Leading a tech company requires a unique sort of mental fortitude. Not coincidentally, the industry has spawned a singular breed of leaders known for creative ways of unwinding and gathering inspiration. (Cough, cough, Jack Dorsey’s silent meditation birthday retreat.)
Regardless of seniority, a lot of people across tech and beyond have been rethinking their relationship with work, in light of the pandemic’s shock to the system. Some are opting out of the rat race entirely, but for most people, this past year has been an opportunity to set up some new boundaries between work and the rest of life. Tech workers are realizing, some for the first time, that work isn’t — and doesn’t have to be — the meaning of life. What a concept!
Protocol spoke to five leading executives in tech about the New Year’s resolutions they’re making when it comes to work-life boundaries. The idea of “balance” between work and life is kind of a joke at this point, but let’s call it, in the words of Fidji Simo, “integration.” Or at least inspiration, because if these execs can make time for knitting and sculpting magic wands, so can you.
Also, if the COO of Zoom lets herself eat on Zoom, so can you.
These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fidji Simo, CEO of Instacart
Very often, people think of work and life as being separated and having a balance between the two. I think about it very differently. My resolution for next year is to integrate all of the parts of my life better. For example, my job allows me to meet interesting people. Whenever I meet with interesting people, I try to figure out if my husband and my daughter can come, because I want my daughter to meet with business leaders and be exposed to that. Becoming a parent has made me a better manager. A big part of my leadership style with my team is building a sense of family.
For example, when I spend time with my daughter on Saturdays sculpting magic wands, I think about, “How do I apply this philosophy of creating magical powers to work?” Especially in technology, sometimes the problems we work on are so abstract that I like contrasting that with spending time on the weekend with my hands full of clay, molding something, going from nothing to a physical object. That tactile approach to creativity has helped me in a million ways at work: Can we mold the problem in a different way? And recently, I created a foundation around women’s health and learned a lot about healthcare and biotech. Interestingly, a lot of the things I learned in that completely different industry gave me better ideas for Instacart. I just integrate all of these parts of my life.
Melonie Parker, chief diversity officer of Google
My resolution is not to work on Saturday and Sunday, including from my mobile device. I’ve played around with turning the audible notifications off on my mobile. I've done it a couple of weekends already, and it's something that I want to start consistently doing. I think during COVID, what we've seen with regards to wellbeing across Google is that being intentional about boundaries and making sure that we have more formulated lines around when it’s work, when it’s home and when it’s play. It's really important.
I also encourage my team to unplug and to take time off. We have no-meeting Fridays on my team, to help them really concentrate on getting their work done. Also, if I do send an email on the weekend, I will preface it with, “Please do not respond until Monday,” because I know what it's like to be on the receiving end of an email on the weekend and from your boss. I want Google employees to have meaningful experiences in the other parts of their life, so that they can come back rested.
My second resolution is to knit at least 15 minutes every night. I started this back in September after Labor Day. I’ve knitted three sweaters so far. It helps me be still from the inside out; it’s a very healthy way to relieve stress. I actually learned at a church with a small group called “Knit and Pray.” Now I have a group of five women that I'm accountable to that I knit with. I love that it’s tactile, and that I can actually visually see the progress that I'm making as I knit.
Sid Sijbrandij, co-founder and CEO of GitLab
I don't have New Year's resolutions, per se, but I I do have a few things that have been going well and that not everyone can afford but that make your life easier. One of those things is hiring people to help. And at GitLab, that means a Chief of Staff team that's grown over the last year from one to now three people, and we're still hiring for it. And we're a functionally organized company. That means sometimes there's projects or things that are either very multifunctional, or that I care about but I can't convince other people to care about, and they still want to see get done. Those used to fall to me, and now we have an entire team of people helping with those. That's been a big help.
In terms of, let’s call it, work-life compatibility, I want to continue a few things. I've been doing workouts with my wife three days a week now, and I am just now acknowledging that I'm just really bad at doing that by myself. We motivate each other, although she's motivated me a little bit more than I'm motivated her, but we manage to get out of bed. And I'm proud that this morning at 5:45 a.m., I was in the gym for an hour-long workout. At the end of the day, I don't feel like working out anymore. So I do it in the morning, or I don't do it at all. And if I do it, I feel better.
I also stop working at 6:00 p.m., and I don't work on weekends. I take a couple of weeks of vacation every year. Earlier in the life of the company, in 2018, I was approaching burnout. I was so stressed that I hunched up my shoulders and my neck locked up. I couldn't look left or right anymore. I was kind of a walking robot where you have to turn your whole body to look sideways. I think that what's really important to realize is that you're responsible for your own actions. You cannot prevent every bad thing from happening, but it's important to reflect and respond.
Angela Benton, founder and CEO of Streamlytics
One thing I’m definitely going to be continuing in 2022 is not having meetings on Mondays and Fridays. One thing I’ve noticed with doing a startup — this is my third company — is that it's a lot of intensive work. But a lot of times you don't have a chance to think about high-level strategy and just get your thoughts together. So that's what I use Mondays and Fridays for.
With Web3, for example, I think we're in a critical moment where the internet is shifting, and that requires staying up on what is going on, or even just experimenting with stuff. We actually spent some time minting an NFT, and I went through the process of minting it myself. So Mondays and Fridays are almost like personal R&D days.
Part of the impetus was not wanting to be burned out. I felt myself kind of getting burned out again last year. I think that was a combination of having a technical business and working very deeply in the trenches, architecting software systems with our engineering team. Plus the pandemic. Most people know I'm also a cancer survivor.
Another thing that I want to do for 2022 is take shorter, more frequent vacations, maybe once a quarter. Typically I'll take one two-week vacation a year. It kind of makes you step away and then come back and say, oh, this problem is actually easy to solve because I've stepped away from it. I unfortunately am a workaholic.
Another thing that gets overlooked is creativity, exploring and having fun. For instance, a hobby I’d like to continue is painting. I've been kind of obsessed with texture. Painting got me off the computer, off my phone, off of scrolling on social media. I focus on large format, because it consumes you. You kind of get sucked into a whole other world. It's meditative, because when you do it, you get into a zone, a kind of flow state. And it also gives you a sense of, “Oh, I'm recharged after this.”
Aparna Bawa, COO of Zoom
Number one: I think that I would like to be more present. That's a constant goal, and I think there's always areas of improvement, whether it's talking to my children or going out to dinner with my husband. I tend to be a huge multitasker. And that helped me get through the pandemic a little bit because Zoom was so busy. But I viewed it as, “Okay, I'm not going to get to bed if I can't multitask.” But what I realized is I lose the fulfillment, and I think the person on the other side loses their fulfillment.
On the flip side, I'm gonna contradict myself and say that I think with working from home, your commute is 10 to 15 steps. Now we save a lot of time and we're more productive from a work perspective, but we don't move as much. So I have taken it upon myself in the last year to go through my calendar every morning and see which Zoom meetings I can take on the go. I actually say up-front, “Hi, everyone, I've turned my video off for this hour, because I'm trying to get a walk in and I have some really nice hills in the back of my house. If you hear some noise, or if there are any issues, please let me know. But I really appreciate your support.” I got a note from our head of litigation, who doesn't report to me, but he sent me a note saying, “Oh, my goodness, I lost 10 pounds over the year because I started doing the same thing.” So it's those kinds of things where you can be intentional about it, and you can ask for some grace. And guess what, your colleagues will give you some grace.
And I also think putting the phone down and having screen-free time is really important. So over Thanksgiving, for example, our whole family put the screens away for four days. Can you believe it? I checked it at night, and I checked it first thing in the morning and then put the phone away. But it doesn't have to be four days. It can be two hours. For me, it's at least the hour during dinner, because I find that there are a couple opportunities where the kids will speak to you: Number one, when you're doing carpool, like pickup or drop off, and then the other opportunity is dinner.
Another thing I do that I'm unapologetic about is eating on Zoom. If you're the 12 o'clock meeting, and I have to eat lunch, I might just eat. I think the biggest tip I have for those kinds of survival skills is to communicate and tell people what you're doing. Because 99.9% of the time, they have been there, they will empathize and they will be so gracious. And then you've also freed them. I've had my direct reports eat on my one-on-ones. I mean, we would go to lunch with someone and have a lunch meeting, and that's totally normal. So why not on Zoom? You just have to be a little bit more elegant.