Failed and Successful Stories of Work-Life Balance
Work-life balance isn't simply giving away free food, or lots of vacation days. It's often about what skills an employee can develop and use to set boundaries.
I remember Zuck talking in a work all-hands. He'd hold those regularly while I was briefly at Meta/Facebook.
He explained that he wasn't a strong believer in work-life balance. Instead, he wanted work-life harmony. He wanted your life and work to be intertwined. I believe he used examples of having your family visit the work cafeteria, and how a few hours of building a product on the weekend is what passionate employees should enjoy doing.
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My personal impression was that he didn't build a ton of respect for that argument. I think he flubbed a number of his rah-rah speeches (Bezos was a much more convincing speaker from my perspective). But I could see where he was trying to go with it.
When everything falls into place, you find that your personal life does merge with your work life to some level. I know a good portion of my friends are previous co-workers. We regularly spent time with co-workers in the evening and weekends. Our personal life did merge with our work life to some degree.
Yet, that doesn't necessarily solve the bigger issues of work-life balance.
Do you feel you can spend a significant amount of time bonding with your kids?
Can you and your wife make plans, and have zero concern that your work will intrude?
Is a two-week vacation challenging to schedule?
Does your manager regularly intrude on your private time?
Is your stress at work impacting your happiness at home?
Can you sufficiently relax between workdays, so you're able to start each day fresh?
People regularly ask about the work-life balance at various companies, as if it's a consistent thing across the entire corporation. "Amazon has a terrible work-life balance, but Google is great."
You know what actually has the biggest impact on your work-life balance? How you set boundaries, your communication skills, your time management, and having a manager who isn't a complete jerk.
People get burned out at Google, and people work 6 hour days at Amazon. Like many other aspects of your career, work-life balance is something often in your control.
Let's walk through a few effective and not effective stories of managing work-life balance.
The "I got this!" strategy.
I thought Dustin was an awesome employee.
In the operations meeting.
I look carefully at some error rates. "Hey, it looks like our error rates have increased for 5 weeks in a row." I said. "It might be a blip, but could someone please take a look at it? See if there's a pattern?"
Dustin immediately volunteered. "Sure, I can take a look."
It's great to have someone respond so quickly and enthusiastically.
In our project review meeting.
"I see that the 3rd project on our list is yellow again." I say. "Should we have someone else help with a few tasks?"
"I can help!" Dustin volunteers. "I know that codebase, it'll be easy for me to do a few things."
In Dustin's one-on-one.
When Dustin walks in, I swear he looks tired.
"How are things going Dustin?" I ask.
"Oh great!" he says. "Running a tiny bit behind on a few things, but I think I have it under control."
When I hear an engineer say that they "think" they have something under control, that usually means that they intend to work longer hours, or they're overly optimistic. Either way, it's not a great sign. No confident person says that they think they have things under control.
"I want to make certain you're not overdoing it Dustin." I say. "I'll just remind you that we have unlimited work, you can't do it all."
I'm pretty sure Dustin has heard this from me at least 3 or 4 times. I just feel like repetition helps break through thick skulls.
"Yeah, but someone needs to do it." he protests. "It's important."
I nod reassuringly at him.
"I promise, I'd rather some things are not finished rather than you get burned out." I say. "If you're working more than 8 hours a day, can you please identify the less important stuff, and drop it? Just let me know."
A tricky thing about the opposite of micromanagement is that you don't have details on what your team members are doing with their time. I had no idea what time Dustin arrived at the office, or left. I simply suspected he worked long hours. We also don't keep track of who is doing what. Everyone manages their own to-do list. It's a recipe for exhaustion if you're not careful.
"Hey Dustin" I say to the tired looking engineer. "I keep seeing emails from you at midnight. Are you still burning the candle at both ends?"
"I'm almost through it. Soon as we get this launch out the door, I can take a breather. I got this." he says confidently.
A few months later.
Dustin tells me that he has accepted an offer at another company.
"Ah bummer Dustin! What's the reason?" I ask.
"Oh, Amazon's just a rough company to work at." he says. "It's not you. You're a great manager. Best manager I've ever had."
I swear, he really said that. It's not bragging if someone else says it, right? Right. Moving on.
"It was just too much work." he said. "I know I should have managed my time better, but I just couldn't. There was too much important stuff to do, and no one was doing it. And I was never at home, and I'm just exhausted."
I tried convincing him to give it another shot (perhaps with me standing firmly on the brake pedal), but he was done.
What's the lesson here?
Dave got a bit more aggressive in the future when people insist 'they got it'. Because I stopped believing people.
In good companies (the kind that grow, and have opportunities), there is always more important work. Don't think of it as "I need to do the important work," but instead think, "I need to make sure the work I'm doing is the most important." If you spend your 8 hours doing the most important work available, you'll be ok.
Talk to your manager. I've repeatedly had people get to the brink (or over the brink) of burnout, before asking for help. I repeatedly would offer, I'd repeatedly ask, but people hate admitting an inability to solve their problems. Your manager can only do so much if you're not communicating.