On work-life balance

Posted on 2021-10-24 byVlad Călin

Reading time of 1 minutes

More and more, you hear about companies offering "good life-work balance" as a job perk, which is weird. Work-life balance has nothing to do with a job description. You can't give work-life balance to somebody. As a company, you can only put the needs of the employee first and hope they know how to compartmentalize.

Too often I've seen people working themselves to exhaustion in the name of career progression. A behavior I deem self-destructible for both one's health and, counter-intuitively, career.

What does it mean to "have" work-life balance?

First, let's talk about the concept itself. What is it? There is a lot of fuss going on about what it means. Some say that it means having free time for hobbies, some say being able to work from home, other say it's about not having to deal with work-related stuff outside work hours.

While some of these are fair, I consider having a work-life balance is more than that. It is about being able to focus on one's own life in parallel to work. It's about having a job that promotes an equilibrium between the work related activities and one's own life, be it hobbies, family, relaxation, traveling, etc.

More than often, the two worlds intermingle. Situations where something personal comes up arises during work hours. Sometimes a service breaks outside work hours. It happens, and it is important to be able to participate in all.

But not only that. It doesn't matter how much free time you have, it in some few hours of work you are consuming all the energy you have available for that day. No matter how many snacks or other perks you have at your workplace, if at the end of the day you have no energy left to enjoy other aspects of life.

So, from my point of view, having a good work-life balance means:

  • doing important work that matters
  • feeling heard, and knowing the company you are working for cares about your personal needs and understands that you don't live to work.
  • offering you resources and opportunities to grow professionally and personally
  • respecting individual time and time off (no expectations to respond or intervene during off-hours, unless explicitly said in the work contract, eg. for on-call engineers).
  • good work collective
  • working in a result focused manner (it's not a secret that more hours works does not work higher productivity)

But maintaining a healthy life-work balance is also the responsibility of the employee, because the company can not shut down your computer or force you to take breaks and take care of yourself. I've seen many people overworking themselves in the name of career advancement, but long-term, that's a destructive thing to do. Once you start experiencing burn-out symptoms, it's already too late. Your productivity will plunge and the overall results of your work will start to suffer.

How can you achieve a healthy work-life balance?

It's not easy, and requires collaboration from both ends: the employee and the employer. There are some specific things that can be done to achieve that to some degree:

For employers:

  • make sure you plan ahead and expose the business considerations to your employees. This way, they will have context on the why and they will know their work matters.
  • have a technical manager between the developers and the upper management. A decent technical manager will be able to facilitate communication between the business and the technical sides, and will be able to more objectively push for or against certain decisions that might or not be important (eg. integrating a new technical tool, having some dedicated time for catching up with the existing technical debt, things that the business side would not understand the necessity of).
  • have a dedicated learning budget and allow the engineers to experiment with new tech and techniques (within reason). Even though old and boring tech goes a long way, it doesn't go a long way in attracting and retaining the best tech talent.
  • enforce clear policies and play no favorites. I've seen companies that let their top talent run rampant with assholery and destroy the other team-mates' morale.
  • measure and adjust output. There's only so much code a person can write in a work day. Not overworking your employees and having reasonable expectations will prevent their stress levels to go off the charts.
  • allow unlimited work from home (although with the pandemic, work from home becomes more and more the norm). If you are forcing people to come to office, you are doing it wrong. Traffic sucks, situations when you need to remain at home arise, and knowing you can just do your work from home without worrying about how many days of work-from-home you have left, will certainly help.
  • encourage asynchronous communication whenever possible. People writing each other and responding on their own schedule will make things go faster, instead of trying to synchronize X people on the same time slot to talk in a video call.
  • invest in better developer tooling to allow your developers to go fast. Nobody likes doing the same repetitive things over and over again when they need to start/stop their development environment, and it is a common source of wasted time and creation of frustrations.

For employees:

  • take breaks. Good companies and managers know that deep productive work accounts for maybe 50% of the work day (~4 hours per day). If you find yourself going around in circles with a problem, step back and take a break.
  • work from home when you feel comfortable, but be careful to not isolate yourself. People working from home tend to reduce the interaction with their colleagues to a minimum, and then work feels more isolated. Feeling like working in a team will boost your productivity and morale.
  • have a routine. This is a very powerful thing that will allow you to boost your productivity a lot. Having set time slots for certain tasks will allow you to have a slot of time dedicated for deep focused work (those ~4 hours I mentioned earlier). Make sure you get those in your schedule and honor them.
  • dedicate some work time to learning/reading/exploring new tech. It will keep you engaged and will grow your skill set.
  • ask questions about why certain things get done. If you work under a healthy management, all these questions will get answered and you will gain more clarity on why you are doing what you are doing. Being aware of how the business works will allow you to contribute more.
  • speak up when expectations are unrealistic.

Conclusion

Employee's work-life balance is a hard thing to achieve and requires effort from both sides (the employee and the employer).

Failing to have a healthy relationship with work will more than often lead to burnout, starting to optimize for the wrong things (such as only money, without getting into considerations all the other aspects of work) and starting to dread working. Having an unhealthy relationship with the workspace will spill over on your personal lives, and will affect everything: personal relationships, hobbies, even your health.

As an employee, make sure you are valued and the company takes care of you, and as an employer, make sure you put the employee's needs first. Healthy and positive employees will do wonders for a business.