How We’re Exploring Work-Life Balance At Roompact

The Chicago Bean

Many startups have perks from round-the-clock meals, to nap pods, game rooms, free dry cleaning, and other quirky benefits. Leadership will say they provide these things due to their benevolence, but what’s the underlying motivation? They don’t want you to leave the office! They want you to work as much as possible!

Although we share some characteristics, Roompact is not a startup. Hard work is important to us, but work-life balance is even more important. Here’s why we care more about results rather than hours worked:

  • Work has diminishing returns. Any work completed beyond 40 or 50 hours a week is usually less effective. We want our team feeling fresh. We want to work better and smarter, not longer.
  • When you leave work-life balance by the wayside, you really limit the people you can recruit to be on your team. There are a lot of talented people out there who don’t want to live at the office.
  • We’re interested in working on Roompact for the long run. We’re running a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve got to make sure we don’t burn out.

Chicago by the lakeAt Roompact, we really look up to a fellow Chicago software company called Basecamp. As we grow, our goal is to emulate their compensation, benefits, and perks. One of those perks is “summer hours” — between May 1st and August 31st, they have 4-day work weeks. I’ve always been jealous of their summer hours. At Roompact, summer has traditionally been the busiest season of the year — which is a bummer in Chicago. It’s absolutely beautiful here. There’s so much to do. I joke that if Chicago was warm year-round, the cost of living in this city would be double because even more people would want to live here.

In our first summer, back in 2014, our software was not as powerful as it is today, so we had to do a lot of manual, repetitive, and tedious work. We had a 4 person team and we all worked well over 40 hours a week. We’d regularly stay in the office until after sundown, which is around 8:30pm in the summer. Personally, I probably worked 80 hours a week. For our first “company retreat,” we rented a little electric boat on the Chicago River for 2 hours. I knew our summer would be busy, so I scheduled the boat rental for 5:00pm on the Friday before a holiday weekend. I figured there was no way we’d need to do work at that time.

On the river in Chicago

I was wrong. We had work to finish, so we didn’t get out on the boat until 5:30pm. And then halfway through our “relaxing” retreat, we had to call a client because they were having some issues that needed to be resolved before the weekend. I still remember slowly idling our boat under the bridges of Chicago, trying to avoid any sort of background noise that might make the call difficult.

Things are different now. Much of that menial work is now automated by software. Our software has grown and improved enormously. It is extremely intuitive, easy to use, and reliable, which means that clients run into very few issues. Even though we have significantly more clients than we did in that first summer, we have significantly less manual work to do. We now also provide fantastic training materials and support documentation that our clients can use on their own.

We’ve doubled our team size since that first summer. So when we do need to intervene there are more people to pitch in. I think that over the past 4 summers, my personal average amount of hours worked per week has gone from 80, to 70, to 60, to 50. We always knew that our summers would gradually get less demanding.

But still — what a luxury it must be to have summer hours! There’s no way we could do that…right?

Chicago Summer Sunset

Well, there’s only one way to find out. This summer, we’re testing a pared-down version of Basecamp’s summer hours. They do 4 months of 4-day weeks. We’re going to do 3 months of every other Friday off between mid-May and mid-August. We won’t schedule any meetings for those days and we won’t be expected to work on those days. Half of our team will be “on call” to respond to any inbound support requests just as quickly as we would during a normal work day.

This is an experiment. There’s a chance it could be a failure and we’ll have to go back to normal hours. There’s also a chance it succeeds and we take even more 4-day weeks the following summer. Summer in Chicago is magical. Everyone has a bit of extra pep in their step. We’ve got to enjoy it while we can.

Hopefully our experiment is a success. Either way, we’re going to continue to experiment with the norms of traditional working hours. Prioritizing our team’s work-life balance and overall happiness will secure our company’s long term success, which will ensure our clients’ long term success. And we’re certainly in this for the long term.

Update: Our summer hours experiment was a success, and we’ve expanded summer hours to every week!