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Startup CEO: Why You Should Work Smarter, Not Harder

PayScale recently had a chance to sit down with CEO Kris Duggan, an 18-year veteran of the tech industry and founder of the California-based enterprise software company BetterWorks. Here's why he believes that managers should evaluate employees based on the quality of their work instead of the number of hours on their timesheets, and why we should care. (A three-word hint: work-life balance.)

“Work smarter, not harder.” It sounds good, but if your manager is like many, it could be a tough sell. Face-time might be a waste of time, but many companies still insist on employees putting in long hours at the office, sometimes to the detriment of their productivity. But now, we’ve got some supporting arguments for you, if you’re trying to restructure your work life for maximum efficiency and enjoyment.

PayScale recently had a chance to sit down with CEO Kris Duggan, an 18-year veteran of the tech industry and founder of the California-based enterprise software company BetterWorks. Here’s why he believes that managers should evaluate employees based on the quality of their work instead of the number of hours on their timesheets, and why we should care. (A hint: work-life balance.)

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(Photo Credit: startupstockphotos.com/Pexels)

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PayScale: As the CEO of a company with 80 employees, you have a natural vantage point to view how managers and managees interact. Has there been a pattern or catalyst at BetterWorks — or in the larger professional world — that has informed your ideas about work-life balance?

Duggan: From my perspective, the biggest catalyst to success is spending your time working on the right things. Yet how often do we spend countless hours working on things that don’t matter in the long run? Once managers and managees begin to interact more regularly about how and why an employee’s work impacts the long-term company strategy, and once goals are frequently put in place to support this type of focused work, employees are empowered to spend their time on only the things that matter the most.

Employees often achieve work-life balance simply by knowing what to prioritize and having their manager on board. This goes for their personal lives too — employees who set personal goals will learn to prioritize these things just as much as their work. It’s all about working towards the things that matter most, and letting that dictate how you use your time.

PayScale: What are some of the ways that you think managers are or aren’t effectively evaluating employee performance?

Duggan: Most will agree that the ship has sailed on rigid annual reviews and stack-ranking employees. When we begin to think about evaluating work and performance more regularly, it comes down to the conversations taking place and if these conversations are truly helping employees get better at their jobs. In fact, I’ve heard concerns from several large organizations that chose to eliminate the annual review, but didn’t have a system for regular feedback in place. The one thing worse than only giving employees feedback once a year is not giving them feedback at all. I believe these types of conversations bring structure to the manager-led coaching and evaluation process:

1. Goal planning and reflection: This is a conversation managers and employees should have where quarterly goals and priorities are set so the employee understands expectations and gets immediate feedback from his or her manager.

2. Progress updates: Quick one-on-one conversations about progress on an employee’s goals give the manager a platform for helping employees overcome obstacles or adjust expectations so everyone remains on the same page.

3. Upward feedback: Employees should have the opportunity to give feedback on what’s working and what’s not to their manager, but so often this isn’t the case. A quarterly conversation where the employee communicates to their manager what they need to succeed will help smooth out the relationship.

4. Manager-led coaching: Few organizations today focus on coaching employees. Managers should be helping employees reach their full potential by offering feedback on how they work with others and how skills are being demonstrated.

5. Career growth: This type of conversation should be geared towards helping the employee develop skills and grow his or her career, whether or not they stay with the company.

It becomes much clearer and easier to evaluate employees when managers are having regular conversations focused on the future, instead of dwelling in the past. Managers who spend time hashing out the last year’s worth of work likely aren’t actually helping the employee — who has since moved on — improve. It’s much more effective when regular conversations are happening so evaluation occurs with everyone on the same page.

PayScale: Why do you think it’s so important to define work on the basis of quality rather than quantity or visibility, i.e. the number of physical hours an employee works on a given day and whether or not they’re clocked in the office?

Duggan: A recent study by Boston University School of Business showed that more than 50 percent of us struggle with expectations to work 24-7 and one-third of all men specifically admitted to concealing their work-life balance, by saying they were at something for work when really they were with their family. The pressure to be “always on” is no joke — the same study showed that the group of people who were vocal about wanting better work-life balance missed promotions, whereas people who appeared to work longer hours (even when they weren’t actually working them) got the promotions.

A different study by Willis Towers Watson revealed that 25 percent of companies pay bonuses to employees even when they miss the mark. So often employers and managers reward employees for work that doesn’t matter, or evaluate employees with great bias.

At BetterWorks, we evaluate employees’ work on the basis of quality and whether or not they are meeting their quarterly goals. Each quarter, managers meet with each employee to define what these goals are and ultimately help employees prioritize their work for the quarter. While I believe face-time or being in-person makes a big difference for important meetings and helps with communication, I don’t think it should ever be part of the employee evaluation process. Managers who work with employees to define goals and regularly check in on these goals don’t need to see the employee in person to know if they’re meeting them.

PayScale: A recent New York Times article suggested that a laundry list of policies geared towards increasing employee “flexibility” isn’t enough for a company to achieve a successful work-life balance; we ultimately need a fundamental shift in office culture. In your view, what would it take for American companies to actually progress from a live-to-work to a work-to-live mentality and then practically implement it? Is it even possible?

Duggan: This is a difficult question, because I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution for every company out there. Plus, I’d argue that living to work — when employees love their job — is extremely satisfying during certain stages of a person’s life. Every company and every person is different.

All businesses want to inspire innovation and commitment to their vision, and we all understand that work-life balance is vital to the health of employees. People are the most valuable asset a business has so their health and well-being are vital to its success. While there might not be one blanket key to solving this conundrum, I do think goal setting makes work-life balance possible. When managers and employees align on quarterly goals, everyone knows what’s most important. I personally set goals for spending more time with my wife and sons, and a goal to take an annual fishing trip with my dad and sons. Having clear-cut goals that span both work and personal life will help you stay focused on what matters the most.

For companies to get what they want (hard-working employees who give it their all) and employees to get what they want (purpose through their job and career without burning out), it takes a lot of give and take. Some of Google’s greatest innovations happened because a group of employees were asked to “fix a problem” that didn’t even fall in their realm of expertise. Google has fostered a company culture where overachievement is the norm, but I’d argue this overachievement is possible because the entire company is operating while knowing what work matters the most and employees are safe to prioritize the work that matters. This kind of company culture will inspire better work-life balance.

PayScale: The Society for Human Resource Management has begun to replace “work-life balance” with “work-life fit” when describing the pursuit of a balance between work and the rest of our lives that’s both fair and realistic. How do you see work-life balance/fit evolving — both practically and ideologically — going forward?

Duggan: I agree with describing work-life balance with “work-life fit” because it is the conscious awareness of what should be prioritized by both companies and individuals. If you don’t stay focused on your top priorities, you’ll spend time just reacting to problems instead of balancing what matters most to you.

Many people go the self-employed route — in fact one study by Intuit claims that by 2020 more than 40 percent of the American workforce, or 60 million people, will be independent workers (freelancers, contractors or temporary employees).  I think on a practical level, this increase in freelancing proves that we need to find a more practical way to accommodate those who want better work-life balance. So many freelancers and contract workers are in those positions because they want to control their own schedule, whether to raise a family, work the hours they want to work or have a greater ability to make more money.

Work-life balance requires give and take of both individuals and the companies that employ them, and we’re going to have to adjust our mindset if we want to change the future. In the future, maybe work-life balance can happen once employers stop thinking all jobs need to be done within the typical 9-5 hours, or once employees can prioritize what needs to be done so they can work more efficiently.

PayScale: Where do you fall on the spectrum of living-to-work versus working-to-live in your own life? Describe your ultimate work-life balance.

Duggan: I am the type of person that will naturally work all hours of the day/night to get the job done, so for me, I have taught myself to prioritize my personal life as well. It’s easy to prioritize the people you love — like my wife, kids, and extended family. It’s more difficult to prioritize finding the time for other goals like eating healthier, lifting weights, or investing in areas for personal growth.

For me, it all comes down to setting goals regularly (every three months) and checking in frequently (once a week or so) on how I’m doing on achieving those goals. This gives me enough focus on making sure I’m living to work and not just working to live, even when, as a startup CEO, this is a notoriously difficult state of balance to achieve.

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