I don’t want to die knowing I spent too much time at work and I bet you don’t either.
As a result I want to work with people who value a culture encouraging them to balance their family, health, hobbies, and work - aka work-life balance. To make a culture real leaders needs to walk the talk, and I’ll describe how I model a work-life balance, and the mechanisms I use to help team members achieve their own balance.
How do I model work-life balance?
Organizations reflect their leaders, and I strive to model work-life balance.
I leave at 4 pm, 4 days a week My watch alarm goes off every day at 3:45pm reminding me to wrap up for the day. It goes off a second time at 4:05, at which point I drop what I’m doing, grab my bag and leave. I do this 4 days a week like clockwork. One day a week I stay late, usually with an open schedule. I do this because many people prefer to socialize around 4-6, and I want to be around for that - aka happy hour!
I don’t work evenings and weekends I love my job when it’s going well, and I have a huge sense of responsibility when it’s going poorly. If I don’t force myself to stop working, I won’t. Thus, I have a rule - don’t work evening and weekends. There are exceptions when I want/need to work an evening or weekend. When that happens, I’m religious about using delayed send to avoid sending my employees e-mails out of business hours.
I don’t have work e-mail on my phone When I say I don’t work on evenings and weekends, I mean I don’t work evenings and weekends, and e-mail is work. When I have work e-mail on my phone, I check it when I’m idle, so I don’t have work e-mail on my phone. I do have Chime (aka Slack/Teams) in case my team needs anything from me.
I proudly go to kids events during the day My daughter is 4, the highlight of her life is her ‘ballet recital’ it’s the 3rd Wednesday every 4 months @ 11am. I won’t miss it for the world.
I book my vacations in advance, I take them, and I keep my work laptop off Every year my mom comes for spring break, we visit my wife’s family for a week around Thanksgiving, we take a week in the summer to visit my sister in Canada, and we take some time to enjoy the kids being off school for winter break. As hard as it is to let go of work (and for me it’s way hard), I say sorry - this vacation is booked, I won’t be available till I’m back from vacation.
How do we make it easier to achieve work-life balance on my team?
Work-life balance requires organizational mechanisms and care, here are some of ours.
Off the books paid time off To encourage people to take care of themselves, we do payed time off, off the books. Some people take advantage of this naturally, but others require encouragement. For example, this year July 4th was a Wednesday, so I removed two days of capacity from everyone’s sprint and told them to be ‘sick’ either Monday/Tuesday or Thursday/Friday. As another example, when folks do an internal transfer into my team, I encourage them to take a few weeks off to refresh and reset.
Realistic expectations for work deliverables To enjoy your time off work, you need to be free of anxiety. Because anxiety is the difference between expectations and reality my top priority is making sure everyone is thinking realistically. This is a huge topic, so I’d only skim the surface in a single dimension - unrealistic thoughts people have in their mind.
Folks develop unrealistic expectations around tasks they can’t deliver, and they can spiral into negative thoughts like ‘I should be able to do this’, ‘Anyone else can do this’, ‘I need to work more hours’, ‘I’m letting the team down’, ‘my project will fail’, ‘I’m failing’ or worst of all ‘I’m a failure’.
As the manager I have a better view of reality, common realities include: your deliverables are harder than expected, you haven’t built the skills to complete the tasks yet, and you’re having some unexpected life events that you should deal with.
Because folks tend to be embarrassed about these thoughts I keep my eyes open for employees who are stressed, working lots of hours, or not operating at their normal performance levels.
When I spot this happening, I jump in to remind the person that I know they’re good, they’re doing the best they can, and we’ll get this under control. I also remind them that if anyone on the team needed help, they’d jump in, and likewise, the team will do the same for them. Once we’ve got the employee’s expectations corrected, we figure out the right way to get the project back on track.
Flexible hours from wherever we want to be Everyone achieves work-life balance differently. So, the team does everything we can think of to make it easier to watch your daughter’s soccer game, get your car to the mechanic or go for an afternoon jog. For example, all our meetings are between 10 and 4, we use group messenger (Slack/Chime) heavily, we have meetings in rooms with video conferencing, and we have high-quality microphones for ad-hoc conversations like stand up. I work remotely at least once a month, so if the experience sucks, I prod the team to fix it.
Making work like having a blast with your friends Having you look forward to coming to work is a top priority for me, and I’ll have several posts on the topic. The first post, making memorable moments at work is in progress.
Treating you like the human you are I’m deeply offended when managers think developers are fungible resources assessed as the sum of their deliverables. I fundamentally believe developers are people first and need to be treated as such.
I genuinely appreciate everyone’s contributions and share my appreciation often. I know e-mails from bosses are stressful so I don’t send e-mails at evenings and weekends. I know life comes first, so any time an employee says ‘I need to’, I cut them off and say ‘Yes’. Then I hear them and remind them the team has their back.
I experience deep satisfaction knowing I’m helping each team mate achieve their goals. Be they getting a promotion, getting a job in another team, or dialing back their work contributions so they can focus on a sick parent. To learn each team members’ unique aspirations, goals, skills, and preferences I make sure 1:1’s are not status reports but opportunities to build our trust and relationship through valuable discussions.
Veronica, a new mom on our team, heard about my post and asked if she could share her experiences. In her own words:
The email from Igor read: ‘I’ve been noticing a lot of late night commits from you - everything okay?’ I had to admit that I’d been staying up later than I would have liked working on our current project because I was struggling to find uninterrupted time for coding during daylight hours. Working from home with my newborn saved me time commuting and stress from daycare, but baby-tending was proving more of a handful than I had anticipated. At the same time, although I was more excited about my work than I had been at any other time in my career, I was taken aback at how much I enjoyed spending time with my tiny human, and the desire I felt to drop everything else and do more with him.
Up until Igor’s email made me examine my current work-life unbalance, I had a good track record of advocating for myself to ensure my success. I negotiated working from home full-time so I could skip my soul-sucking commute and have more time with my son. Even as the only one working remotely full time, I felt very much a part of the teams, as meetings were scheduled in rooms with video capabilities so I could participate. Questions to team members were answered quickly and often led to calls with screen sharing. These feelings of inclusion extended to the organization at large through personal recognition at all-hands meetings. From my perspective, I was already so, so, accommodated - what more could I possibly expect to help me feel like my situation was sustainable and set-up for success?
I don’t think I would have ever had a conversation with Igor about how difficult I was finding it to manage my work and my life if he hadn’t sent that email. Firstly, I found it embarrassing to admit I was managing anything less than perfectly, and secondly, I didn’t have a clear idea of what I could ask for that would improve my situation. Looking back, this ‘suffer in silence’ approach had me on a path to quietly and quickly burning out and leaving the team when I inevitably decided I just couldn’t do both work and childcare.
Luckily, Igor did reach out, and we had a conversation about changes I could make and places where the team could step up and help me accomplish my tasks in a more manageable way. The most immediate impact was reducing my carrying capacity during sprint planning. I could still be responsible for the same tasks but would have more time to complete them. As a team, we were just able to understand the length of time it would reasonably take for me to get the tasks done without working long nights. Reducing my load was never something I would have thought of asking for, and is exactly why having these conversations is so important. I didn’t know there were options on the table, and a good manager (and good team mates) can help find these options. This first conversation was a springboard for many subsequent conversations. Igor wanted me to have good guides as I thought about my long term options, so he connected me with several women in his network - some moms who worked in various development roles, and some moms who decided they’d rather stay at home.
While we had a great short-term solution, my son wasn’t becoming any less demanding, and my desire to pivot to a full-time mom role wasn’t wavering. I needed to start thinking about what I wanted to do in the long-term. My reduced hours - and by extension, reduced stress - had the added benefit of giving me extra mental energy to think about what my coming decisions would mean for my son and me, and gave me a good idea of what sort of balance I could expect if I transitioned to being a part-time employee. Ultimately, I decided to take a few years off while my son was young; I don’t get to be his whole world for long so I’m really trying to soak that up!
The fine print
There are times where I slip up and don’t live up to my standards If you see me doing this, call me out, and I’ll do my best to course correct.
There are times when work-life balance swings to work These times should be rare, planned, and followed or preceded by times where we can focus on our lives.
Changing culture is a slow process When I’m new to an organization, expect it to be a while before it kicks in.
Tell me more
In future posts, I’ll describe how leaders can build a culture of work-life balance into organizations that haven’t embraced it yet.
I’m always looking for folks passionate about software engineering leadership and management, so reach out for virtual coffee if you share my passion!
I’m hiring, so if you’re a principal developer, senior developer or SDE-II reach out.
How many hours do you work a week? My goal is 40-50 hours. I will not work evenings or weekends, but I do spend time on professional development like coding side projects and reading leadership books. An important note - I don’t ask my team how much they work, I ask them what they have accomplished.
Have you ever burned out? Yes. I’ve burned out 3 times in my career. The first time, I’d just become a senior developer, just had my first child, and just bought my first house. The second time, I put my team in a position where they were set-up for failure, and I didn’t know how to declare success and move on. The third time, I didn’t realize I was operating under extremely unrealistic expectations and didn’t have the support structure I needed. I’ll go into details in future blog posts.
Your time off policy sounds great, but I want to write code non-stop! Building code muscles (or any skill) is great - I highly recommend it. I believe the best way to do that is to work on a side project, take courses, or read great programming books. You’ll still get to code, but you’ll broaden your horizons while you’re doing it.
I’m young and single - I want to work like a dog - should I? You can, that’s what I did at the start of my career. If you want to do this, choose your team carefully and make sure the folks working like a dog are actually getting more work done and not on a path to burn out.
Sounds like I’m working less, how will this impact my career/bonus? If someone works as effectively as you for 60 hours a week, when you’re working 40 hours a week, they’ll get ahead. However, what I often see is the folks working 60 hours, are less effective with their time, and often burn out.
What happens when the larger organization doesn’t value work-life balance? I’ll go into this in detail in my blog post on bringing work life balance into an organizational. In short, in some organizations, a significant fraction of people have no life, and it’s literally going to cost you to have one yourself. If that’s not your cup of tea, then that’s not the organization for you.
Did you always do this? No, when I was young and single, I wanted to build my tech muscles as fast as I could and often worked 50-60 hours a week. When I was employee number 50 in Azure, the entire team worked 60+ hours a week, and it was one of the most fun times of my career.
Thanks to the following peeps for all their input: Sarah (Rybarczyk) Nahmias, Sean Selitrennikoff, Kevin Frei, Ganeshan Jayaraman, David Driver and Vasu Devulapalli