LAS VEGAS — When Expedia spun out of Microsoft in the 1990’s, founder Rich Barton and his team made a conscious decision to keep some parts of the hard-charging Microsoft corporate culture, but abandoned others to foster better work/life balance for their employees. That decision has had lasting effects on other Barton-led businesses like Zillow, Glassdoor and Avvo.
Speaking at the Zillow Premier Agent Forum in Las Vegas last week, Rich Barton, Avvo CEO Mark Britton, Glassdoor CEO Robert Hohman and Zillow COO Amy Bohutinsky — all former Expedia team members — shared their thoughts on the importance of work/life balance and how they foster it in their startups.
According to Barton, a work-around-the-clock culture simply doesn’t work long-term. “I’ve never led an organization, I don’t think, that was one of these stay all night, work all weekend kinds of places. I think, actually, it’s unsustainable,” said Barton.
Robert Hohman runs a company whose mission is to gather employee feedback on companies, so Glassdoor is particularly sensitive to the needs of its employees.
“What we tell people is we value, first off, you being a whole person. We know we can’t ask you to sacrifice being a good husband, wife, brother, sister, daughter, son. Whatever those other relationships in your life are that actually really matter … we know if we ask you to give those up, you could do it for a short time, but you can’t do it for a long time,” said Hohman. “We know if we support you in helping to give your best to those as well as your best at the company, you will go through a wall for us.”
At Zillow, work/life balance starts with the patterns set by senior leaders and how those patterns are viewed by employees.
“I think it is exceptionally important to think about how your pattern is viewed by others and the permission it may or may not give to others,” said Bohutinsky. “At Zillow Group, Spencer (Rascoff) has always been a leader that walks out the door by 5:30 to go see his family and everyone knows that, and those of us who report to Spencer from day 1, it gave us permission to do the same.”
“The teams I’ve grown, me doing that gives them permission to do the same, so just being aware of the example you’re setting by your own patterns and habits, really that shapes the culture of that team or the company you’re building. On both sides, the good and bad,” Bohutinsky added.
Hohman reiterated the need for company leaders to find a work pattern.
“I used to be embarrassed about this at Expedia, but when I started my own company I figured, screw it I’m starting my own company, I’m going to do what I want. So, I have small kids. I left at 5:30 everyday. CEO of a startup left at like 5:30 on the nose everyday, went home, played with my sons, they were in bed by 7:30, then I was back on, and that was my pattern and that worked for me,” said Hohman. “Some people’s pattern was they worked until 6 or 7, leave their computer on the desk, and then they were off, completely. Some people worked weekends, other people didn’t. It depends on where they are in their life. The organization has to support that, is my feeling.”
For Avvo’s Mark Britton, being a young entrepreneur comes with all sorts of stress, much of it self-imposed. “I think that’s one of the hardest things about running a business, any business, is the mental stress that comes with it,” he said citing the importance of “taking some time to step back and realize that a lot of that mental stress is fictional that you’re just putting on yourself.
“I still have to remind myself about this,” he said.
Britton’s spouse has been the key to managing that stress. “She helps me understand the fiction that is that stress, so that I can focus on the things that are important,” said Britton. “It’s taken me 15 years to get even slightly decent at it … focusing on those things outside of work that are truly going to be our legacy.”
Barton emphasized that the need for work/life balance is key for the long-term health of any company. “In order to build a sustainable company where people feel good about that company and say nice things about it, and to recruit other good people, there has to be a work-life balance.”