I started working for Google back in the early (read: 2003) days. I started at the now-behemoth (but then, relatively small) company in their Atlanta office; I was the ninth employee there. We were lean, nimble, passionate about our work, and long days were the norm. We were helping build the AdWords business, and took that responsibility seriously (though yes, there was the occasional Razor Scooter accident into the wall, with scars to prove.) It was a great team, with many of us kicking ass, knowing we were doing something exciting and important, though not sure we fully realized the actual scope of it. I’d venture to say that work was, for many of us, our main priority.
It was also during that time that I started taking karate, and soon began teaching a kickboxing course. As an athlete since I was young, I loved being able to not only further my own health but lead a class full of others with the same mindset. The class was on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6pm. Given the clusterfuckery that was (is) the Atlanta traffic and our office being 12 miles away from downtown (which took 45 mins. at best), I’d leave the office no later than 5pm two days a week.
This was rare; most people worked late into the evenings, especially since we were on the East Coast and often managed teams on the West, and because the majority of us were single and without families. And though I was a core member of this team – there were only two of us doing a pretty integral and unique role in the office – not once was a word mentioned about my twice-weekly early departure time.
That’s right: I left work at 5pm during one of the largest growth periods at Google, and it was never seen as a detriment. In fact, I repeatedly received accolades from my manager for setting a healthy work-life balance, who said she looked to me as an inspiration.
That has stayed with me through my career. Today, the internet media are abuzz around Sheryl Sandberg’s public admittance that she leaves work at 5:30pm, and true, Sheryl was a key figure at Google during this time. (I never worked for her directly at Google, but our paths did cross many times as we were part of an extended team.) I applaud her for this disclosure, and support it entirely; I also understand the other part of the discussion that she “proves” that she is still working by intentionally sending emails late into the evening and early into the morning. It’s that latter part that I’m concerned about, though begrudgingly agree that it’s the reality. There is a fear that you can look disengaged or appear to be working less hard if you aren’t staying ‘til you’re the one that has to lock up. I hope we start working to change this expectation.
I appreciate the awareness that she – and, more accurately, the Facebook PR team, as we know these placements didn’t come from a one-off comment – is bringing to the issue. It’s something that I’ve intentionally strived for with every job I’ve had since, both in my behaviour, and more importantly, in any employee I’ve worked with. I’d tell them my kickboxing story, and say that I’d expect, at least one day a week, for them to be gone by 5pm. I don’t care if they sit on their couch and eat bonbons, shotgun a few beers or stalk their ex-boyfriend. They’d best be gone from the office, because this is their time. Because the reality is that nobody will give you this time; you have to take it. And as a new employee with any company, your emphasis is on working not just hard, but long; how many times have you been twiddling your thumbs after filling out your paperwork on your first day, waiting for your boss to leave while trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing? (Yeah. I’ve been there.) As a manager, we should know to teach by example and provide the ability for our younger, eager employees to also have a work-life balance, in hopes that they will pass it on to their team one day.
So better limber up, team. If you plan on working with me, you’ve got a kickboxing class in your future.