Skift’s approach to work-life balance

Edited excerpt from How We Got off the Addiction to Venture Capital and Created Our Own Way to Profits by Rafat Ali:

We dedicated ourselves to making the lives of our team better. That may sound simple, but with so many constituencies pulling at you as a founder, especially if large amounts of venture capital is part of the equation, it is the first thing to fall off in the list of priorities. It meant evaluating every next step and opportunity on how it would affect the professional and personal lives of our people. We have fully embraced the idea of building a humane company.

We chart our own path, we define our own scale, we define our own intensity of work. We work hard during the hours of 8 am to 6 pm on weekdays, and that’s it. We don’t want people in office after 6 pm, we don’t want people working weekends, and I am proud to say in our 3.5 years of existence, we have *never* had to, as a team, come to the office on a weekend.

We are building a humane company that wants the best out of people in the hours they give to the company, and build a more balanced life outside of it.

(1) See also: (i) How many hours per week should you work to maximize your impact? and (ii) Is this the key to work-life balance?
(2) An opposing viewpoint: Does Amazon prove that greatness and work-life balance are incompatible?
(3) Which do you find more convincing?

Does Amazon prove that greatness and work-life balance are incompatible?

Edited excerpt from What to Make of Amazon’s Work Practices? by Mark Suster:

There is much discussion about this weekend’s article in the NY Times regarding Amazon’s work practices. The truth is that if you examine the most successful organizations and people in the world you’ll find similar cultures to those outlined in the article. Try working at Goldman Sachs, whose employees regularly work evenings and weekends and travel at a moment’s notice to client meetings in far corners of the country or world. You think it’s different at any of the top consulting firms? Think it’s a cake walk working at any of the country’s top law firms? Should we do an article on what it’s like to be a medical resident? How about working in the US military? Chief of Staff for a major political figure? What about a top athlete in the NFL or NBA or even part of the coaching staff? Think they don’t have work/life balance challenges in a field they’ve chosen to work in?

And of course there are startups. I’m not looking to fund people who err too much on the life side of the work/life balance. Can you objectively say that you think rational investors would? I’m looking for maniacal, competitive, driven, hard-working, obsessed individuals who are deeply committed to winning.

None of these jobs is for everybody. In fact, I’d say most people would rather trade off more free time and less pressure than to be at an elite firm, and many people value their hobbies and work/life balance. It’s admirable and we shouldn’t hold up the hard-work culture as the pinnacle of achievement in life. But both extremes are life choices and we each get to make them freely.

From Chris DeMuth:

What is the overlap between greatness (useful patents, Nobel prizes ex- the more dubious peace prizes, founders of great businesses) and the self-indulgent permanent adolescents who endlessly fixate on “work/life balance” and working as few hours per week as possible? Any, or 0.00?

(1) Greatness in any area requires extreme dedication, drive and commitment to success. This is true of scholarship, art, music, sport, parenting, and building personal character, as much as technology innovation and business.
(2) Because startups are defined by high growth rates, they are binary: a startup is either great or a failure. There’s no middle ground. For that reason, startups by definition require extreme dedication and commitment to success. Startup = blood, sweat and tears.
(3) Extreme dedication and commitment to success are not incompatible with a happy and ethical work environment. In fact, they might require it.
(4) Some companies view round-the-clock responsiveness to internal email, long hours in the office without breaks, and insufficient sleep as dedication and commitment to success. They’re not, because those work habits are ineffective. See: (i) How to manage your energy, (ii) How to sleep better to raise your productivity, (iii) If you want to get more done, stop doing these things, (iv) Why you should take a walk at 3pm, (v) Limiting decision fatigue, (vi) How to clear time for deep thinking, (vii) Ideas spread inside a company due to positive energy; 8 ways to increase it, and (viii) Can you be a great business leader if you’re lazy?.
(5) Here’s a summary of the NYT article and Jeff Bezos’ response, with responses from Seeking Alpha investors in Amazon.

Getting work-life balance right also requires being considerate to others

Edited excerpt from Ty Danco‘s write up of Brad Feld‘s Techstars talk on work-life harmony:

Brad talked about how he has found ways to keep his relationship going in spite of a schedule which may explode at anytime. Some solutions are easy, such as warning his wife that he is expecting an important call that may come during dinner -– 1) acknowledging her; 2) being clear if he is going to need to be interrupted; and 3) setting expectations appropriately.

Don’t send non-urgent emails outside work hours

Edited excerpt from Your Late-Night Emails Are Hurting Your Team by Maura Thomas:

As a productivity trainer specializing in attention management, I’ve seen over the past decade how after-hours emails speed up corporate cultures — and that, in turn, chips away at creativity, innovation, and true productivity.

If this is a common behavior for you, you’re missing the opportunity to get some distance from work — distance that’s critical to the fresh perspective you need as the leader. And, when the boss is working, the team feels like they should be working.

Being “always on” hurts results. When employees are constantly monitoring their email after work hours — whether this is due to a fear of missing something from you, or because they are addicted to their devices — they are missing out on essential down time that brains need.

Refrain from after-hours communication. Discourage an always-on environment of distraction that inhibits creative flow.

(1) If you work in a company with teams in different time zones (our situation in Seeking Alpha), you can’t control whether emails are sent to you outside your work hours. But you can control when you read email and when you send email.
(2) Cf. (i) How many hours per week should you work to maximize your impact?, (ii) If you want to get more done, stop doing these things and (iii) How to stop email from ruining your vacation.
(3) Thank you Rachael Granby for the tip.

How to stop email from ruining your vacation

Edited excerpt from How To Deal With Email After A Long Vacation by Brad Feld:

Whenever I’m off the grid for a week, I always come back to loads of email. I used to schedule nothing for my first day back and just go through all my email while getting back in the flow of things. That made for a shitty day, and usually damaged my calm that had resulted from my week off the grid. Recently, I tried something different. Here is my vacation reminder from that trip:

I’m on vacation and completely off the grid until 12/8/14.
I will not be reading this email. When I return, I’m archiving everything and starting with an empty inbox.
If this is urgent and needs to be dealt with by someone before 12/8, please send it to my assistant. She’ll make sure it gets to the right person.
If you want me to see it, please send it again after 12/8.

I’ve heard the complaint, over and over again, that email allows other people to interrupt your world. There’s something about taking control of how email interacts with you that is very satisfying.

(1) My brother Tim uses a similar vacation auto-response. He adds a wonderful line after “If you want me to see it, please send it again after I return”: “Otherwise, please do nothing, and your email will gradually melt and disappear like an ice cube in the summer sun. Perfect vacations: Time with family and friends; books, but no email.”
(2) All this assumes you’re not checking email during vacation. See Bandwidth’s no-email vacation policy and Paying people to take real vacations.

How many hours per week should you work to maximize your impact?

Edited excerpt from The Neuroscience of Recruiting: 3 Key Discoveries & Implications by Geoffrey James:

Conventional business wisdom is that there’s a positive correlation between long work hours and employee productivity.

Instead, the opposite is true. It’s now known that long work hours reduce creativity by decreasing the amount of waking hours when the mind is at rest.

Furthermore, numerous studies show long work hours create workplace stress, which in turn causes health problems that negatively affects employee performance. Rather than getting more done, employees get sick more frequently and make more mistakes, which then requires extra work to fix.

Ironically, the false economy of long work hours was scientifically proven 100 years ago, when the Ford Motor Company discovered through extensive testing that the ideal work schedule was 40 hours a week. Those studies showed that working additional hours produces a temporary productivity increase that after four weeks turns into a net productivity decrease.

Today, recruiters tend to view a candidate’s history of working long hours as a positive indicator of commitment. In the future, however, recruiters may need to interpret a history of working long hours as a negative indicator suggesting a lack of balance and a consequent inability to think creatively.

(1) Cf. How to clear time for deep thinking.
(2) Cf. Can you be a great business leader if you’re lazy?

Paying people to take real vacations

From Paid Vacation? That’s Not Cool. You Know What’s Cool? Paid, PAID Vacation by FullContact CEO Bart Lorang:

Once per year, we give each employee $7500 to go on vacation. There are a few rules:
— You have to go on vacation, or you don’t get the money.
— You must disconnect.
— You can’t work while on vacation.

If people know they will be disconnecting and going off the grid for an extended period of time, they might actually keep that in mind as they help build the company. For example:
— They might empower direct reports to make more decisions.
— They might be less likely to create a special script that isn’t checked into GitHub and only lives on their machine.
— They might document their code a bit better.
— They might contribute to the Company Wiki and share knowledge.
Get the picture? At the end of the day, the company will improve. As an added bonus, everyone will be happier and more relaxed knowing that they aren’t the last line of defense.

(1) Compare to Bandwidth’s total email embargo during vacation.
(2) Perhaps the FullContact approach works better: reward people for taking real vacation, instead of making it another obligation.

Is this the key to work-life balance?

From an article about Bandwidth CEO David Morken:

Bandwidth has (and enforces) a total embargo on email to and from the company during vacation.  That is, when you’re on vacation, you may not communicate with the company and they may not communicate with you

The results? Employees experience vacations as vacations: rejuvenation, reconnection and relaxation. And managers put more attention toward developing their folks  – because their folks can’t call them when there’s an emergency during their absence; they have to be willing and able to handle it themselves. Finally, Morken says, it makes managers more thoughtful about preparing for vacation: if you really can’t give added instructions, or sort things out while you’re gone, it’s essential to get as much clarity as possible beforehand about what’s supposed to happen when you’re not there.  He’s convinced that this has impact outside of vacation time, as well: that the increased clarity and trust ‘leak’ out into employees’ interactions every day.

(1) The “don’t communicate” rule need not apply to anyone other than the person on vacation, as other people can’t be held responsible for knowing who is on vacation and for how long. This would simplify the rule, and place responsibility entirely on the shoulders of the person taking vacation — “If you’re on vacation, don’t contact anyone in the company, and set your email vacation response to I’m taking vacation and won’t reply to your email before I return. If it’s urgent, email xxx“.
(2) But this still leaves the stress of knowing that you’ll have emails waiting for you when you return from vacation — one of the factors that makes people check email while they’re on vacation. So here’s a potential solution: When you return, reply to every email you received with a standard reply: “You sent this email when  I was on vacation. If it’s still relevant and you require action from me, please send me an update.
(3) The “don’t communicate” rule can also be applied to evenings and weekends, but in a less draconian form — only communicate with people in your company outside work hours if the issue is urgent and important.