On a recent visit to Seattle, I was talking to a small-business owner about entrepreneurial challenges. What surfaced was a mixture of HR woes and resource nightmares. Not enough good talent, too much turnover, no time to create a strong training program. The list goes on. There was one topic that seemed to dominate the conversation, however: work-life balance.
Increasingly, young workers want to maintain a personal life that is sacred, unquestionably separate from work. No more toil-to-the-bone weeks; work should start no sooner than 8 a.m. and end no later than 5 p.m.
This is no revelation in modern media; big names like The New York Times have written about this trend ad nauseam as Millennials and Gen Z-ers enter the workforce.
The reaction from industry vets, however, has often been dismissive. Some of the boundary-setting upstarts have even been called lazy.
But those upstarts were on to something.
The career progression for many industry newbies is well-known: low salary and low expectations to start, with jobs typically involving little more than rote repetition of a task; then slow progression up the ladder of responsibility with, all else being equal, a commensurate increase in pay.
At some point, however, you hit a threshold -- a moment when the salary suggests you owe more of your week to your employer than 40 hours.
How much you're expected to work is different for every industry, but the job creep is real; a once 40-hour-a-week gig that was manageable becomes 50 hours, 60 hours, 70 hours. One request to close out a special project becomes several requests for several projects. There isn't an end.
But there should be.
Above all else, let's be clear about compensation: A salary should be based on past work performance, experience, skills, training, and education. It is not an unspoken agreement between employer and employee that employees will work any hours required by the employer.
That seems more than reasonable from an employee perspective, but I can see plenty of CEOs and startup managers tossing that logic out the window in favor of profit and improving competition.
Keep a lean bottom line -- by asking more of your existing employees and not hiring new ones -- and you make more money, which allows you to grow. Keep people working more than competitors and you end up light years ahead of them, allowing you to increase consumer interest and market share.
But that all falls apart very quickly when impossibly high demand leads to turnover. As studies have noted, managers who demand too much of their employees, coupled with salaries that look anemic when work stretches into 50-hour-plus workweeks, account for most employee turnover. And then, employers spend as much as three-quarters of each lost employee's salary hiring and training someone new. All the while, productivity is lost and innovation is stunted.
Take this a step further, and you have burned-out, jaded, frustrated employees who don't have the bandwidth to engage in critical civic activities, community-building events, or enriching personal activities that improve our society -- and support their work.
The good news is: Young companies can make a strategic shift now and set boundaries. Any single employee can choose to work more than the expected 40 or 45 hours if they desire, but leaders should make clear that it's not required -- and that work-life balance is key to individual and communal well-being. This should be stated clearly and modeled by leaders at the highest levels of business.
What are the benefits? Improved physical health -- leading to fewer sick days; increased focus, leading to higher-quality work; sound mental health, allowing for regular engagement and innovation; and improved emotional health, ensuring better relationships with co-workers.
That's a hard litany of positives to argue against.