.com or recarbonating www.pepsimax.com. He says, "Managing during the day, I don't start my own work until seven."
Razorfish, which has more than 50 sites to its credit, doesn't encourage marathon work sessions, but does provide support for the inevitable all-nighter — including gourmet spreads and limousine service home. "We don' t want to put in a shower because people will start to live here," says Kanarick. "But when people are here all night, we want to make sure that they're going to be productive."
Adjacency, which was catapulted out of Sather's basement on the power of contracts with such high-profile companies as Specialized, Land Rover, and Motorola, has crossed Razorfish's boundaries: the showers are coming. Rollaways and several couches are already in place; the in-line skating rink is installed; and there are plans for a new work/play space with a conference table on wheels to make way for pickup basketball games.
In fact, Adjacency has all-nighters down to a science. Sather has even classified the two main types, each with its own work pattern, mode of relaxation, food, and sound track. The first, the "inadvertent all-nighter," is a flow-inspired work groove. "You don't go home to prepare for this," Sather says. "It's an extended day that sneaks up on you because you're doing great work, you're in the zone, and then you look at the clock, and it's 4 a.m. and you say, 'Hell, I'll just keep going.'"
And then there is the other kind — the more common "iron-willed, bleary-eyed, comin'-at-you-with-a-fury all-nighter," says Sather. "You know from the moment you walk in that you're going to have an all-nighter. These communal all-nighters are what make companies go. They're all about collaboration. They build a sense of loyalty, family, and common purpose. You want everyone to peak together."
And they have a recognizable rhythm. Adjacency's art director, Bernie DeChant, describes it: "The night starts out crazy. At midnight people get restless — they know they're going to be here all night. At two, it gets mellow, and at three, the music gets really loud. We might play pool or skate — that's when the second wind comes around."
Ana Marie Cox (email@example.com) is the Senior Editor of "Suck". She takes her coffee black and rarely takes advantage of the Suckspace bunk beds.
"The Survival Kit"
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.