28 Aug Can a company innovate without working its employees to death?
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.”