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Balancing work, family life means putting on your 'track shoes'

Published: Thursday, Oct. 11 2012 10:53 a.m. MDT

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As a young man I worked for my father in the warehouse of his industrial supply business and drove the delivery truck. I pulled orders, swept the floors and delivered supplies all over the city. I learned a lot from my Dad. He taught me there was a right way and a wrong way to do everything. He taught me to take pride in my work, my personal appearance and the appearance of our delivery truck. “For most of our customers, you’ll be the only person they see from our company on a regular basis,” he would say. He taught me there were no shortcuts to doing a good job. I’ve tried to remember that over the last 30 or so years.

Amongst all the good things I learned at his elbow, looking back with the hindsight of my own experiences, he did get something wrong.

One day as the clock was winding down and we were sitting in his office making a list of what he expected me to get done the next day, one of his employees was headed out the door. “Do you have your track shoes on?” he said. “You’re in an awful big hurry to get out the door.”

He didn’t like it when people left right at 5 p.m.

My Dad had a very strong work ethic. He showed up earlier than anyone else and was the last person to leave every night. His measure for a good employee was the time they spent on the job — not what they accomplished at the end of the day. He didn’t take vacation days, so he didn’t think his employees needed to (even though we all did — he just complained about it). I wish I could say he let his hair down a little on Saturday, but I can’t. He would still go down to the shop and putter around until lunchtime.

His business was his life. Most small-business owners are like that.

Years later, I was trying to keep a small business going myself. I would often get a call from my wife around midnight asking if I would be home that night or if I needed her to bring me a sleeping bag. I likely got that from watching my Dad — and an intense fear of failure. Neither served me well in those days.

A friend of mine sent me an article written by Robert Pozen for the Harvard Business Review. I don’t know if he was trying to tell me something, but a recent study led by professor Kimberly Elsbach found, after interviews with 39 corporate managers, that they all generally felt like employees who spent more time in the office were more dedicated, more hardworking and more responsible.

I have to admit, over the course of my career, my father has proven to be in good company.

I’ve had many bosses, even recently, who mistakenly believe that putting in a lot of time is what makes a good employee. I believe they are wrong.

“At first glance, this seems perfectly reasonable,” writes Pozen. “Hourly wages and the classic 40-hour work week have trained us to measure our labor by the number of hours we log. However, this mindset is dead wrong when applied to today’s professionals. The value of lawyers, consultants, and analysts isn’t the time they spend, but the value they create through their knowledge.”

“Even worse,” he says, “when managers judge their employees’ work by the time they spend at the office, they impede the development of productive habits. By focusing on hours worked instead of results produced, they let professionals avoid answering the most critical question: ‘Am I currently using my time in the best possible way?’ As a result, professionals often use their time inefficiently.”

Can I hear you say, “Amen?”

Last summer I was speaking at an industry event in Tokyo with a senior project leader who happened to be one of our customers. He worked for an international company with offices in Japan. He was an American from New York who had been in Tokyo for several years. I asked him about the “Japanese Salary Man,” the guy who practically lived at the office. He suggested that when he first got there he noticed that everyone stayed until late in the evening, but they spent most of the day unproductively. They really got to work around 2 or 3 p.m. and would work through dinner and into the night. He said, “This was very frustrating to me. I didn’t want to be there all night.”

He approached his teams and told them he didn’t expect them to work late every night. “Of course there will be times when it is needed,” he said. “But I would prefer that you go home at 5 p.m. every day and be with your families, play golf or do whatever you do when you aren’t at the office. Give me your best effort every day. That’s all I want. Then go home.”

He told me the culture change took a while to sink in, but now his teams get a lot of work done every day — and they seldom stay into the evening. He gets more out of his team by enabling them to work less than he did when they were expected to devote every living minute to the job.

Hmm.

Earlier this year Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, confessed on Mashable that she goes home every night at 5:30 p.m. I’ve written about Ms. Sandberg before, but I think it bears repeating here. “I walk out of this office every day at 5:30 so I’m home for dinner with my kids at 6, and interestingly, I’ve been doing that since I had kids,” she says. “I did that when I was at Google. I did that here, and I would say it’s not until the last year, two years that I’m brave enough to talk about it publicly. Now I certainly wouldn’t lie, but I wasn’t running around giving speeches on it.”

She talks about sending an email or two before she went to bed and getting up early to send a few more to make up for “ducking out at 5:30.” I’m sure there were colleagues who would watch her leave and think, “Have you got your track shoes on?”

Once in San Francisco, while visiting one of the hot Silicon Valley start-ups (around 5:30 p.m.) with my boss and his boss, we couldn’t help but notice the floor was filled with developers hard at work. One manager said, “Have you ever seen a team like this in our company at 5:30? By that time they’ve almost all left for the day.” He added sarcastically, “We sure don’t have to talk about work/life balance in our organization.”

I could hear my father and feel my face get hot.

I’m not sure if they really believed it or not, but the discussion turned to work ethic and what a big difference there was between Silicon Valley and the tech scene in Utah (basically suggesting that Utah workers were lazy and didn’t work as hard as Silicon Valley workers). I don’t think they meant to be as disrespectful as they sounded — but it came across that way to me.

Once our meeting started, one of them commented on the devotion of the team. To which our host responded, “Yeah, these guys usually work late. Of course they don’t come to work until about 10 and we cater a dinner for them around 7. They usually stay until after dinner.”

I felt vindicated.

I’ll admit, there have been times (my wife would claim there still are) when I have been an addict. I would roll into the garage around 1 a.m. and crawl into bed for a less-than-friendly reception. I haven’t done that in recent memory.

Of course there are times when extra effort is needed, but those times should be the exception rather than the rule. I usually try to be in the office a little early to knock out a couple of projects before everyone else shows up and it gets busy, but a consistent need for heroic efforts could indicate that your project or your organization is in trouble. What’s more, I’ve noticed that after nine or 10 hours on the job, it’s hard to be creative. You make more mistakes. And you’re much less productive. No matter how incredible you personally believe your stamina to be.

“While individual employees can change their own habits,” writes Pozen, “organizations need strong-willed leaders to make more radical changes. These leaders must thoroughly reform their organization’s implicit and explicit reward structure. Are employees praised for coming in on Saturday — even if only to finish work that could have been completed during regular hours? Are employees suspicious of others who leave early for the day in order to watch their child’s Little League games?”

The way to succeed isn’t to get more hours out of your employees or your team. The way to succeed is to leverage their smarts and accomplishments. Of course determining the way to best measure the performance of employees based upon accomplishment is more challenging than measuring hours on the job, but it's well worth the effort.

In the meantime, do you have your track shoes on?

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