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Being Explicit About a Work-Life Balance

Health / Stress / Burn-Out

3 February, 2021

Andrew Schamp, Software Engineer at Dropbox, shares how he unintentionally disrupted his team’s work-life balance culture and what he did to repair it.

Problem

I was working on a project with a fairly tight deadline. We had a lot of work to do, and I was worried about hitting the deadlines. It was still in the early phases of the project where a lot of work was blocked on me, and that always carries some amount of frustration. I was feeling under the gun to get things done, and I wanted to increase the chances for our team to be successful and get those things unblocked so everyone could go do their work.
 

I put in extra time in the evenings and weekends to unblock those things. As a team, we tried to have a strict expectation that your workweek is your workweek, but your free time is your free time, and we were trying to have a very explicit work-life balance culture. In this case, I wanted to make an exception to get the work done.
 

Actions taken

I wasn't very thoughtful about how I approached this irregular work, and I would send emails and messages, make source code changes or send peer reviews and off-hours. My team could see these things were coming in the evening and at the weekend, and they saw that I was putting in extra time to get this thing done. The problem was that they felt they had to do the same. We never talked about it, but they observed my behavior and emulated it even though it was against the culture that I was explicitly trying to propagate on my team. They started putting in extra time trying to get their things done, and soon after, they started feeling anxious and worried about the schedule.
 

I didn't realize that this was happening because I was busy with my own things. Halfway through the project, I could sense that frustration was building and the team was nearing burnout. After talking with my team and the manager, I figured out what people were getting frustrated and upset about. They saw me putting in extra time, and they also felt they had to -- not just to help the project be successful but because they wanted to be seen as making a solid contribution to the team and not slacking off.
 

Once I realized what was going on, I had to go back to my team and apologize for working the extra time and explain why I was doing it. I had to strongly emphasize how I didn't expect anyone else to follow my example and apologized to them for not paying attention to the effect that would cause. I also had to reset the expectations with the team and highlight that the schedule was not the most important thing, and if we all burn out now to hit this deadline, we will pay for it afterward.
 

After that, it took some time to get the team to believe that it wasn't just something I said. It took some time to go back to normal, and for a while, there was still residual anxiety about the schedule. People had gotten into the habit of putting in extra time or trying to keep people unblocked, so we had to be paying close attention to that and clamp down on it.
 

I also had to be careful about when I was doing extra work. If I did my work on the weekend, I would save my messages, commits and my peer review requests for Monday morning, to disguise the work I was doing on the weekend. Even if I felt like I had to make an exception to my own rule for myself, I had to be very careful about how that was messaged and perceived by the team.
 

When I had to make exceptions for myself, I had to be very explicit with the team about it. “I'm going to put in time over the weekend to be able to flex for something in the middle of the week” or “In order to unblock X, Y, and Z, I need to do this now.” Being more explicit about when we did those things helped the team know this is exceptional and not normal.
 

It turned out that we didn't hit our date, but we were fine with that as a team. We did our best, and I didn’t want anyone to regret maintaining the balance we did, or feeling like if we had only put in the extra time we would have been successful. By being able to avoid stress and burnout, we managed to maintain a much more sustainable level of effort for the rest of the project, which paid off.
 

Lessons learned

  • People tend to closely observe other people’s behavior -- a lot more than you may think they do -- so be sensitive to what message your behavior might be sending. Don't just send the email to unblock somebody; think about how the audiences will receive it in terms of their work expectations. Be careful about how work-life balance is perceived, and be explicit with the team if you need to make an exception. Help people be aware of how their work relates to the work-life balance so that they don't have to guess or get a skewed view of what that is.
  • We don't talk about a work-life balance as much as we should, and our perceptions of it often get formed by the things we see people do without having a clear picture of what the balance means for them. I have someone on my team who starts at noon and works until like eight or nine at night. They're always sending messages late, but we know that this person doesn't start till late, and it doesn't seem out of balance for that person. Likewise, I start very early, and people know if they see me sending emails at 6:30, that's just me starting my day. Have the conversations and set expectations with your team to avoid inadvertent misunderstandings.

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