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work-life balance in a startup or scale-up - a myth?

Updated: Jul 21, 2022

Working in a startup or scale up can be exciting and dynamic with huge opportunities for career growth and skill development, but what expense do these benefits come at?


Most times, startups can’t hire a lot of talent, particularly in the beginning when they are building their teams piece by piece as they generate more revenue. This generally leads to their employees having a lot of different responsibilities and taking on tasks outside of their job role. Combined with the expectation of overtime as well as the post covid era of constant availability, this makes a work life balance hard to come by working at a startup- even more so if you’re in a leadership role.



the reality behind cool work policies


So how can companies ensure a work life balance? Startups are also known for having pretty progressive and forward thinking work policies such as four day work weeks, set your own salary and unlimited paid time off.


All sounds good on paper, right? However, the reality and tangible benefits of such policies can really vary from workplace to workplace. Research found that unlimited time off policies actually resulted in employees taking less time off. Implementing this policy is great for giving employees the freedom to take some extra days when they need it, but it only works in environments where employees feel comfortable doing that. If a company culture still thrives on overtime and borderline burnout, adding in this policy won’t change the culture alone. Instead, more internal work needs to be done to signal to your employees that you trust them to take the extra time off and they don’t need to justify it. Additionally, to ensure employees still take time off, the unlimited paid time off policy guidelines should state that employees must take the company or legal minimum amount.



how to: practise what you preach


With a bad reputation of having a work culture that breeds stress, tight deadlines and burnout, a start up or scale up with an effective work life balance may be hard to come by. Meister, a company that designs online productivity and creativity solutions, knows this and has done the inner work to ensure their employees live the work-life balance that they are promised when they sign the contract. We chatted to Rabea Thies, Head of People & Culture at Meister to find out how they maintain a work-life balance within their company and the policies they have in place to do so.



Q1: What existing work life balance policies are in place at Meister?


Answer:

“Instead of core hours, our team can define the start and end of their working day within a framework of 6am to 8pm with our flexitime agreement. People can also choose where they work- at the office, flexible or remote. We believe our employees’ health is the top priority and work shouldn’t get in the way, and that’s why they can book doctor’s appointments during working hours and are free to work around it. We trust our employees completely and we’re not timekeepers, so short breaks don’t count. Whether you shoot some pool, chat over a coffee or go for a walk, it won’t come out of your working time.”


“We also offer a number of extra vacation days like Christmas Eve, New Years Eve, and also birthdays. And if their birthday falls on a weekend, they can take the adjacent weekday off! We’re also keen on rewarding loyalty. Employees earn more vacation days for every year at Meister. Those who have been with us for 3 or more years are also entitled to take a month long unpaid sabbatical- no questions asked.”



Q2: How have you been able to determine what work life balance policies work best for your employees as well as for the company?


Answer:

“We have regular happiness surveys in which we ask whether the workload is manageable. It is an anonymous survey in which, if the anonymity threshold is reached, we can filter according to departments to spot trends and act accordingly if there is an issue.”



Q3: Have you previously had to revise any company policies that were unconducive to a work-life balance?


Answer:

“We got rid of core working hours, and introduced a flexitime agreement with the option to work from the office, remote or on a flex basis.”



Q4: What ‘intervention’ measures do you have in place if an employee states they feel they are losing their work life balance?


Answer:

“We take it seriously and encourage team members to look at their tasks together with their manager to see if it can be resolved with better prioritisation or shifting of tasks. If this is not possible, we look at what could be done at the department level and / or hire additional talent.”

“We also offer the option to work with external psychological coaches if someone is struggling with this topic on an individual level. They can do this without informing anyone in the company - the coaching sessions are paid by Meister. These coaches are trained to help team members identify goals, solutions, take actions and learn to implement those changes in their daily lives.”

Q5: What work life balance policies are you looking to implement in the future? Where does the future hold for work life balance policies and Meister?


Answer:

“We are a scale-up with big ideas and plans. There are and will be times when there are many exciting opportunities. We believe that the key to a healthy work-life balance for our individual team members, as well as the company, is flexibility coupled with a clear focus.”


“Flexibility means having the option to invest more time when a project is due, but also the ability to take time off if there are no important deadlines. It is about not having to always plan your life around your work but to be able to find time for both by deciding when and where you work. We see it as our responsibility to also remind team members and their managers to regularly plan vacation days and take back the time when they worked longer hours. We are currently also working on more options for working from anywhere.”


“The second pillar is focus. It’s about making sure that valuable time does not get wasted through unnecessary meetings, a lack of or too much communication and added pressure due to a lack of focus. We are constantly looking at ways of streamlining meetings, communication and providing even clearer priorities and focus at every level.”



work-life balance = better employee


No doubt about it, a work life balance is absolutely essential to ensure time for the important things in life such as family, friends and hobbies. Things that all increase employees’ happiness and benefit their mental health- and also have the nice added bonus of higher employee retention for the employer. Down time is proven to be hugely beneficial for the brain in terms of creativity. Which begs the question, have you ever noticed that the best ideas often come when you’re in the shower? Or in the supermarket? Or at a fitness class? It’s clear we need a break from the office collaboration, pressure and noise to allow for introspection and a clear mind that can generate new ideas organically- hugely important when working at a startup or scale-up.


As Meister learned, regular check-ins with employees and taking sincere action from their feedback is crucial to maintain a work life balance for all in the workplace. Listening to employees and doing the internal work to promote a healthy work culture will empower employees to set boundaries and take the time for themselves.


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