Arjun Dev Arora


Why “crushing it” at work actually crushes ROI

In March 2016, Arjun Dev Arora co-wrote an article with a bold proposition: It’s a manager’s job to make sure employees have a life outside of work—not only because it’s human, but also because it’s profitable.

Shared fervently among business readers, the piece made a corporate splash. As a partner at seed fund and startup accelerator 500 Startups, and a serial entrepreneur, Arjun’s view is that the unspoken rules of “killing it” and “crushing it” in Silicon Valley are crushing us—and our businesses.

He calls it martyr capitalism, the false sense that overworking equates to commitment, passion, and competitive advantage. This way of work became a cultural norm, he said, when early-stage startups cultivated it out of necessity. When people take on jobs primarily for equity and a grand vision in an under-resourced, under-capitalized company, they work long and hard to overcompensate. Pure as these intentions are, Arjun thinks there are managers who pervert the vision into a way to get the most out of their workforce, minus the grander mission.

“In the current manifestation, it’s clearly unhealthy,” Arjun said.

And it’s hurting profitability. As Arjun wrote in Harvard Business Review, he’s seen from research and personal experience that teams marked by trust and respect who work 40-hour work weeks will outperform teams characterized by fear and mistrust who work 80 hours a week.

How core hours and 40-hour workweeks can work

Arjun believes all working-hours guidance should stem from a company’s values, which act as a framework for making all important decisions. In his companies, the guidance centers around balancing responsiveness and the “hustle” (getting your work done) with intelligence, adaptability, and mutual respect. His preference is for team and company-wide meetings to be a part of core working hours, from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Before or after that, employees can be where they need to and do what they like without feeling like they’re missing out on anything.

As a founder of companies like ReTargeter, Arjun steered away from working-hours mandates and instead tended toward giving guidance. Employees could feel free to turn on their phones’ Do Not Disturb option after working hours so they weren’t not distracted by e-mail or Slack messages. Those inspired to work at midnight could send out dozens of e-mails with the expectation that no one had an obligation to reply. And if the recipients happen to be up at midnight, too, then they could feel free to respond and not feel guilty.

As retro as a 9-5 job sounds, it’s made its modern return in core working hours that don’t exceed 40 hours of work per week. What results is not only the flexibility for employees to have a life, but a system that encourages retention and better work performance over the long term. As Arjun told us, an employer can grind people to the ground, but it’s not sustainable. Eventually, people get tired and leave to go to business school, or take a junior position at a new company.

“Look at programs in which this has been done for a long time,” he said. “Whether it be in investment banking or management consulting, it’s typically a two-year program for young people, and they work 80 to 100 hours a week because there’s an awareness—whether conscious or subconsciously—that you cannot keep this up.”

Still, marketplace needs do play a role in which values a company chooses to embrace. For instance, for a company that values office presence and collaborative working, “it’s much more difficult to say, ‘Yeah, feel free to leave at 3 p.m. every day,’” he noted. For a business with more remote workers or demanding market timing, like financial trading, being responsive within a given time zone is of greater value.

And it’s not enough to plaster your values in a company handbook shared on onboarding day. Leaders who genuinely support people and their needs outside of work are vocal: “You put [your values] on your website, you talk about it, you ask questions when you’re hiring people,” Arjun said. “The more you can be preventative, the more you can start to talk about this early and often, the less I think you have issues with equality or fairness.”

Radical flexibility for real lives

Before the last decade, it was common for office workers—particularly women—to pretend they didn’t have a family or other life commitments outside of work. But human companies, like those Arjun has run, care that their employees thrive both inside and outside the office, while being mindful of the balance between knowing everything in their employees’ lives and allowing them to live it freely.

Arjun described how one of his employees’ parents ran a small business in South-Central Los Angeles and needed their children’s support to keep it running day to day. So the Bay Area-based ReTargeter allowed the employee to travel to his parents’ store once a month on Thursdays and Fridays to work remotely in LA, juggling his account management role with helping out his parents’ business. Though Arjun noted that ReTargeter values face-to-face meeting time, the decision to let this employee help out his immigrant parents ultimately led to better work performance.

“The loyalty that created, the goodwill that created—both with that particular employee and with the team at large—was well worth the fact that he wasn’t necessarily in the office,” Arjun said. “Because the values were set and clear, he probably was more responsive and took his role even more seriously when he was [telecommuting].”

Another employee who had cancer requested extra sick time for his follow-up treatments and checkups, which was also okayed. To keep this modern, radically accommodating work flexibility from being seen as favoritism or unfair for those working normal hours, Arjun said it’s on leadership to judiciously, repeatedly communicate the company values and be hyper-vigilant about the internal culture perceptions.

The human-centric future of work

While technology continues to swiftly shift the working world, Arjun argued that work is actually getting more human-centered as we become more focused on creation and less valued for perfecting PowerPoints, punching numbers, and pushing paper. With this evolution, being aware of the full human you work with becomes even more important, he said. Treating employees as interchangeable cogs in a machine and assuming everyone is driven by cash compensation or title bumps dismisses their actual needs and desires—and forms a culture that likely won’t retain people long-term.

“As lots of research has proven, there’s not only a direct cost [of replacing an employee], but also lots of ancillary and second-order challenges to it as well,” Arjun said. “An organization where people feel safe creates not only productivity, but creativity and innovation and ideas…frankly, happier employees.”