Designing a 5-star culture that promotes work/life balance

Jeremy Bird
Feb 21, 2020 · 8 min read

I see it at least once a week on LinkedIn, Medium, or Twitter. Some entrepreneur or business leader posts about how they’re working 60–80 hours (or more) and either explicitly or implicitly states that if you want to be successful, you have to work crazy hours too. They often call it “grit” but what they’re really talking about is working overtime. True grit—or the courage and perseverance to stick with a goal—is vital. But most often when the term “grit” is used, it is used in the context of working long hours for long periods of time and wearing it as a badge of honor. Many founders would have us believe that if you aren’t working 80-hour weeks, we’re not determined enough to ever be successful. Which is flat out false.

The thing is, though, it isn’t just Entrepreneurs. You can find this at every company. The employees that stay late or come in on a weekend are almost always the ones that get rewarded by managers. They get recognition, the bonus, the promotion.

Many of us do this ourselves when we have to work extra hours (whether by demand or by choice). We wear the fact that we worked extra as a badge of honor. We makes sure everyone around us knows.

This behavior is not only inadvisable, it’s destructive. Burnout is at an all-time high as are mental illnesses and suicide. Children are acquiring inferiority complexes, feel entitled to a greater degree than ever before and are less prepared to do hard things and develop the life skills of resiliency and determination. Work/life balance is needed like never before.

Yet, if you look through the job postings of the vast majority of companies today, they all tout “work/life balance” as a perk. So why do so many fall short of this goal in practice? In a word: culture.

You have 2 options when establishing & maintaining your company culture. It can be established by default, or by design. We all want to work in a great environment. We all want the company to be successful. We all want to be “innovative”. We all want to love coming to work. Why, then, do so many corporate work environments and cultures promote the opposite of what we all want?

It’s quite simple: they are allowed to happen by default. It is a universal truth that not making a decision IS making a decision. When we fail to intentionally design the company culture we want for ourselves and for our employees, we allow the culture to form organically, and that almost always results in mediocrity.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. It is possible to design a people-centric culture where work/life balance and mental health are valued and where everyone can do their best work — but it has to be done intentionally, and it has to be an ongoing focus & priority.

What is “culture”?

Before we get too far into how to design our ideal culture, it might be helpful to define what “culture” is in the first place. Culture is not foosball tables, in-office cafeterias, onsite gyms and Friday happy hours. I like to think about culture as the environment leaders create for their employees & how a company responds to difficulties, problems, and challenges. It is what gets rewarded. It is who gets promoted and why. It is how a company puts their money where their mouth is.

Example of culture by default

I remember once working at a company that prided itself on its “work/life balance” and employee recognition. Their heart actually was in the right place. They regularly recognized employees in company meetings and encouraged managers to recognize their team members regularly. That was a great part of the culture.

One of the problems, though, is that there was no direction on what an employee should be recognized for. That part was left to default. So what do you think happened? Most of the employees that were recognized were those putting in dozens of extra hours, working on vacation, and going for long periods without taking time off. This incentivized others to want to do the same so they would get recognized. Pretty soon everyone was burned out and employee retention plummeted.

It all stemmed from the best of intentions (after all if someone goes the extra mile shouldn’t they be rewarded/recognized?) The problem was that no one stopped to think what that “design decision” would lead to — they let it happen by default.

This doesn’t just happen with work/life balance, though. It happens with every aspect of a company culture. Let me share just one other example.

Nearly every modern tech company today emphasizes the importance of “fail fast”, “permission to fail”, or “learning not failing”. They (correctly) realize the importance of providing a safe space for product teams to experiment, take risks, and learn. Yet most fail to design that kind of an environment into their culture.

I’ve seen a lead developer be fired when it became clear that a technology he chose was the wrong choice. I’ve seen management spend dozens of hours and many resources finger-pointing, scape-goating, and trying to cover their own rear ends. I’m not shaming anyone. We all do it. Left to our own devices, we view failure as negative. It’s human nature. It’s wired into our brains. Even when, in our minds, we know that learning from mistakes is valuable.

Designing a better culture

So, then, how do we “design” a better culture? It is done in much the same way as we design a physical/software product. Discovery, research, experimentation, evaluation, iteration, and above all being intentional about our decisions and how success should be measured.

For example, what if managers tracked and discussed with employees in 1:1s any hours worked over 40 per week? I’m not saying we shouldn’t allow it, I’m just saying we track it and have a conversation. There will absolutely be times when it’s needed (tight deadlines, etc), but if that becomes the norm then maybe there’s a problem we need to solve. (Maybe management is committing to unrealistic deadlines for development without consulting them for example).

One company I know gives employees $2,000 a year to take a 5-day+ vacation. The only requirement is they have to take a picture while on vacation and post it for other employees to see. Management leads the way in posting their own pictures and in commenting on their team members pictures.

Another great example I’ve heard of is having a reward for the “bellyflop of the week” to encourage a culture of experimentation and failure. Learning and failure is actually REWARDED.

There is also a fantastic example (actually there are many) of designing a culture in Ed Catmull’s book “Creativity Inc.” When the Toy Story 2 master files were inadvertently deleted (and ultimately saved only through someone who emailed herself all the files while working at home on maternity leave), they decided not to go on headhunt for the culprit. Instead, they asked themselves what they could learn and put steps in place to ensure that same scenario couldn’t happen again. It would have been so easy (human nature) to go looking for the culprit and firing them (they almost ruined the release of Toy Story 2 at a very fragile time for Pixar). But they didn’t. They were intentional about the effect that decision would have on their culture.

Mission, Vision, and Core Values

The companies with the best cultures I know, also are very serious about their “why” (see Simon Sinek’s book “Start With Why”), their vision and core values. Their vision is clear and their core values are actionable. Too many companies’ mission is a variation of “we provide the best products at the best price with the best customer service”. Similarly, the majority of companies core values (if they even have them) are too generic and are not actionable.

For example, in less than 5 minutes of searching I was able to find multiple companies with the mission statement “to save people money”, multiple vision statements of “to provide the best value and superior customer service”. Common core values included: honest, trustworthy, “do the right thing”, accountability, innovation, etc. Those are all admirable qualities but they’re so broad that it’s very difficult to make decisions (design a culture) from them.

Contrast that to a couple of my favorites from companies local to my area:

MISSION: “We empower journeys of personal discovery to enrich lives”

VALUES:

Be customer obsessed.
Our focus is to provide sustained value to our customers, and deeply understand our customers through data and insights.

Pioneer relentlessly.
We strive to focus on what matters most and break through boundaries. Our aim is to learn fast, make tough choices, and scale what works.

Empower each other.
We believe in being inclusive, transparent, and committing to each other’s success. We hold ourselves accountable and trust each other to be accountable.

MISSION: “To democratize technology skills”.

VALUES:

Accountable for excellence.
We are accountable for our past, current and future work. Through agreements, we drive autonomy to become self-aware, results-driven and quality-minded. We embrace ownership of all we do.

Create with possibility.
We aim to inspire others with our infectious optimism. We are proactive, adaptive and continuously maintain a learner’s mindset. Our curiosity sees no boundaries or constraints.

Be our word.
Our integrity is unwavering — we can always be counted on. We are authentic and sincere. Asking for help, granting trust and assuming positive intent allow us to be responsible employees and to act in the best interest of Pluralsight.

Seek context with intention.
We strive to live life with the mindset of create or complain, and choose to create. We are inquisitive and data-driven. We are always seeking to relate to those we work with first and engaging second to drive the work we create.

MISSION: “Powering the modern relationship between businesses and customers.”

CORE BELIEF: “Convenience Wins.”

VALUES:

Be a founder.
Not only does everyone here have a chance to make a major impact, we expect them to. Everyone does better work when they can take ownership of what they do.

Murder drama.
What we’ve set out to accomplish is too ambitious and too important to let politics, ego, and passive-aggressive behavior get in the way.

Enjoy the ride.
We take our work seriously, not ourselves. Things move pretty fast here, which is why we make sure to step back, appreciate the moment, and have a good time.

And speaking of Podium, check out this great article they wrote on How Company Values Create Standout Brands and how you can go about creating them if you need ideas.

Conclusion

The good news is that you don’t need to be on the senior executive team & create a mission/values for your entire company to take advantage of the value it brings. I have created values for just my team or functional group. Agree on how you’re going to hold yourselves accountable and what your values are. Then create a plan for how you can design a culture that incentivizes those values. Reward those values. Coach using those values. Evaluate how you are as a team and individually with living them. Let them guide all you do. Experiment. Learn what works and what doesn’t. Pivot. Adjust. But above all be intentional about the culture the process & policies you put in place creates. Pay particular attention to the behavior you incentivize, how you evaluate success, and how you react to difficult circumstances (and especially “failure”). As you do, you will create an intentional culture that all who walk within your walls will be able to feel.

Have something to add? I’d love to keep the conversation going on Linkedin, Twitter, or the comments below. Need a product leader to help shape your organization’s culture or UX Maturity? Check out my portfolio to learn more about my work.

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Jeremy Bird

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People-focused UX leader, designer, mentor, & problem-solver.

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