In the summer of 1994, Jaap Haartsen started worked on what would become a ubiquitous and essential technology — Bluetooth. The 31-year-old Dutch engineer was living in Sweden and working for Ericsson.
He never worked weekends, or more than 40 hours a week. He had a cell phone and laptop, but doesn’t recall having Internet at home. Every weekend he immersed in nature with his wife and three young children.
Compared with the frenetic pace of the modern worker, Haartsen’s existence might as well have been Walden Pond. Haartsen credits his work-life balance and serene existence with sparking the creativity that led to his invention of Bluetooth.
“It’s a very important part that you balance between your work, which can be very stressful,” Haartsen told me. “While on the other hand this counterbalance to release the stress.”
Today he never checks e-mail after 6 p.m., or on weekends or holidays. He’s turned off all push notifications on his smartphone. There’s a firewall between the cacophony of digital life and Haartsen.
Haartsen’s story is a curious one amid a debate over the modern, white-collar workplace following a New York Times story detailing a brutal culture at Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
A big question is, does the price of innovation require a workload that is destined to leave employees unhappy with their work-life balance?
“I don’t think there was any work-life balance while the Sistine Chapel ceiling was being painted,” said Larry Keeley, co-founder of Doblin, an innovation consulting agency. “None of the great innovators or inventors in history — not Einstein, not Leonardo da Vinci — ever had work-life balance. The idea we can achieve work-life balance and do extraordinary work strikes me as somewhat ridiculous.”
Data from Glassdoor, a Web site that is similar to Yelp or TripAdvisor, but for workplaces, seems to support Keeley’s view.
Glassdoor asks employees to rate their companies on five characteristics: culture and values, work/life balance, senior management, compensation & benefits and career opportunities.
The work-life balance marks aren’t pretty for many tech companies often cited as current meccas for innovation. Employees at Airbnb, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Netflix, SpaceX, Tesla and Uber reserve their lowest scores for their company’s work-life balances.
The Glassdoor rankings for tech companies with a shortage of recent innovation, stagnant stock prices and murky futures tells the opposite story. Employees at Aol, Cisco, Dell, HP, IBM, Nokia and Sony all give their highest marks for work-life balance.
“When you’re doing something that’s intense, that’s hard, that’s new to the world, that’s really innovative, expect to be working 20-hour days and don’t expect that you’re going to get enough sleep,” Doblin said. “You won’t eat regularly, you’re going to eat, breath and deliver amazing, amazing work.”
Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla and SpaceX, compares working for his companies to being in the special forces.
“We’ve grown [expletive] soft,” Musk told his biographer after seeing that only hundreds of people were working at Tesla’s headquarters on a Saturday.
On Glassdoor, 52 percent of reviews of Tesla specifically write that long hours and a lack of work-life balance are a con of working at the company. But not everyone sees it that way.
“Sure you work 10 [hours] a day, but honestly, time flies. I am pushed to be better than what I thought was my best,” wrote one reviewer.
“For innovators, they may not really notice all this pressure around long hours and harsh circumstances, because they just frickin’ dig what they do,” said Luis Solis, the North America president for Imaginatik, which consults on innovation. “A lot of people in innovation are sustainers or are basically, essentially good, normal people who aren’t going to work to create something new every day. For them it’s really stressful and it’s high pressure and it’s maybe not a whole lot of fun.”
The aforementioned innovative tech companies, with the exception of Apple, are still led by a founder. Successful founders are the truest innovators, obsessed with their missions and likely to de-emphasize other aspects of their life, because they are so focused on their work mission.
“If you count all the time I’m focused on our mission, that’s basically my whole life,” Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg once said. He spends 50-60 hours a week in the office and wears a gray T-shirt every day, so his energy is rarely wasted on things other than Facebook.
Microsoft grew into a behemoth when it was led by founder Bill Gates. In the company’s earliest days, Gates would sometimes sleep with his head on his desk between long binge sessions of coding. He’d awaken and immediately start typing again. A young Gates even memorized employee’s license plate numbers so he knew when they were coming and going.
While this intense passion that founders possess may be essential to building a great company, it can also wear on many employees.
Dustin Moskovitz began working with Mark Zuckerberg on Facebook when they were both Harvard students. When Zuckerberg dropped out and headed to Silicon Valley to focus on Facebook, Moskovitz followed.
“2006 was one of the best years for Facebook, and one of the worst years for me as a human,” he recently wrote on Medium.
Moskovitz believes that if he’d made more times for experiences outside Facebook — such as sleeping, eating well and exercising — he would have been a better leader at Facebook.
“I would have had fewer panic attacks, and acute health problems — like throwing out my back regularly in my early 20s,” Moskovitz said. “I would have picked fewer petty fights with my peers in the organization, because I would have been generally more centered and self-reflective.”
That self-reflectiveness is something Haartsen, the Bluetooth inventor, could find on his hikes in Sweden. This spring he was inducted to the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He isn’t leading a company worth billions and he hasn’t found mainstream fame. But there’s no doubt he’s an innovator.