In my year-in-review post for 2020 I shared publicly for the first time that we formally defined and published our core values. One of those values is Give Back Time. It is a nice sounding phrase, but what does it actually mean for the people that work here? Like all values, its value goes only as deep as the actions we use to demonstrate it.
We frequently hear the term “work-life-balance” thrown around when discussing modern work places and the ideals we strive for at the companies we build. This is often touted as some magical formula where people come to work, spend time working, then go home and do not think about work at all. In reality, this is so rarely the case, especially with remote work and remote-first companies. When your work happens at your dining room table or in your living room, there is no such thing as truly turning off work. It’s a fallacy to believe that work and home can be truly separate when work literally happens in the home. This past year with all of our shared experiences of a global pandemic only makes this reality so much more clear.
Work-life balance is not some magical switch that can be turned on. There is no “work on” and “work off” button or formula and it’s irresponsible to try and persuade remote workers that it’s somehow possible. Instead we need to recognize that work and life happen simultaneously and that we must shape our companies to support and encourage that reality. They are deeply intertwined and finding a true balance between them depends on recognizing that fact.
We list Give Back Time as a core value because we’ve learned that work and life happen congruently.
Life interrupts work
A few months ago, I was in a period of deep focus working on some project when I was suddenly reminded how life gets in the way. My middle daughter was chasing her sister around the house and slipped, splitting her forehead open, requiring an emergency room visit for stitches. A month or two later, the same kid slipped off a stool and hit her head on the floor, resulting in a concussion. Both of these times work was immediately put aside, not matter what the work was or how important.
Last Summer, Kyle and his family licensed their home for foster care and planned to take on a foster child sometime in following months. They were surprised, however, when they were notified that they were being given two toddlers to care for full time just a few days later. This sudden change meant he needed to take immediate paternity leave to help the kids adapt to their new home. He then learned, just weeks later, that he and his wife were going to adopt the biological sibling of their eldest daughter, and the new baby was going to arrive in just a few weeks. Next he learned soon after that it wasn’t going to be one baby, but two! It was twins. Their family went from three to seven in just a few short weeks.
On January 6, 2020, the news of a riot and siege at the US capital building began coming over the wire. Most of our team is based in the US and this immediately impacted our ability to focus. Collectively we all acknowledged that no work was going to get done, so we all did whatever we chose, whether it was being glued to the screen for the latest updates, or walking away from society entirely to find peace in the woods.
Two years ago, Chris and his family were three weeks away from welcoming their third child, and first daughter to the world when a nightmare happened. The baby had stopped moving. Amelia passed away before her family even held her for the first time. What had been planned to be six weeks of loving time with a new born turned into six+ weeks of bereavement and mourning, and returning back to work after that ordeal was anything but smooth and fast. To care for and be with his family, Chris had to walk away from work immediately and completely.
In September, 2020, Ginger was planning to return to work after taking a week off but her plans changed quickly. Strong winds and an abnormally dry season caused wild fires to spread rapidly across the nearby mountain ranges. Internet, power and cell service were completely knocked out and the danger of getting caught by the fire was very real. It was several days before things calmed down and Ginger was able to return to work.
Last week, Portugal, where David lives, closed all schools again in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19, forcing David and his wife to immediately adjust to caring for their kids at home throughout the day. This experience has been similarly experienced sometime this past year by every other member of our team with kids in school.
In April of last year, just a month after starting her employment at Sandhills, Lisa learned that she had cancer that required immediate treatment. The constant hospital visits and the stress of waiting for test results made the prospect of a standard work schedule unfathomable.
Throughout the winter months, those of us with young kids are on occasion blessed with the perfect conditions for sledding down hills or for epic snow ball battles, or just the right moisture content to build snow forts. Those opportunities don’t show up every day, and we take advantage of them when we can. Earlier this week Kyle put work aside to take his kids to the best sledding hill in the city. When the snow is right, I tie a rope to our ATV or our old farm tractor and pull the kids around the prairie for hours. We cannot schedule the weather, so when its perfect for outdoor activities, we re-schedule work instead.
Today, as I am writing this post, Shayne stepped away from the support queue unexpectedly to welcome the newest addition to their herd with the birth of a calf.
Work interrupts life
Work and life are a two way street and sometimes unexpected events cause us to change course in our time away from work.
Yesterday, Drew reached out to the team first thing in the morning to let everyone know he was taking a personal day off. A few hours later it was discovered that a bug in our update system was causing customer’s sites to show a fatal error. The surge of support tickets and impact to their businesses necessitated Drew adjust his time away plans and join his co-workers in fixing the problem, a challenge that lasted late into the night.
In October of last year, my family and I were loading up our car and preparing for a few days away from everything. As I was carrying the bags outside, my phone dinged and I chanced a look at it. The message I received was from our merchant processor telling me that they had decided to close one of our accounts and that all payments were now disabled. It turned out to be an error on their end caused by a support agent unintentionally triggering a “close account and notify” workflow, but the urgency of it immediately adjusted our trip plans.
At the end of Spring, 2020, Spencer’s plans for a few days were thrown out the window when it was discovered that one of our products had been targeted by bad actors, resulting in $47,000 worth of fraud damages and he had to track down how it was happening and come up with a solution.
Years ago, I was helping a customer diagnose an odd bit of behavior they were experiencing and it led me to making a horrible discovery: we had a bug that was causing customer’s credit cards to get attached to someone else’s account, resulting in person A unknowingly paying for person B’s stuff. No matter how long it took, this had to be fixed immediately and it led to Chris working through the night and spending nearly 24 hours straight crafting a solution. Everything at home was immediately pushed aside so we could fix this urgent issue for our customers.
On our first Valentines Day as a married couple, my wife and I were enjoying a quiet evening when I received a message from a friend with an urgent problem. He sent me a screenshot showing the admin area of a high profile site that he had accidentally gained access to. Turns out he had gained complete administrator access to the site due a vulnerability he’d discovered in one of our products. My wife and I’s plans were put on hold so I could immediately call another friend, who himself was enjoying a quiet evening at his local pub, to help me track down and fix the problem before it was exploited by bad actors. We worked through the night to ensure we had it fixed as quickly as possible.
Whatever it is we are doing and whatever it is that interrupts us, it is inevitable that work and life will move along together, frequently crossing the threshold of our minds to consume our focus, even if just momentarily.
The work we do does not define who we are, but the work we do does enable so much of who and what we strive to be. Whether it’s traveling the country in an RV like Alex and his family, enjoying the views from a high-rise apartment for Sean, or living secluded in a rural area for Shayne and myself, our work enables us to pursue the lives we want to live. We say that we work to live, not live to work.
When work and life are so closely intertwined, it is of the utmost important that we shape our work environments to support the fluid movement between work and play, work and non-work.
Giving back time means that we will always strive to better enable our team to take time away from work whenever its needed or desired. Whether it’s five minutes or five weeks, our team deserves that freedom and flexibility.
Giving back time means that we will continually reassess whether a meeting is really needed. Perhaps a simple text update would suffice and give everyone an hour of their time back.
Giving back time means that we will default to not expecting team members to be available at a given time and that we will expect delays in response times, be it hours or days. It means we assume asynchronous, not instant.
Giving back time means that we will enforce everyone taking time off and being completely disconnected from work. We love the work we do, but permitting each other to forget the importance of time away will inevitably lead to resentment and a loss of passion for what we do.
Giving back time means we will do all that we can to protect against burnout for our whole team. We will work with intent and patience. Recognizing when a change needs to happen to help a team member struggling on the brink of burnout is paramount, and making the necessary changes to prevent the team from ever reaching that point again is even more important. Burnout can take months or even years to recover from but it only takes hours and days away to prevent it happening.
When a team member wants a day away to enjoy the sunshine, the answer is yes.
When a team member wants a week away for a fun trip, the answer is yes.
When a team member needs a month off to refocus, rest, and rejuvenate, the answer is yes.
Time is a resource we all share, but no one’s share is equal, so we aim to take up as little as possible so each person can spend their time where and how they wish most and so they can do the best quality of work possible.