This may seem like an odd topic for a leadership blog but I think encouraging work / life balance is an important (and very difficult) thing to do within technology teams. High performing teams are typically made up of individuals who enjoy what they’re doing for work. It would be odd to see a team that functioned well if some or all hated their jobs. For people that enjoy their jobs, the lines between work time and leisure time can become blurred. As technology is so rapidly changing, technologists may use their free time researching to stay current or working in their home lab. It is difficult as a leader to, on the one hand, drive the team to meet deadlines while on the other, tell people it’s time for a break. While certain past experiences (read, burn out) have forced me pay mind to this balance in my own life, I have found it difficult to force those on my teams to do the same. I suppose vacations cannot be dictated but I believe there are other ways to push people away from work, if only for a short time. As leaders, this skill is essential to protect the team against overwork, low morale, or even, in the extreme, outright mutiny (that never ends well for the captain).
I believe that technology fields off two unique challenges to the balance between work and home. The first I’ve already alluded to – it changes so rapidly. It is necessary to learn outside of normal working hours (as companies usually don’t allow enough time for training) because an outdated technologist is not going to be successful. Those of us in technology also like to learn and understand the bleeding edge because it is new and exciting. So while others may surf the latest entertainment blogs or sports sites, we figure out how to write that piece of code or find out if the bug we’ve run into is fixed in the next beta release. I’m not saying this is true for everyone of us but I believe that, for technologists, a lot of our down time is closer to work than other fields. This presents challenges for balancing work and home as the line between the two becomes foggy.
The other unique hurdle for technologists (at least those in any sort of operations role) is the idea of being on-call. While most occupations have set hours with some expected overflow, I have slept next to my phone ever since I joined this profession. It can ring at any time and it is expected that I answer it. I’m not putting technology jobs above others, just saying that “carrying the pager” makes technologists different. We are certainly well compensated as a result but this does however force the lines of work and home to become more vague. Unless I’m on vacation, I don’t shut my phone off or leave it at home. Maybe that’s just me and others are better but it makes me anxious to be without that little communication device. And when I carry the phone, I tend to check and respond to email and thus my workday extends. The benefits my company gets for shelling out for the device and monthly plan are enormous.
So with these things in mind, how do leaders prevent their team members from tipping the balance in their lives too far toward their job? This is a huge issue in the US (where success is judged primarily by economic status) and is something I face on a daily basis. There are a couple of methods I use – one direct and one more indirect – to combat this.
I’ll start with the more indirect of the two. This idea is around managing expectations and while that may seem a little odd to connect to work / life balance, I promise I’ll get there. I have a simple rule that I employ with my teams: make commitments and hit them. If you are unable to meet the expectation on delivery, let me know as soon as possible. This does a couple things for me. It makes planning simpler as I generally know when to expect deliverables and if they slip, I know as soon as possible. As a manager, it is important to deal with misses in a rational way. Delays will happen, that is a fact. When they do, reacting with anger or insane disappointment is out of line. If you do, your team won’t trust you and will let you know of delays only as a last resort. That only gives you less time to re-plan, reset expectations, and adds tension – not a positive outcome. Your team must trust in your response and know that you are on their side. It also helps to guide your team on setting expectations. If you are forgiving without being a doormat, people will add less padding to their work estimates, ending up with more accuracy. Reiterating the importance of making and meeting commitments along the way serves to solidify this. All of this serves to make work more predictable and reduces the chaos of the multiple workstreams / projects / skunk works efforts that are common in a technical environment. This helps work / life balance tremendously as it fundamentally changes the way the team works. Rather than jumping from rushed deadline to rushed deadline, the team can plan and when a day to catch your breath is necessary, you can take it rather than having it domino a ton of efforts out of control. The work itself “slows” and the team knows that their leader has their back and understands that sh*t happens.
The other part of this indirect method is to hone your skill at managing up. Just as your team will set expectations with you, you must set expectations above. As you develop trust with your team and get better and better work estimates and flow, your ability to be predictable to upper management will improve. Ideally, this predictability brings trust and with it, some calm. Unfortunately, that may not always be the case and many of us have dealt with management that never seems satisfied or appreciative. In these cases, it is important to remember that, as leaders, we must act as buffers to our teams. Be honest with them as to the pressure you’re facing and never toss them under the bus to your management. It is our job as leaders to own that responsibility and manage expectations. Doing so is critical for both the sanity of the team and your own well being.
The more direct method of dealing with work / life balance concerns being in good communication with your team. It is important to know how the individuals on your team are doing, both within and outside of the workplace. You don’t need to be friends with everyone (that’s a personal decision and a different post) but as leaders, it is important to know the pressures facing your team, no matter the source. The ability to sense work overload or other sources of stress is a critical leadership skill. In a perfect world work would be stress free and while it can be managed, work is never free of stress. There are times when as leaders, we must react and do so in support of our team, potentially at a cost to a project. In the long run, the team will appreciate it and the business will benefit through increased morale and work output.
A couple of examples to illustrate the point… you might have an employee who suddenly changes his or her performance. Normally she is great and enthusiastic but lately has been quiet and might have missed some commitments. Don’t delay addressing this as it may compound with time. Faced with an under-performing employee, some managers will make the conversation simply about that and simply send the “pick it up” message. That isn’t my approach. If you have someone that is traditionally a good performer, the benefit of the doubt should be given 100% of the time. I start these types of conversations with, “Are you OK?” I mention that I’ve seen a change and want to know how she’s doing. I do this because I truly care and also because I want to know what I can do to help. Employees will share to varying degrees based on their personality and level of comfort with you. Regardless of the degree of disclosure, it is important that your team knows that you care. Just asking and sensing tone or if in person, body language, can give you insight. Once you have it, it is important to act. If you sense someone is over-stressed, pick a day, call her up and tell her to take the afternoon off. If pressed, it is a reward for a job well done. These small acts may have more of a positive effect then you know and only come at the cost of a few hours.
Another situation you might run into is an employee who comes to you with a personal concern. It might be that a parent is ill or they have an auto repair that they need to get done but haven’t been able to find the time. Given this type of situation, I immediately offer time away from work. Family has been and always will be more important than the job and as a leader, it is important that you reinforce this to your team. The belief that one might be viewed as under-performing if we need to ask for time only serves to compound personal stressers and can dissuade us from requesting it. As a leader, offer it. It takes a lot of pressure off folks if they know you’re supportive and won’t respond with, “That’s nice, now back to work.” These situations won’t always be as obvious as I’ve presented here so it is important to build your skill in reading your team. It takes time but putting the balance of work and home front of mind for yourself and your team will go a very long way. It is critical to our development as leaders.