Life/Work - Issue 34

"What happens next is that people -- especially women -- burn out and end up leaving."

Life-work balance in Silicon Valley? An oxymoron if ever there was one. And why should that be a surprise? The environment for startups is nothing if not competitive. Most startups are run by bright, young, single white males with few priorities beyond trying to get very rich, very fast. Early on, tunnel vision and turbo-charged adrenaline are cardinal virtues. But what happens when the fierce focus on getting the business off the ground gives way to a need to manage and grow?

That's the rub, and it's starting to create a fair amount of friction in the workplace. The hard-charging SWMs at the top may not be inclined to change their 24-7 priorities, but as their companies get bigger, a growing number of their employees are becoming less and less willing to play by the original rules.

"The problem for these guys is that they're still afraid that there won't be a tomorrow," explains Nancy Ramsey, 59, a futurist, an author, and a leading Silicon Valley consultant. "Fear sustains their drive to keep going 24 hours a day. But it also makes them demand that people work at a level of intensity that simply can't be sustained. What happens next is that people -- especially women -- burn out and end up leaving. It's a very serious issue."

Indeed, 12% of IT jobs in the United States are unfilled. Statistics on employee turnover are hard to come by, but no one disputes that the numbers are very high. More provocative still is the widely accepted view that women (especially women with families) are far more likely than men to opt out.

Take the case of a woman (I'll call her Sally Benjamin) who worked at a small startup that was recently purchased by one of the world's biggest dotcom companies. "I have two children, so I had been working part-time," she explains. "The new company clearly frowned on part-time schedules and on working from home." So Benjamin left -- and is now working part-time at a company that is run by a woman. "Many young men who are running companies today have an air of arrogance, of ignorance," she says. "They don't know anything about school holidays or teacher conferences or pediatrician appointments or sick kids. They don't know much about having a life at all. It's not enough to offer your employees free coffee and stock options. There has to be a human side to working at a company, or else people won't stay."

Caryn Joseph Siegel's career path is an increasingly common one for women in Silicon Valley. A mother of three, she spent 2 years at Applied Materials Inc. "I truly had to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week," explains Siegel, 47. "It wasn't uncommon for me to get home at 7 PM, go back to work at 10 PM, stay there until 2 AM, and then have to be at a meeting at 8 AM. The people at the 8 AM meeting weren't the same ones who were at the previous night's meeting, so they had no idea that I was exhausted." For a long time, it didn't occur to Siegel to question the life that she was living. "It's almost addictive," she says. "Everyone is in the same boat, and people take a kind of macho pride in how hard they work. At my company, sleep wasn't on anyone's agenda."

Six years ago, during a rare day off, it finally dawned on Siegel that her kids were growing up and that she wasn't around enough to share the experience with them. She decided to quit her job at Applied Materials and to set up shop at home, working as an executive- and organizational-development consultant. Her new role helped her discover that her experience was not unique. "There are a number of established companies that now have sabbatical programs," Siegel says, "and I've worked with some of their executives. What's phenomenal is how many of those people resign shortly after they come back from sabbatical. I think it's because once they get away from the addiction of the work, they realize how nuts it was, and they don't want to live that way anymore. I haven't seen any company out here address that issue successfully."

Even at established companies, the concept of balance is a new one. "The whole work-life area is just starting to emerge as an issue," says Kirk Froggatt, 39, Yahoo!'s vice president of human resources. Yahoo! doesn't yet have formal programs that address work-life issues, and it still mostly discourages employees from working at home -- which is ironic, given the company's pioneering role in making virtuality possible.

"Our organization's only about 5 years old, and the average age of our employees is 30," Froggatt explains. "As people hit a new plateau in life, they start to see the need for more flexibility. We're making the transition from an entrepreneurial startup to a more mature company, and that involves teaching managers that people can still be productive even when they're not giving face time." Froggatt acknowledges that he himself would benefit from more flexibility. "I commute to Palo Alto from San Francisco, and, quite honestly, doing so adds two and a half hours to my day. Last week, for the first time, I worked from home. And I got more done in one particular area than I could ever have gotten done at the office."

Debra Engel, 47, left a major Silicon Valley job -- as a senior vice president at 3Com. But her experience has taught her that adults need to take responsibility for their own lives, including their work lives at dotcoms. "It's about choices," she says. "You can't necessarily make millions of dollars and work for the hottest, fastest-growing company and have balance in your life. You want to be a senior vice president of marketing and still be able to go home at 5 PM to your three kids. But that may not be possible. No one can have it all. Husbands and wives may have to take turns being the primary caregiver and the primary breadwinner."

Much of the problem, Engel believes, is that people aren't clear about their priorities. "In the early 1990s, when we had to lay people off at 3Com, we all felt terrible," she says. "We set up clinics to help those employees whom we were letting go to plan for their future. To my surprise, we got more positive feedback than we ever got from anything before. Over and over, I kept hearing, 'If this hadn't happened, I wouldn't have known what was possible.' People get so caught up in what they're doing that they don't take the time to figure out what's really best for their lives."

As vice president of human resources at Calico Commerce Inc., a 5-year-old startup, Lynn Corsiglia, 41, spends her days trying to find better work-life solutions for 310 employees -- and seeking balance in her own life. Calico now has a telecommuting policy, plans to add a second satellite office for people who have long commutes, offers a program that allows employees to take time off to build local Habitat for Humanity houses, and provides paid time off and leaves of absence for employees who need a break. "The population with the highest risk of burnout here tends to be those people who don't have outside obligations," says Corsiglia. "For them, there's nothing to define external boundaries."

Recently, Corsiglia arranged to trade her quarterly bonus for extra vacation time so that she could travel with her older daughter, a high-school junior, to visit colleges. "It's not an easy balance," Corsiglia admits. "With three children [she also has a son in high school and an eight-year-old daughter], I AM constantly asking myself, 'Am I serving my family well and still adding value to the company?' So far, it's worked for me. But I've noticed that women with children are becoming few and far between in companies like mine."

At the heart of the conflict between relentless work demands and the need to have a life outside of work is an assumption that long hours and tunnel vision translate into higher productivity. But that might simply be a flawed conclusion drawn by young men who haven't yet considered the alternatives.

Barbara Johnson, the founding CEO of Streetmail.com, a one-year-old startup with offices in both New York City and North Adams, Massachusetts, has another perspective. "I'm a 48-year-old CEO, but I also have an 8-year-old son," she says. "If there are 24 hours in a day, and I want to get a decent night's sleep, then figuring out how many hours I can work and still be a mom to my son is simple math."

In Johnson's view, efficiency is more relevant than the quantity of time invested. "Speed counts for a whole lot in this business," she says, "but a nonemergency call to someone's home at midnight is disruptive, invasive, and arrogant. It's a way of saying, 'What we're doing here is more important than anything else that you're doing in your life, and you had better be thinking about this job all the time.' I call it 'the myth' -- this false idea that you have to be obsessed and work around the clock in order to make a good business proposition successful. I don't buy that."

In Johnson's experience, the opposite is true. "The biggest mistakes that I've ever made have occurred when I was exhausted," she says. "I'm sitting here right now at 8 AM feeling rested and wonderful, and I can't wait to get going. I wouldn't feel that way or be nearly as clear about the three important things that we need to do today if I hadn't slept well, eaten right, exercised -- and if I didn't feel good about what's going on with my family."

Ultimately, of course, these issues are as relevant to men as they are to women. Dan Miller, 38, is the CEO of BuyingDecisions.com, a business-to-business e-procurement site -- and a father of six kids. "I could just dedicate myself completely to work," he says. "But if I do that, what happens is that my marriage suffers, my kids suffer, and I suffer. I've learned that when you don't have balance in your life, then you end up getting stressed out. You bring that burden and conflict to work with you, and then you can't be as productive. A lot of guys my age just don't get that yet. They think constantly about accumulating wealth, but they don't think much at all about the consequences of what they're doing -- and not doing -- in the rest of their lives. I think about that a lot."

"Get it now -- and enjoy it later" is one of the guiding principles in the dotcom world. Speed is fiercely addictive, and so is the promise of fast money. But if building instant fortunes means treating people like machines -- running them around the clock until they burn out and then bringing in next year's models -- then the best and the brightest are eventually going to begin looking elsewhere. They'll trade paper options for real options. Everything happens faster now -- which means that short-term thinking has long-term consequences sooner. The companies that last will be the ones that hear the wake-up call now and realize, going forward, that their future depends less on the products that they're selling than it does on the people who create those products.

Tony Schwartz (tschwartz@fastcompany.com) is a writer and speaker who leads workshops on life-work balance.

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