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What Does it Mean to Work “Sustainably?”

Is this the right work/life balance for you?

Photo Credit: Giorgio Montersino via Compfight cc

One of my favorite principles of agile development is #8:¬†Agile processes promote sustainable development. It’s one of those statements that is all at once completely obvious, and yet incredibly difficult to follow. For every business that promises a “work/life balance,” there is a project that begs the exception, and requires employees to work late “just this once.” I have no problem with the exception. What I see as problematic is that often “just this once” turns into “just once a week” and then evolves into “passionate, dedicated people.”

Here’s the big secret. “We’re looking for passionate, dedicated people” is code for “don’t expect to get home for dinner.”

Unfortunately, I (and many others like me) LOVE working with passionate, dedicated people. So we make the choice. We prioritize work because we love the work we do, we relish the “AHA!” ¬†moments and choose companies where our coworkers are equally dedicated, equally inspired, and equally passionate. We work a “flexible” schedule, generally speaking from 9:30 until 6, but sometimes stretching to 7 or 8 or 10pm.

To be clear: this is a choice, and I’m not complaining. No one is forcing me to keep this schedule. But it sets an expectation that we are able to accomplish in a “40 hour” week what is actually taking us closer to 50 hours. It decreases the likelihood that anyone will stay with the company once they get into long-term relationships or if they choose to have families, which in turn increases the likelihood of employee turnover.

In other words, it is not sustainable.

How can we create teams that won’t disintegrate if our colleagues want to build lives that include partners, hobbies, friends, and families?

  1. Encourage employees to know their own limits. Everyone has a different limit, and working longer hours shouldn’t be a competition. Some people don’t want lives outside of work, where others already have them. It needs to be an individual choice.
  2. Respect employees’ limits. This is incredibly difficult; it means that if Joe has said he can’t stay past 5:30pm, we don’t hand his work off to Jane instead. Obviously this doesn’t mean that if Joe is slacking off he’s allowed to hold up the team, but it does mean that if you value Joe as an employee, you’ll create a project schedule that doesn’t expect him to stay late on a regular basis.
  3. Identify the difference between people working a lot, and people accomplishing a lot.
  4. Set expectations through actions, not words. If there are meetings throughout the day, the team will learn to do work in the evenings. If you want a sustainable team, give them time during the work day to actually work.
  5. Minimize meetings. “Let’s schedule some time to chat about that” is the default response for many people during a scrum or check in, which leads to 30 minute meetings for quick questions. I’ve found that replacing “let’s schedule” with “let’s take 5 minutes after scrum to chat” is often more productive and encourages team members to think through issues ahead of time – instead of waiting to re-re-re-review work during meetings.
  6. Hire employees who share your company’s view of “sustainable.” There’s nothing wrong, per se, with a team of late-night workers who prefer 80 hour workweeks. But if that’s the type of company you want, make that clear during interviews. What’s the point of hiring someone great if she’s going to be miserable due to the team’s schedule and expectations?

There’s been a lot written on work/life balance (and work/life mashup) in general. It’s time to get specific: what’s the right balance for your employees? For your coworkers? For your team? For you?

Marli Mesibov

Marli is a content strategist with a passion for the user experience. Her work spans websites, web applications, and mobile. Marli is the VP of Content Strategy at the UX design agency Mad*Pow, and she serves as managing editor at UX Booth, a publication about all areas of user experience. Marli is a frequent conference speaker, and has spoken at conferences including Content Strategy Forum and LavaCon. She can also be found on Twitter, where she shares thoughts on content strategy, literature, and Muppets.

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