Managing Work–Life Balance at a Startup

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Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, Colorado; photo by the author

Some workaholics feel compelled to work all the time, whereas others want to work all the time. For better and for worse, I fall into the latter category. I took ten weeks of vacation during my seven and a half years with Atypon. This always-on approach pushed my career forward in a meaningful way, but I could barely lift a finger in the five months after I left.

Although I may be towards the extreme of workaholism, my condition is by no means unique. High-growth startups are a potentially lethal environment for workaholics because teams are perpetually understaffed. The answer almost always is to work smarter, rather than longer; working longer usually leads to less smart work and therefore worse results.

Here are three easy ways that managers can help their teams to achieve a better work–life balance:

  • Don’t ask employees to work long hours or on weekends or holidays. In fact, actively encourage employees not to do this. If you write an email outside of business hours, use a tool like Boomerang to schedule delivery for the next business day.
  • Avoid sending email to employees (or copying them) while they’re on vacation. Instead, create “while you were gone” documents to be shared upon return. This eliminates the compulsion to respond while on vacation, and alleviates inbox re-entry agita.
  • Speaking of vacation, I’m not in favor of unlimited vacation policies because most people end up taking too little, and this hurts performance. Even if you aren’t in a position to change vacation policy, you can still strongly encourage your employees to take it.

Of course, at the end of the day each of us bears responsibility for managing our own work–life balance. A few years ago I discovered a hack that’s worked wonders for me. It’s super easy. Are you ready for it?

Leave your laptop at the office.

That’s it. Literally don’t take work home with you. And don’t install or log in to any work applications on your home computer, either.

Leaving your laptop at the office doesn’t mean you have to be cut off from work entirely. My phone is filled with business productivity apps like Slack, DocuSign, and Dropbox, all of which are great for completing quick work tasks when necessary (and all of which, I should add, are Smartling customers). Still, it’s not the same as working on a laptop; the small form factor and pared-down functionality are built-in limiters that prevent you from spending too much time on work when out of the office.

Startups are marathons, not sprints. Helping your employees to actively manage their work–life balance will contribute to better long-term results for your business. So push your team out of the office if they’re still there when you’re leaving at 6:30. Encourage a top performer to take a spontaneous personal day. And while you’re at it, leave your laptop at the office.

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Written by

Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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