How to think about work-life balance

Remote Work & Culture

With remote work, we’ve got a chance to eliminate most of that for good & create a work-life balance that puts a priority on living well. This is how to create a great work-life balance in a remote company.

Matt Redler
September 4, 2021

Alarm. Snooze. Alarm again. Coffee, then a 30-minute commute. Busy work. Meetings. Real work, for a little. Then another meeting. Is it 5 PM already? Now you’re heading home.

It’s been the reality of many people––even those working at trendy startups––for years now: The 8-hour workday, lots of meetings, and long commutes. And with remote work, we’ve got a chance to eliminate most of that for good and create a work-life balance that puts a priority on living well. 

But shifting to remote work is hard: Almost half of remote workers say they have trouble disconnecting from work at home––making that shift from working to living. And remote work-life balances aren’t reaching their potential for two reasons:

  • People aren’t fully shifting their approach to work.
  • Companies are treating remote work like a digital version of the office.

This is how to create a great work-life balance in a remote company.

Our ideas about work have become outdated 

Most people are conditioned to traditional work: The type where people spend more than 60% of their time on busy work and in meetings. And it goes viral, of course, when news comes out that people are working two full-time jobs remotely––and keeping it a secret from each employer.

It shouldn’t be a surprise: A well-run remote organization lets people cut out busy work, unnecessary meetings, and commute times. Those three factors combined account for more than 70% of the day in a traditional workplace. 

To have a well-run remote organization, though, we need to reframe the way we think about work. There are a few basic pillars that can inform the way you approach it:

  • Work boils down to individual tasks––and accomplishing those tasks as well and efficiently as possible. 
  • Good employers let their employees do what they’re talented at: They minimize everything else.
  • Successful companies constantly try to minimize things that waste time. That weekly all-hands meeting, for example, might not be the best use of everyone’s time. Or it might––it’s up to you. This is why asynchronous communication is essential.

Companies that run according to the three pillars above will have happier employees than those that don’t. Spoiler alert: If you’re in a company where writers and designers are spending hours every single day in Zoom calls, you’re probably not in the “happiest employees” camp.

How to create a great work-life balance

If you have employees, this section will teach you how to create the right conditions to give your employees a happy balance between work and life. If you’re an employee, these are green flags to look for in remote employers.

1. Personally check in with your team––and do it frequently

Mentioning something in an all-hands meaning is nice, but it doesn’t imply urgency for individuals. Instead, message team members personally and ask them about:

  • Vacation plans
  • Work-life balance
  • Stress levels
  • What’s been bugging them
  • What they like 

A great time to do this is after a project’s been finished or before another one starts. This can be a task for the CEO with small teams; otherwise, HR and project managers are great for this.

2. Require employees to take time off (kind of)

Unlimited PTO sounds nice, but it’s rarely used as intended. To improve, recommend specific guidelines for employees and create a culture where it’s weird not to take vacations and breaks. 

And, look: You can’t force Todd from engineering to take a vacation to Capri. But if you’re creating a culture of healthy vacations and senior people in the company model this behavior, there’s a better chance he’ll feel comfortable doing it.

3. It’s life-work balance, not the other way around

Make sure employees know that life comes before work. The world will keep spinning if they take off for a bit. This is more important than you think: More than half of employees in the United States feel uncomfortable with taking time off for mental health.

And because people feel uncomfortable about the topic of vacation and time off, it’s not easy to know when they really need it. So follow the two steps above to make sure your team feels comfortable and understands expectations.

4. Output > input

During the pandemic, companies began to install tracking software to monitor their employees’ every move throughout the day. This is a terrible idea: While the intentions are logical, helicopter parenting your remote employees only exacerbates the problems with remote work––it doesn’t solve them. It’s not productive for your employees, and it’s not productive for you.

The solution? Successful remote teams optimize for output over input. 

  • Instead of tracking specific hours and employee actions, a good remote strategy sets reasonable output expectations and measures productivity that way.
  • This is important because of the way goals work: Hours worked is meaningless––it’s a vanity metric. But output is the result. It’s what really matters.

For a successful remote organization, it’s important to forget vanity metrics. 

5. Opt for less meetings than you’d think

We said it at the beginning of this article: Good remote teams do not function the same way in-office teams do. You’ve effectively got two options:

1. You can spend all day in meetings.

2. You can have systems in place that eliminate the need for a large chunk of them.

Remember, endless meetings are a symptom of bad systems for remote work, not a sign of productivity. The goal: Eliminate as many synchronous meetings as you can. If you’re finding this hard to do, there are problems elsewhere.

There’s more to the story

We took large parts of this blog post from our playbook on remote work. It’s v1.0 of our handbook on what great remote teams––and the future of work––looks like. In it, you’ll learn about what remote teams are doing wrong (and right) and what successful remote companies are doing. 

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