It seems that the topic of work-life balance is quite urgent in Japan today.
Corporate work policies such as “go home by 5PM” are being widely tested and
greatly debated. Given recent incidents of “karoshi” and a continued culture of
accountability based on “facetime,” it might appear that this issue is one peculiar
to Japanese business culture.
The reality is we have a similar and ongoing debate in Silicon Valley. Namely,
whether employees who sign on with early stage start-ups or take large
compensation packages from the more aggressive big tech companies should be
expected to prioritize their work commitments over all else, including even
personal health and family units.
The pressure is particularly high for start-up entrepreneurs to maximize every
resource they can in their effort to beat the 100 to 1 odds and achieve outsized
financial results as a successful venture-backed business. For managers, time
and human capital often seem the easiest lever to optimize in the short term;
e.g., get fewer team members to work faster. Unfortunately, when early stage
start-up teams get burned out in the initial relay race, they fail to endure through
to what is inevitably a marathon race.
In fact, the first dot com era was characterized by excessive capital raised and
spent on large teams with “high burn” as well as a “bro culture” that romanticized
heroic work of single male engineers who could be socialized and baited with
Redbull and pizza into marathon coding sessions. “Whatever it takes” was a
familiar motto and sleeping cots were frequently used during development.
Thankfully “coding all nighters” are no longer a badge of honor for most
companies. And yet the dominance of the massive tech goliaths Amazon,
Google, Apple and Facebook and the long shadows they cast on most market
segments mean that managers are still pressured to stretch to achieve even
greater milestones in even shorter periods. Inevitably, they sign up for harder and
harder goals and to push their teams to deliver against them.
The good news today is that we have endless evidence that volume of hours do
not equate to effectiveness or results. Moreover sleep deprivation, lack of
physical activity, poor diet and mental anxiety, greatly impair creative problem-
solving, accuracy and overall productivity. In order to effectively leverage
individual talent potential and team strengths, managers now know at least
intellectually that the healthier the employee, the better their results over the
long-term. To this end, technology has been a terrific help by effectively blurring
lines between “work” and “home” and empowering individuals to optimize for their
own in-office, out of office engagement.
The challenge for leaders everywhere today is how best to build a culture that
safeguards the healthy productivity of their human capital, while still serving as
effective stewards of financial capital and stakeholder interests. With our
decades as operators managing and observing large distributed teams across
the U.S, Europe and Japan, we have some practical suggestions for building
cultures that are efficient and effective, but also sustainable.
First and most importantly, recognize publicly and in your stated values that your
most valuable resource is your talent. Implicit in this communication is that the
cost to solve for “burn out” or replace “churn out” is much higher than investing in
a work culture that is solving for employee success, satisfaction and long-term
Secondarily, help managers to “see” the “whole person” and not just their “work
persona.” Doing so they will create an environment of empathy and collegial
support. For example, we advocate company policies that require time off or
work-from- home flexibility during important life events like child birth, or family
illnesses, to help ensure mental and physical health. The long-term benefits of
these benefit policies are increased productivity and company loyalty.
Third, demonstrate appreciation regularly. This is perhaps one of the most
effective management practices to model that can also be the least time
consuming and inexpensive. Taking time to publicly recognize high-performing
talent from all ranks regularly, especially those who are innovating on work
culture, helps build an organic culture of smart entrepreneurialism. Bestowing
thoughtful tokens of appreciation, including time off, at the right moment to a
supportive colleague or direct report can be better received than monetary
Finally, empower individuals to optimize their own results by changing how they
work. Some examples:
— Adopt company policy that non-critical interactions with internal teams,
customers and partners can be done via their channel of choice, whether
it is video conferencing or slack channels. Discourage the preparation,
travel and pressure of formal in-person meetings except for only important
introductory sessions, critical negotiations or celebration.
— Clearly define authority and decision-making so they can cut out
organizational inefficiencies and avoid adding to a build up of slow,
— Encourage faster decision-making based on thoughtful hypothesis and
data testing, and drop legacy expectations for unnecessarily
comprehensive or formal research and analysis.
We’d love to hear more ideas on how to work smarter…as I type at 1:30AM I
recognize we all have a lot of room for learning!