Achieving Great Work-Life Balance

What is work-life balance? 

Work-life balance means finding a healthy balance between your working and personal life. It means creating clear boundaries between work hours and non-work hours that allow you to achieve both your professional and personal goals. 

Many companies abide by the traditional 9am to 5pm work hours as a way to uphold work-life balance for their employees. With the shift to remote work, freelancing, and the gig economy, teams are increasingly responsible for ensuring they maintain a healthy work-life balance in less traditional workplaces. 

The stakes are high. Improving work-life balance can boost happiness and productivity, while preventing burnout. Ignoring work-life balance can create innovation zombies—companies that overwork their employees to increase output, but ultimately sabotage their organization’s ability to compete in the marketplace.  

What are the consequences of poor work-life balance? 

Consequences of poor work-life balance manifest at both the individual and team levels. 

Individuals can experience decreased productivity, lower satisfaction at work, and growing frustration with their current role and responsibilities. Without sufficient time outside of work to explore their own interests, individuals are also more vulnerable to negative changes to their self-image when it is tied too closely to their performance at work. 

Over the long-term, poor work-life balance can lead to burnout and chronic stress. 

Burnout is a severe form of mental and physical exhaustion. One common cause of burnout is overworking for extended periods of time without opportunities to rest, recharge, or pursue interests outside of work. Symptoms of burnout can be mental—negativism, cynicism, and detachment—as well as physical—headaches, fatigue, and sleeplessness. 

Left unchecked, burnout can negatively impact a team’s ability to achieve their goals. Teams can experience drops in long-term productivity, growing dissatisfaction, and, ultimately, higher turnover. 

Can you use data sources and metrics to measure work-life balance?

Engineers can measure time spent working during and outside their working hours. They can also measure code day length—essentially the time between their first and last line of code each day. Together, code time and code day length can provide insight into how long you are ‘online’ and at what hours you are connected to work.

It’s important to remember that different people work according to different schedules based on personal preferences. Unusual coding hours, such as night coding, may not necessarily indicate a poor work-life balance, especially now that more people are working remotely. 

For engineers with flexible schedules, they should be watching for aberrations from their long-term trends. Spikes in weekend coding or code day length can indicate changes to your work schedule that may be unsustainable. 

How to promote a good work-life balance for development teams

Promoting a good work-life balance requires a strong culture of planning, resilience, and development flow. 

First, teams should work to avoid crunch time—cramming changes and fixes at the last minute to meet deadlines. Crunch time leads to poor work-life balance by requiring developers to work long, arduous hours in a high-stress environment. Reducing crunch time with more consistent and predictable development cycles can greatly reduce big fluctuations in work hours.

Predictable development cycles require accurate estimations of the time and effort needed to complete sprints and projects. Most importantly, they require the intentional carving out of time for testing, refactoring, and paying down technical debt.  

Second, teams should invest resources into creating self-healing systems and processes. Organizational resilience stems from regularly improving your team’s ability to respond to and resolve production failures. Teams can also reduce the chance or severity of failures by adding guardrails, such as shift-left testing, automated CI/CD pipelines, and feature flags. Over the long-term, greater resiliency means less time spent in firefighting mode with fewer emergency calls made to teams to restore service outside work hours. 

Netflix infamously built and deployed Chaos Monkey, a tool that randomly terminates virtual machine instances in production. By exposing engineers to such random failures, Netflix created a culture of resilience that helped them avoid production downtime and team burnout. 

Third, teams should enable the fast flow of work and fearlessly cut bureaucracy. The goal is to improve daily work so development teams are able to complete their tasks without needing to take time away from their personal lives. 

  • Identify issues by making work visible. Understand bottlenecks in your organization’s flow of work to see where to invest in DevOps and better tooling.
  • Provide developers with time to focus during work and complete tasks during work hours. Reaching flow state and staying in flow is key to getting work done. Try to eliminate unnecessary meetings and disruptions.
  • Decrease time spent waiting by removing or shrinking change approval boards and investing in self-service tooling, like automated environments and test data. Wait time works against team velocity and delays productive work, leaving developers feeling they need to “catch up” outside work hours. 

Top tips for striking a work-life balance as a software engineer

Software engineers can improve work-life balance by setting aside time for personal interests and disconnecting completely when stepping away from work. 

  • Schedule time for hobbies and activities outside of work. It’s easier to step away from work when you have planned events that are just as visible as meetings on your calendar. 
  • Plan vacations, both long and short. You need both long weekends and week-long getaways to fully recharge. 
  • When offline, stay offline. Although it’s tempting to check emails and notifications while taking time off, staying offline helps create clearer boundaries between life and work. 

Why finding a work-life balance could make you a better developer

By prioritizing work-life balance, engineering teams benefit from happier and more productive team members. They are more likely to report being satisfied with their role and less likely to leave their organization. 

Strong work-life balance also enables teams to be more agile and responsive to changes in workload. In exceptional situations and for brief periods of time, agile teams are able to temporarily ramp up their team’s effort to meet deadlines, without burning out their team in the long-run. Emergencies happen, and teams with poor work-life balance won’t have the resources or bandwidth to respond effectively. 

At the individual level, a strong work-life balance boosts energy, productivity, and creativity. By maintaining a strong work-life balance, developers can avoid one of the main risk factors for burnout. They are able to optimize for their long-term goals—career and personal development—rather than sprinting to achieve immediate, but potentially draining, short-term goals. 

Developers can also build valuable personal skills outside of work, which often translate into well-rounded employees who bring fresh ideas and new perspectives into the organization. A richer and more meaningful life outside of work creates a more diverse and engaging workplace for everyone.