Business

Let’s take a more rational approach to ‘work-life balance’

This is a guest post by Donna Wells, CEO of online training firm Mindflash.

Too many CEOs pay lip service to “work-life balance” in an effort to attract top talent. Here in Silicon Valley, the notion of balance is basically a joke.

Software developers accustomed to coding all-nighters in college are hired by employers expecting them to continue working 12 to 15 hours a day. The pace is relentless. What strikes me is that in the software industry, startups and established companies alike have fully accepted that work overload is just normal.

My company, Mindflash, is based in Palo Alto — the heart of the Valley — yet we’ve taken a different approach. Our results show that it’s possible to take a more rational approach to work-life balance and still achieve rapid growth and high returns.

Better results without burnout

We run the company using an Agile development process which, when followed religiously, actually enforces some work-life balance. (If you’re unfamiliar with the 12 principles of Agile, you can find the list here.)

With Agile orthodoxy, teams can deliver their highest volume of quality work when they work within a predictable, sustainable, and stable range of hours per week. Meaning, a team working 40-hour weeks over two months is producing more and better than a team asked to gut out 80-hour weeks in one month before a big release. The latter option usually leads to the team crashing during the next month due to fatigue, inevitable product fixes, and customer support — needs all driven by the subpar work produced during the “death march.”

Holding management accountable

Applying Agile methods, we’ve developed a reliable estimate of the amount of quality work our team can produce in any given month. Our management team uses this number to negotiate, prioritize, and collectively force rank the company’s activities on a regular basis. Together, we face the reality that unless we hire and spend more, we can only produce X in time period Y.

Committing to this method results in fewer changes in direction from the top and improved productivity over time. We can also better set and meet customer expectations on what we’ll deliver and when, and consistently exceed expectations for quality.

Walking the talk

Maintaining a culture of work-life balance requires constant reinforcement. We’re regularly tempted to compromise these values due to business challenges and crises and sometimes new employees eager to demonstrate their passion and commitment by working crazy hours on a key project. But the team invariably self-manages back to our values in simple, but effective ways: people pulling late nights don’t get held up as heroes and they may even get a message from their boss saying that working crazy hours is not a company value.

People who are late to or miss a morning meeting because they were burning the midnight oil get penalized through whiteboard eraser duty, which is the developers’ equivalent to cleaning the latrines. And unless there’s an urgent customer issue, we don’t ping each other after hours and late into the night, as was common at my previous three start-ups.  

I don’t care who tells you different: if your boss is texting you late at night, you feel as if you should be working those hours, too. By consistently applying and withholding these social rewards, folks get the message clearly and quickly.

Regular processes not chaos

Our Agile development process also ensures a regular cadence to our work and prevents crises. The triage team meets every morning to deal with any overnight emergencies, and we also hold three back-to-back Scrums daily to share our progress within each team. We strive to get all meetings done before noon to leave the afternoon free for uninterrupted work. I have five (and only five) standing meetings weekly with key subsets of my team. After every Sprint, we hold a demo to show off our work and a retrospective to critique it. Our regular meetings help reduce total meeting time and minimize last-minute interruptions.

In a previous startup, we had employees starting work anywhere from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and leaving anywhere from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m.  This often resulted in the early-bird guy having to wait five hours to get help from the sleep-til-noon developer who was the only one able to fix the customer-reported bug from the previous night. The guy who comes in at 10 a.m. may not have anyone to collaborate with for four hours. By having regularly scheduled and predictable points of interaction, we’re a lot more productive in fewer hours because our people can collaborate more easily to fix issues faster and write better code.

Break the rules as needed

We’ve chosen to ignore the Agile precept that dictates co-location of employees for a couple of reasons: One is work-life balance and another is that it’s not relevant due to the explosion of highly-effective, virtual collaboration tools. About 30 percent of our full-time employees work from their homes in Vermont, North Dakota, Washington, and Arizona. In addition, some of our folks who work in the Palo Alto office have one-hour or longer commutes, so we have a generous policy of work-from-home days for those people, too.

Our public, daily communication of progress, plans, and priorities per the Agile method helps in ensuring we’re all productive, no matter where we are. We take advantage of multiple collaboration tools each day including Yammer, GoToMeeting, and Skype to keep everyone connected. We also regularly fly people into Palo Alto so that they can maintain those personal connections. That’s really nice because the average tenure of our developers is high and those personal relationships have spanned many years now.

Why our work-life balance culture works

Our culture has been a tremendous asset for our company and has won us new hires against formidable competing employers in town, such as Google and Facebook. One of our employees in Seattle left the company to take a higher paying job, but he was back in six months because he felt he wasn’t able to do his best work. These new and returning employees not only reinforce our belief that we’re doing the right thing in supporting work-life balance but this culture also lowers our costs of recruiting and retention.

In fast-paced industries like software, it takes courage to enforce work-life balance. But when you bring together smart people to solve hard problems for the long-term satisfaction of your customers, I’d suggest that your employees should be like marathoners going for personal bests, not greyhounds that must race until they drop. At Mindflash, that decision has paid off for our business, our customers, and in our ability to retain highly-skilled employees.

donna-wellsDonna Wells is the CEO of Mindflash, a leading web platform for companies to easily share knowledge and train employees online. Before Mindflash, Donna was the CMO for Mint.com where she helped bring in over two million users and led development of the MintLife online publication, which attracted 500,000 visitors a month.


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