“Work-Life Balance” at DockYard

By: James Steinbach
balancing 4 rocks

One of the most important things to me about my job is work-life balance, and when I joined DockYard last year, I wanted to make sure that they were a company that valued that balance for their employees. If you’re considering applying to DockYard, this post will help you better understand our company culture. Really, if you’re applying anywhere at all, this post may help you evaluate that company as well. I recently surveyed my coworkers at DockYard to get their opinions about work-life balance: what it is, how important it is, and how DockYard culture protects it.

I’ve barely started this post, however, and I can already sense some people objecting to the label “work-life balance.” I understand that. Let’s talk about pushback to that label and see if we can find some common ground to move forward from. Most of the popular articles titled “I don’t believe in work-life balance” boil down to semantics and/or word choice, or definitions of the label itself. Some people don’t like the word “balance” and prefer “integration.” Others object to pitting “work” against the rest of “life” and just tell people to “balance their roles” or “manage their energy.” Still others just claim it’s “impossible” and move along (usually maintaining a high-pressure, heavy workload, but making themselves feel better about it, maybe). Here’s what almost everyone agrees about though: no matter what you call it, most of us have more things going on in “life” than just “work,” and we want to make sure that the “work” doesn’t overwhelm the other parts of “life.” In simpler words, we want to work somewhere we’re respected, not overworked.

What Does Work-Life Balance Mean to You?

Rather than trying to create and defend one canonical definition of “work-life balance,” let’s embrace the idea that it means different things to different people. (Also, is it cool if I abbreviate it to WLB? That’ll save me a lot of keystrokes, thanks!) So let’s see what some DockYarders said WLB means to them:

“Work life balance is about having adequate time outside of your full-time work commitment to refresh your mind and manage other important aspects of your life.”

“Work-life balance is being able to have separation between your work and all of the things you do outside of work, and focused, intentional time for each.”

“Work life balance is the ability to be working on something I’m passionate about, and at the same time being able to disconnect to gain perspective and appreciate the world around me.”

“A good work-life balance is the ability to work a reasonable amount of time with ability to stop afterward and disconnect from that work.”

The common thread through those quotes is that “work” and “the rest of life” are both important, and should have their own boundaries so they don’t infringe on each other. Well, “the rest of life” is a pretty broad category: what does that mean to DockYarders? Here are our values that WLB protects (participants could choose more than 1):

  • 96%: Family (Spouse / Kids / Significant Other)
  • 88%: Hobbies
  • 56%: Outdoors
  • 52%: Pets
  • 44%: Open Source Software

Other answers provided also included sports, volunteering, and health/wellness. DockYard is by no means a monoculture: our team members have a wide variety of interests and values outside of work. One thing we have in common, however, is a deep appreciation for the freedom to enjoy our time away from the keyboard. When I asked “how important is WLB to you?” (scale of 1-5), 80% of the survey takers chose 5 (the average was 4.6).

Who Benefits from Work-Life Balance?

Maybe you’ve landed on this post and you’re a manager or someone trying to build a company culture that values WLB. A common misconception is that it just benefits “workers.” Some people believe that companies benefit more from squeezing every waking hour out of salaried employees. Let’s return to what we DockYarders say about WLB:

“Work life balance is about having adequate time outside of your full-time work commitment to refresh your mind and manage other important aspects of your life.”

“Work-life balance is being able to have separation between your work and all of the things you do outside of work, and focused, intentional time for each.”

“Work life balance is the ability to be working on something I’m passionate about, and at the same time being able to disconnect to gain perspective and appreciate the world around me.”

“Doing good work in a way that it doesn’t interfere with living your life. Being able to have the freedom to work how and when you want to work so you’re more productive in the time you are working.

It’s pretty clear that valuing WLB doesn’t diminish our passion for our work at all. It doesn’t mean that we dislike working or are fishing for an excuse to work less. (I’ve run across managers & companies in the past that treated “work-life balance” as cheap excuse/buzzword that employees throw around in order to work less. They’re somehow blissfully unaware how much that dismissal echoes the sentiment of Ebenezer Scrooge’s complaint that Christmas is a “poor excuse every December the 25th to pick a man’s pockets.”)

We care deeply about the work we do at DockYard, but we also recognize that without time to refresh, rest, and recharge, our work would suffer. This balance helps both DockYard as a whole and all of us as individual workers: when we have sufficient separation from work, we “gain perspective,” refill our energy to do work we’re “passionate about,” and maintain our ability to devote “focused, intentional time to both”. This means DockYarders can spend our time delivering better work to our clients. The whole company benefits more when all of us show up refreshed and focused than it would if we let hours and pressure spiral out of hand and keep us all in a state of quasi-burnout.

How Do Applicants Learn About an Employer’s Work-Life Balance?

I asked my coworkers how they evaluate a company’s WLB claims when they’re applying for a position. It’s easy for an employer to say plenty of nice things about work-life balance, but how can applicants cut through marketing-speak and get the real info? Here are some of their techniques:

“Ask about what day-to-day is like, and how often the company falls into “fire-drill” mode.”

“[Ask] if the person interviewing me has taken vacation in the last six months.”

“Look at the employees social media accounts to get a sense of what they do outside of work.”

“Try to apply to places you know someone, or check resources like Glassdoor.”

“Ask each interviewer to describe their work life balance and hear from each person’s perspective.”

“[Notice how] they talk about it. The more vague, the more likely that it is not taken seriously.”

“[Ask] whether there is on-call or other ops works outside the normal 9-5. [Ask] whether it is expected that you’ll respond to email/text alert/Slack outside of normal work hours.”

Two trends emerged in these answers. First, ask some good indirect questions or do some research to see how employees act and feel about their workload. Use Twitter, Glassdoor, or other public sources to see if people really are as happy as a hiring manager or interviewer advertises them to be. Look at how specifically the interviewer discusses WLB policies or practices. The more detailed a policy is, the more likely it is to be carried out successfully. Vague, fluffy opinions about balance that aren’t backed up by concrete policies – those are where companies can hide a lack of balance.

Second, don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about the aspects of WLB that matter to you. There’s really no downside to this: if you have a specific need for flexibility and you get shut down or dodged when you ask about it, you just learned an important lesson about that potential employer.

Speaking of direct questions and specific answers, let’s wrap up with a look at how DockYard answers WLB questions from applicants.

How Does DockYard Treat Work-Life Balance?

About 70% of DockYarders who took the survey said that DockYard communicated important WLB info during the interview process itself. About 20% said they got their WLB questions answered through conversations with DockYarders outside the formal interview process. Here are some of the specific details we remember from those interviews and conversations:

“Barring rare exceptions, I was told that employee happiness is paramount, even at the expense of extra client work.”

“I was told that time off from work to recharge and refocus was a priority.”

“We work a 32-hr billable week, so unlike a product company, work rarely goes home with you.”

“DockYard communicated a healthy work-life balance through a trusting remote work culture, a commitment to keeping working hours to 8 hours a day to prevent burn-out, routine company retreats that don’t involve any work, and a weekly schedule of 4 client days per week with a “DockYard day” every Friday to work on internal projects, pursue self-guided learning, and have a change of pace from client work.”

Here at DockYard, we do billable client work Monday through Thursday and every Friday is a “DockYard Day” (time spent on professional development, internal projects, and open source contributions). The way DockYard runs its billable time is designed to keep those 4 days to “normal” ~8 hour days: there’s no benefit to DockYard driving employees to work long days or weekends.

In addition to ensuring a sustainable weekly schedule, DockYard also has a fantastic vacation/PTO policy. In addition to normal federal holidays, DockYard closes down for two, week-long company holidays (around Christmas and Independence Day). Employees are given generous yearly PTO time, as well as flexible sick time and parental leave policies. As I interviewed, I was impressed at how DockYard carefully crafted our policies to provide long-term stability and satisfaction for employees. Many developers and designers have experienced workplaces where employees are treated like mere “resources” to be used up and burned out. DockYard is the opposite: our company is designed for sustainable, happy work.

I then asked DockYarders how they’ve seen DockYard follow through on those promises. Policies and handbooks are great, but what happens on a daily basis is what really counts.

“I cherish the freedom and responsibility of working remotely and it makes me want to reciprocate with value added work.”

“People are truly encouraged to disconnect on nights, weekends, and on days off. I don’t feel bad or guilty taking time away from work and it makes me more committed to doing great work when I am here.”

“It’s been the absolute best. Working remotely helps tremendously with this, more so than I was anticipating. …I’ve worked late a handful of days, but that’s rare, and never past 6pm. DockYarders are also very intentional and respectful about pinging folks after hours, prefacing with ‘future you’ so you know it’s not an immediate action item.”

“I have seen flexibility across the staff when it comes to dealing with childcare, sick children, hours, etc. Everyone is focused on meeting the needs of the client but does so without sacrificing the employees.”

“I think DockYard undersold the work-life balance prior to me joining. Most companies expect salaried employees to work well beyond 40 hours a week, whereas DockYard encourages its employees to enjoy their evenings and weekends.”

“I think work-life balance is excellent at DockYard. I rarely need to address work stuff after 6 pm on the weekdays and very few items need attention on the weekends. Working from home also means that I can be flexible with the times I work and take appointments, etc. as necessary.”

DockYard puts its money where its mouth is: WLB is a real part of our normal company culture. Some employees even felt like the balance was even better in real life than it was advertised to be during the interview/hiring process. We enjoy our weekends and evenings, work-free. Even working from home, work doesn’t absorb our homes. Slack slows down outside of the hours where most of us are online concurrently. Conversations usually happen in a comfortable async way: one employee can ask a question “outside normal work time” without creating pressure for anyone else to answer immediately. WLB isn’t just a buzzword to entice applicants: it really is how we do things here at DockYard.

Sound like a place you’d like to work? Apply for one of our open positions!