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Putting employees in control: The Cordial approach to managing overwork

7 Minute Read

Jeremy SwiftCEO & Co-Founder, Cordial

In case you missed it, July 5th was National Workaholics Day. And if you did miss it, I hope that it was because, like me, you took time to unplug and spend time with friends and family instead of rushing back to work right after the July 4th holiday.

As a company founder and CEO, I know only too well how easy it is to fall victim to overwork myself, and to create a culture where long hours are seen as the norm. In the startup community, 60-70+ hour weeks are common for employees. 

The reason isn’t hard to find, at least for me: bringing an idea to life isn’t a jobit’s a lifestyle choice. If you let it, it can be all-consuming, with no shortage of people and problems to solve for, from investors who need to be kept in the loop to figuring out how to build both the company and the product that you’re there for.

But a key piece of building a company is to create a culture where employees feel safe, valued, and in control of their lives. At Cordial, I’ve made that a core part of our mission, and I have challenged and encouraged my team to make it a core part of their experience too.

Part of the focus stems directly from my own priorities in life. When it comes down to it, I have a very personal outlook and clearly defined boundaries: my wife comes first, my children second, and my business third. I can’t imagine any other way to approach my life, and I’m not prepared to ask my employees to make sacrifices in their lives that I wouldn’t make in my own.

The law of diminishing returns

There’s also a different kind of self-interest at play: even if I forced my team to work longer hours, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that most of them wouldn’t actually wind up creating much in the way of extra value for Cordial. In fact, one 2013 Stanford study found that productivity drops so rapidly beyond 50 working hours in a given week that those who reported working 70 hours only produced as much work as those who did 55 as clear an indication of the law of diminishing returns as you could hope to find.

Charting a different path

When we set out to build Cordial, my team and I placed a strong focus on ensuring quality of life for ourselves, and for our employees. Key to this approach is recognizing that long hours will happen—projects will inevitably crop up that require longer days and weekends. 

However, our intent when designing our culture was to do everything possible to mitigate those periods, and ensure that employees never feel overwhelmed by consistent long hours. Throughout the process, we have learned a lot about creating balance on an individual and company-wide level, and I wanted to share some of that to help other companies and founders who might be going through the same process.

Here are a few key ways that we put that into practice:

Unlimited PTO

As a concept, unlimited PTO has some serious detractors on both ends of the scale: it manages to get criticized both for being a token gesture that companies expect employees not to use, and for being open to potential abuse by employees who don’t want to work.

Put simply, neither of these extremes have been my experience since introducing the system at Cordial: we’re definitely at the end of the scale where employees need to be reminded to take time, but we consciously encourage every person in our organization to take at least two weeks of PTO in any given year.

Upfront communication

Part of the reason we have seen success with our initiatives—–including unlimited PTO—–is that we are very open and transparent with our employees and potential hires about what they are stepping into. By the time someone reaches the offer stage with us, they should have a clear understanding that we work incredibly hard at Cordial. However, the flip side is that, when it’s time to unplug, we want employees to do just that: no out-of-hours emailing, no vacations getting interrupted by Zoom meetings. That we want true balance for our employees to give their best and be their best inside and outside of work. But, we make it very clear that you’re signing up to work for a venture capital backed start-up with all of its travails, and we don’t gloss over the grit, hard work, and sometimes long hours that come along with working here.

Mitigating remote stress

There’s no doubt that the pandemic led to a spike in working hours across a number of industries, including tech. A recent study from SHRM found that 70 percent of professionals who began working from home during the pandemic reported working on the weekends, with 45 percent working more hours than they had in an office environment. A big driver of that spike in hours was more time being spent in video meetings, which is something that isn’t really returning to normal even as the business cycle has begun returning to normal.

At Cordial, we saw the impact on our culture through rising levels of stress, largely driven by isolation and the inability to connect with colleagues and resolve tensions as you would in a physical setting—by grabbing coffee or sitting down in a conference room to hash something out. 

One way we managed that was by introducing a tool called Donut during Covid to set up a 20-minute date with a colleague, with the stipulation to not talk about work.  We saw results almost immediately in terms of happiness and engagement. Colleagues got to know each other better, checked in on each other more often, and reduced their sense of isolation and lack of connection as a result.

Flexible hours

Cordial has always had a culture of flexible working hours.  We’ve long believed that employees should be trusted to get their work done during hours that largely work for them. As a growth stage company, we recognize the need to let people have as much control over their own hours as possible to enable them to be available for personal relationships and take care of their mental health. As we reopen, we have extended that approach to our office soft launch, with a “come and go as you want” policy for the first 2 months.  From there, we plan to officially open our offices in September with two high-energy days per week that we’ll encourage folks from our teams to come be a part of, but not requiring.  Our goal is to facilitate more connection amongst our teams, which is one of the key needs we’ve heard over the past many months.

People-centric culture

Overall, the key to reducing overwork at a company level, and mitigating workaholism among individuals, is to recognize that employees have needs that go beyond their paychecks and their professional identities—and to empower them to meet those needs however they see fit. From meditation classes and gym memberships to Zoom game nights and quarterly volunteer days, we’ve worked hard pre- and post- pandemic at Cordial to give our people the option to find balance and connection in their daily lives. 

We know that empowered employees are our most confident, healthiest, and best performing employees. At Cordial, we’ll continue to experiment with and implement practices and policies that enable every individual to fulfill their ambitious career goals, while also leading more broadly full and fulfilling lives to achieve that.

Jeremy Swift is the CEO and Founder of Cordial, a platform that empowers marketing teams to create personal relationships with every customer. The company’s vision is to build technology for teams to communicate cordially—delivering messages that are personal, relevant, and intelligent.