A University of Southern California researcher, Alexandra Michel, recently reported on the disastrous effects of the highly stressful work environment of investment banking, citing insomnia, alcoholism, heart palpitations, eating disorders, and explosive tempers among the health hazards of the job. These toxic working habits are not sustainable for the individual or the company. Nor, evidently, do they produce good business practices.
The poster child of bad corporate culture, banks may be the worst culprit, but they’re not the only ones fostering negative working environments. A study by Gallup-Healthways found that nearly one third of all Americans, across all ages and income levels, were unhappy or unmotivated by their careers. That’s no way for us to work, or to live.
There’s a noticeable shift in what people value most in their careers. The New York Times studied key words in a sample of commencement speeches last year. The words "world" and "love" showed up far more often than "money" and "success."
Is the old adage that there’s more to life than money finally sinking in? It seems there’s a nostalgic desire to return to the good old days, where people worked 9 to 5, never on weekends, consumed less, and had ample time for their families and friends.
Because that’s not going to happen, HR departments are considering dozens of ways to make their people happier and healthier, shorter working weeks, unlimited vacation days, uplifting working environments, and new policies to address core needs.
These are worthy ideas, but alone they fail to address some crucial transformations in the world around us. Technology has irrevocably changed the way we conduct business and live our lives. The 9 to 5 is dead and work is ubiquitous. We need to create new models accordingly.
When I founded Betterment, a better way to save and invest for what’s most important in life, my mission was to reinvent an old, broken process for the 21st century. The goal encompasses all aspects of the company: from the product itself and how we interact with customers, to the values with which we conduct business, and—most importantly—to how we nurture our team.
Startups are notorious for long hours, hard work, and high pressure. Technology means we’re permanently plugged in. Encouraging shorter hours sounds great in theory, but in reality it would likely just look good on paper. Everyone would still work all the time.
In designing a working environment that would bring out the best qualities in our team, we had to come up with a model to satisfy the demands of a startup while balancing the needs of individuals.
The No-Hour Workweek means our team is constantly in contact. Two-thirds of our team takes customer calls on weekends, and our development team frequently works into the wee hours of the morning. We monitor social media, catch up on emails, and work on projects at night and over the weekends, and we’re constantly attending industry and networking events.
The No-Hour Workweek also means that our team members can come in at 8, 12, or not at all if they’d prefer to work remotely. It means they can work at the times they’re most productive, make family gatherings, attend to personal commitments, leave early for travel or yoga or drinks with friends.
We have tremendous respect for weekends and personal time. To balance the inevitable overtime, we take away traditional time restrictions. Our people get to lead the lives they want and be treated as the adults they are, and we get a kick-ass team that loves to work.
To be successful and to prevent it from turning into the All-Hour Workweek, the No-Hour Workweek needs a framework in place:
- Respect: Being connected 24/7 does not mean you place unrealistic demands on each other. If something is urgent, we treat it as such, but we don’t expect an immediate response on every item. We’ve hired people that respect each other and work as a team. They understand how to balance the priorities of our business with the various commitments and needs of their colleagues. Without this understanding, the No-Hour Workweek would spiral out of control.
- Focus: In a startup there is always more to do. Each individual needs to understand his or her immediate priorities and what we expect of them. With our guidance, they come up with specific, measurable goals to be reviewed every three months (and more frequently when necessary). It provides autonomy in the role and helps us work towards a common goal.
- Environment: It’s still important to foster team morale. Friday team lunches, regular happy hours, ping-pong tournaments, and a choice of workstations (couch, kitchen, nap-room, or desk), create a positive and cohesive work environment for our team. Despite all their options, our full team is in the office 95% of the time because they enjoy working here.
- Leisure time: The expectation to switch on whenever needed means encouraging employees to switch off just as frequently. We are a team of entrepreneurs, and we all know the best ideas are inspired away from the desk. Time is finite; energy is not. Rest and recuperation are the best way to boost energy levels. More energy means more creativity. More creativity means better work. And that’s a good outcome for everyone, and the world.