Oct 27 2011

More Than 1/3 of Your Life

More Than 1/3 of Your Life

When I was a kid, so my parents tell me, I used to watch a lot of TV. For some reason, all those episodes of Gilligan’s Island and Dallas still have a place in my brain, right next to lyrics from 70s and 80s songs and movies. I also tend to remember TV commercials, which are even more useless (not that JR Ewing or Ferris Beuller had all that many valuable life lessons to impart).  Anyway, I remember some commercial for some local mattress company which started out with the booming voiceover, “You spend 1/3 of your life in bed — why not enjoy that time and be as comfortable as you can be?”

Well, we humans frequently spend MORE than 1/3 of our lives at work. Why shouldn’t we have that same philosophy about that time as the mattress salesman from 1970s professed for sleep?  Another one in my series of posts about Return Path’s 13 core values is this one:

We realize that people work to live, not live to work

There are probably a few other of our core values that I could write about with this same setup, but this one is probably the mother of them all.  I even wrote about it several years ago here.  Work is for most people the thing that finances the rest of their life — their hopes and dreams, their families’ well-being, their daily lives, and ultimately, their retirement. I think many people wouldn’t work, at least in most for-profit jobs as we know them, if they didn’t have to. And that’s where this value comes from.

How does this value play out?

First, we are respectful of people’s time in the daily thick of things.  We know that society has changed and that work and personal time bleed into each other much more regularly now than they used to.  As I’ve written about before in this series of posts, we have an “open” vacation policy that allows employees to take as much time off a they can, as long as they get their jobs done well. One of the real benefits of this, besides allowing for more or longer vacations, is that employees can take slices of time off, or can work from home, as life demands things of them like dentist appointments and parent-teacher conferences, without having to count the hours or minutes.

Second, an important part of our management training is to make sure that managers get to know their people as people.  This doesn’t mean being buddies or pals, though that happens from time to time and is fine. Understanding everything that makes a person tick, from their hobbies, to their kids, to their pets or pet causes, really helps a manager more effectively manage an employee as well as develop them. And as Steven Covey says, it’s important to “sharpen the saw,” which a good manager can help an employee do ONLY if they are in tune to some extent at a personal or non-work level.

Finally, our sabbatical policy — beyond our fairly generous and flexible vacation policy — ensures that every handful of years, employees really can go off and enjoy life. We’ve had employees buy around-the-world plane tickets and show up at JFK with a backpack. We’ve had people take their families off for a month in an exotic tropical destination. We even had one employee spend a sabbatical in a coffee shop learning how to write code (names masked to protect the innocent).

The challenge with this value is that not everyone treats the flexibility and freedom with the same level of respect, and occasionally we do have to remind someone that flexibility and freedom don’t mean that work can be left undone or delayed.  We believe that by providing the flexibility, people will work even harder, and certainly more efficiently, to still go above and beyond in terms of high performance execution.

In my CEO fantasty world, I’d like to think that given the choice, most of our employees would still come to work at Return Path if they didn’t have to for financial reasons, but I’m not that naive. Hopefully by setting the tone that we understand people work to live and not vice versa, we are allowing people to enjoy life as much as possible, even in the 1/3+ of it that’s spent working.