Culture Factor 2.0

What if Time Off Created a Culture of Productivity that Surpassed 12 Hour Days?

Episode Summary

John Fitch is the Co-Author of Time Off and the Chief Product Officer at Voltage Control. His book is a practical guide to building your rest ethic and we were so intrigued by the concept and how it dovetailed into creativity and culture that we brought him on The Culture Factor.

Episode Notes

http://companytribes.com

http://www.john-fitch.com

http://www.timeoffbook.com 

 

 

Episode Transcription

Speaker 1:
Welcome to The Culture Factor, where we talk to founders and influential leaders about company culture. We share stories from the C-suite that help executives engage their business from the inside and create a map to transform their culture, because the truth is culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Holly Shannon:
I want to thank our listeners for joining The Culture Factor, and I ask that you subscribe, rate, and consider leaving a review. We'd love to hear who you'd like to listen to next, and thank you to our sponsor Company Tribes. They have an app and a virtual experience to help keep your tribe together during difficult times like now and business as usual. How strong is your company culture? Reach out to paul@companytribes.com.

Holly Shannon:
John Fitch is the coauthor of Time Off and the chief product officer at Voltage Control. His book is a practical guide to building your rest ethic and we were so intrigued by the concept and how it dovetailed into creativity and culture that we brought him on to The Culture Factor. However, we had something interesting happen, right, Paul?

Paul Jones:
Yes. It was so fun, and our exploratory call which we don't record, we just had to push the record button.

Holly Shannon:
We sort of start this interview where John is talking about his traditional upbringing with work, a little bit more of the hardcore busy badge of honor, and so we're going to roll you right into this interview and we hope you enjoy it.

John Fitch:
I had two leaders that brought me out of my dogma around being a workaholic. I believed, and I started my career in software and technology, I just for some reason subscribed to this popular idea that the only way to achieve anything was to just overwork compared to everyone else. Well, that's wrong. Our book proves that from an anecdotal and scientific perspective, but most importantly, I had my own personal truth which my life came crumbling down. My relationship ended after many years and my business failed, so I was in this deep place of humility. I reached out to my network. Two former mentors reached out to me and they said "Hey, we've always wanted to work with you. Do you want to come to the East Coast and start a company with us?"

John Fitch:
That was the savior and a huge blessing in disguise because when we started the company, again, they were the two senior partners, I was like a junior partner, and they said "Hey, we're going to spend this weekend," and we were in Concord, Massachusetts, "We're going to spend this weekend talking about our culture," and I looked at him like they were crazy. I was like, "No, no, we're starting a venture firm, we need to talk about our portfolio, who we raising money from," like again, John's workaholic autopilot was just taking over, and they said "No," they have lived in Silicon Valley, done that whole thing and had seen a better way of life. They said "We're going to talk about our culture," and we workshopped our culture that weekend, I kind of submitted to them, and by the end of that weekend, they, all of us, I was a part of it. I was definitely dubious, but they're like "Rest and calm is the central point of our culture, because if we're not rested and we're not calm, we're going to make shitty decisions, and we're now in the business of great decisions and great ideas."

John Fitch:
We had a model, it's not going to work for many other people, it did in our context, but we decided that the most important thing that mattered was that we were going to be able to operate with the following. Everyone would work three months focused. Three months is plenty of time to do deep work and ship something really meaningful, right? We said everyone's going to work three months, and then after the three months, you get a month off, like a mini sabbatical, and we'll rinse and repeat and we'll figure out how that staggered, and we did it with intention, and we actually lived by that many cycles and it changed my life and the whole story's in the book, but what I'm trying to say is that was a leadership decision. The leadership said "This is going to be a part of our culture."

John Fitch:
I've got one of my favorite books behind me which I kept in front of me while writing Time Off as inspiration, it's from the Basecamp founders called, literally the title is It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work. Again, leadership intention. They don't pride themselves on busyness, they don't pride themselves on overworking. They focus on quality and they focus on respecting each individual's own unique oscillation between time off and time on, and so I agree with everything you said previously. Culture does matter and Time Off for me is yes, a book for everyone, like what author wouldn't want to say that, I think there's nuggets in there for everyone, but I wrote it especially at the times where I was doubting myself. My motivation, my fuel was this needs to be in the hands of leaders, because the book has about 40 profiles of amazing leaders throughout history that chose to be calm, that intentionally made time off a part of their strategy. It was nice to have, it was a first class citizen of their culture.

Paul Jones:
John, question for you on when you guys were doing your... Did you say two or three months on and then one month off?

John Fitch:
It was three months on, one month off.

Paul Jones:
How did you outline that? What were the guidelines there? Are people putting in 70 hour weeks or was it just normal 40 hour week works?

John Fitch:
No. We didn't really attach ourselves to any amount of work, it was more of-

Paul Jones:
Initiatives?

John Fitch:
It was more about initiatives. What's the product we're going to ship, what's the investments we're going to make, what are the North Stars that matter that we can actually achieve in three months? What's beautiful about that constraint because it makes you really good at saying no when you should be saying no to certain things. We focused and we made lean decisions. We never obsessed about quantity of input, it was all about quality of input, and so that's one thing. Weekends and evenings, we just default respected, right? We're not going to communicate. I mean you could send it if you wanted but we used a tool called Streak which I'm sure there's other tools as well that allow you to basically time.

John Fitch:
Let's say I had an epiphany and I just need to send a message. I could send it but I would set it to not send until eight in the morning, nine in the morning so that we had these operational hours. Again, a cultural decision of when we respected personal time, leisure time, but what we're curious about makes me want to mention a more intentional strategy we had was we had ramp up and ramped down time, because it's hard if you just flip a switch, like the weeks leading into that mini sabbatical, there was preparation, a lot of preparation because ideally, me, John Fitch and let's call it eight functions that I kind of run for the company, I needed to decentralize those. I needed to delegate those so that they weren't necessarily on pause. Other people were running them.

John Fitch:
It wasn't a one person who was going to literally replace me, but a few people who are going to replace my core functions while I was away, and that's amazing for two reasons. One, I can literally relax because my functions are still running. So that allows me to actually embody that time off. Two, these people that were previously detached from those functions get to look at it from a beginner's eye, and I've been able to document it which once it's documented and there's new eyes looking at it, you can make it better, and so that would occur while I was away. Then there was intentional prep time, but then also intentional integration time. You don't just come back on after the month, that one Monday that comes back, it's like "All right, John, back to-"

Paul Jones:
"Take the scepter back."

John Fitch:
Yeah, exactly. That's crazy too, and so there was an intentional altitude adjustment that was not only me downloading my epiphanies because that time off gifted me with new perspective.

Paul Jones:
Perspectie.

John Fitch:
Exactly, but it wasn't just a one way street. It was also a two way street because then the people running my functions came back to me and they said "Hey John, while we were running them, we made them better. We made them more efficient. We automated this. It's actually only these now," and so that week or two weeks of reintegration, my function had essentially been completely upgraded just like you upgrade your ILS software, and so I was like "Oh wow, my function at the company had been upgraded for me," and so our time off practice not only led us to recharge, reset, it was our upgrade practice, right? Because the time off allowed people to detach enough to look at it brand new.

John Fitch:
So we were always evolving, always upgrading, and that's something I think I was the most proud of, and so after going through that experience, that's when I realized, "Hey, this is not just a nice to have, this is a legitimate cultural strategy, and I want to package up a body of work and a book that can prove even some high paid personalities like myself that it's really important from a leadership strategy and perspective," and just human dignity, it's the right thing to do.

Holly Shannon:
What's really cool, John, is that you created an emerging leadership by doing that. You gave autonomy to people within your company that might never have had that type of experience before, and you did it with trust and with intention, like you said. I think that's really amazing because many people are so used to being compartmentalized in their jobs. Interesting that you gave them the opportunity to be bigger and to be a part of something bigger

John Fitch:
That's beautifully said, and as you're saying, it's amazing how the brain works. I'm having memories from that workshop in Concord, Massachusetts many years ago where I forgot about this and it's not even a line in the book and I wish I could, maybe in the second edition, I'll add it again, but you saying that brought that out of the memory archive. Our goal in the workshop was we wanted our team of people, of humans to be unbelievably interesting, and leisure is a part of being interesting, right?

Paul Jones:
Absolutely.

John Fitch:
Exactly, and so we were like, "Hey, this is an investment in our culture being filled with like artists, like we're interesting and we're multifaceted," and instead of that being compartmentalized outside of work, we want to invite it in because it'll-

Paul Jones:
It's diverse too. You're bringing in diversity in because everyone has different hobbies, right? So when you take that sabbatical and you get back, even if I'm not into what you're into, I want to hear what you did because you're a geek, I'm a geek, I want to hear how you geeked out, and it's cool because it builds this sense of adventure I feel like, and it's also going to help build the bonds and the culture inside of the company because now you're chatting about what you did for that whole month.

John Fitch:
Beautifully said.

Holly Shannon:
John, you also said something else about how you would time certain messages to go out so that they'd be received say Monday morning at 8:00 AM versus Saturday at 11:00 PM when you had that epiphany in that you're to put together your ideas, and I think from a culture standpoint, a company culture standpoint, what's really great about that is that you control the expectations that you did not expect somebody on Saturday night to answer your email back, and I think that we've become so accustomed to texting and emailing all the time with work, and now of course with remote from home, nobody knows what day or time it is, responding to our coworkers at any time of the day, and I think it was brilliant of you to be so strategic to ensure that all messaging, all communication was parked in that whatever time zone, 8:00 to 6:00 or whatever time zone you chose, and not on the weekend and not in the evenings because it forced or it could probably naturally force people to dial back.

Holly Shannon:
I'm going to be with my family, I'm having dinner, I'm going out with my spouse on Saturday night, I'm going to the soccer game on Sunday with my kids kind of thing. It encouraged it, intentionally encouraged it. Sorry, have to go backwards. I just wanted to comment on that. I thought that was a really great thing.

John Fitch:
We have a chapter where the beginning of the book where we zoom out super high altitude, call it 100,000 feet up in the air looking at humanity's history of our relationship to work and leisure, and what's interesting is we subscribed to this concept that we call in the book "Perceived business," and that's an issue, right? "Oh, if someone perceives me as being busy, therefore I'm working hard, right?" What I loved about our practice is we said busyness is perceived, busyness is super contagious, because the moment you start sending them, I'm like, "Oh, well, I care, so I'll maybe start sending them too, right?" If that's contagious, we said, "Well, so can calm. Calm can also be contagious."

John Fitch:
We found that it was not only beautiful internally for us to have that impact on each other, but we found that a few clients, partners ended up like they noticed, and it had an impact on them as well, because I think they're interesting in that way that your culture can actually, because no business is just a silo, right? You're going to have vendors or partners or someone you interact with, and every time they interact with you is a chance to influence their culture. I think by having these beautiful intentions in your culture, it stands a chance to also kind of trickle out, and we definitely saw that at our firm. I became so fascinated by it, started a podcast called Time Off because I was like "Are we crazy? We're the only ones that know this?" It turns out no, and after a few interviews and listeners reaching out saying "Please make this a book, please make this a book," decided to move back to Austin and start that project.

Paul Jones:
When you guys were doing your retreat and you were saying "Okay, we want to be intentional about time off," what I find fascinating about your story is one of my personal beliefs is that an individual who is working, they need to one, have the skill to do the job, and two, have the clarity. So they need to understand the clarity of what the role itself is, what needs to happen inside of that role. If they have the skill and it's not clear, they're just going to spin their wheels, they're going to get disengaged. What I find interesting, when you talk about busyness, I think busyness inside of a culture, when you have busyness inside of a siloed culture, basically what happens is you have a leader who may not even have clarity but they're being busy because they're signaling to everyone else, "I got this, stay out of my business" because there's no transparency into what they're doing.

Paul Jones:
I think one of the crux things about your story is that by having other employees come in to run your role, it forces you to give clarity. Clarity in what you're doing, clarity in what your functions are, like you were saying a lot, and I think a lot of organizations don't get that clarity and that kind of eliminates the whole necessary need to look and feel busy, right? Is that something that came out secondarily from when you guys were going into this or were you guys like "Okay"? Was organizational clarity something that you intentionally were like "We need to make sure that we have this because if we don't have it, then time off's going to be impossible"?

John Fitch:
Love this sort of vector you're talking about. Just yes, we had that intention, but it was a different language. I like how you're using the word clarity. I had not thought about it using that word. We were a firm, our name was Animal Ventures and we were a small firm focused on the future of supply chains, and we were all about more decentralized autonomous supply chains. I won't bore you on like the weird geeky tech stuff behind the scenes but we cared about decentralization, and we were like "Well, if we're going to help industry become more decentralized, we're hypocrites if we're not decentralized internally," and so that practice was allowing us to decentralize, right? My function of like head of design and prototyping, if I'm the only one doing it, that's a problem because if I go away or something happens to me, that entire function is now compromised.

John Fitch:
It's a single point of failure, and so when you decentralize things, you get rid of single points of failure, and so clarity is a part of being able to have a decentralized operation because anyone can pick up and be like "No, it's clear what we're here to do. Our values, how we operate, basics, our principles, our values, our creeds," whatever words you use. So yes, there was always clarity because you were invited to always provide more clarity in that preparation time. Just like a great computer science engineer will take his or her code and document it, that work is really important because another engineer can look at their repo, look at their documentation of their code, and without even ever emailing that person, make use of what they've created, and so really quality documentation has historically been a thing of like software engineers.

John Fitch:
Whereas we treated that regardless of what your function was in the company, treat it the same, so that when I'm away, I can be away and like I don't have to sit there and go "Oh, damn, are they going to forget about that and this and that?" Just like journaling or writing is important for you to share something externally, it's also a powerful exercise internally because while I would document my functions, I would realize like "Well, that's a pretty stupid way of doing things actually," right? Because I reflected on it, and so you are also self improving while then again on your time away, your time off, other people were improving, having an objective look, so yes, I think a beautiful byproduct of it was clarity, we just never used that terminology. We just said "Are we decentralized or not?" and we wanted a bunch of like really awesome autonomous notes rather than a hub and spoke single point of failure model.

Holly Shannon:
You were saying earlier about being really busy and there's so many industries that wear that as a badge of honor or people wear it as a badge of honor. When you ask them, "How are you doing?" "I'm so busy, I'm so stressed," especially like in tech and finance, those areas you're like-

John Fitch:
It's hustle. It's all hustle. Hustle, hustle, hustle.

Holly Shannon:
Everybody, the more stress, like if I'm two seconds away from a heart attack, that's my badge of honor kind of thing, and I think it's really interesting that you are at a point where your badge of honor is rest. How to use that? If someone said "I just took a nap" or "I just took a week off," you'd be like, "Hell yeah. That's the badge of honor."

John Fitch:
I would not only say "Hell yeah," I would say "Let's talk about what clarity came to you. Let's talk about what epiphanies did you have. Let's talk about what you're enthusiastic about," right? Again, rest and time off is productive, and we break down the creative process in the books, one of my favorite chapters, it's called Creative Process and Time Off, and you have four phases of creativity. I think he had a PhD, Doctor Wallace. Essentially, we blew the dust off of his amazing work from a long time ago. You have preparation, incubation, illumination, verification. That's the whole creative wheel, okay.? Incubation and illumination is only activated through time off. By not doing the actual work. It's doing something else. That's when your subconscious and all these amazing things happening that we kind of understand from a neuroscience perspective.

John Fitch:
Literally while you're resting, parts of you is still working and it's doing amazing work, and so I came to this contrarian belief that your best work is actually cultivated outside of work, because the incubation, that's when things are incubating and weird connections are happening, and then the illumination is that "Aha," the light bulb, the sudden epiphany, and then you go into verification which is yes, now we're going to work. We're going to prototype, we're going to make the thing, we're going to coordinate, we're going to do whatever and see did our idea have merit, right? Then based on what feedback comes back to you, from the market, from a teammate, from a customer, whatever it may be, then you go back to the first step which is preparation, which is also a work but it's more of like a planning and a strategy, and so 50%, two of the four components of the creative process literally require you not to be actually working on the thing.

John Fitch:
A type A person like me had this beautiful metamorphis happen where I said, "Oh my goodness, all the work I'm deeply proud of throughout my career, the seeds of all of it happened when I wasn't working, so I should be doing more of that."

Holly Shannon:
That's a profound moment to have.

Paul Jones:
This is such a unique and a timely topic. You're blowing my mind, and like you were just saying, when you look back, I'm a work hard, play hard kind of guy. My greatest moments have happened when I'm out in nature, right? When you look at a high performing athletes, a lot of what they're told to do is a lot of this work happens when we're sleeping, right? So if you're getting enough rest, your mind is working on the problem, and so by taking a break from it and resting yourself, you're going to come back with a solution.

Paul Jones:
We've only got a couple minutes left on the, I can see the time remaining up there, but one of my critical questions to you, John, is having been involved in the client success side, trying to incorporate these principles. When it comes to a venture firm, the way that you guys adapted that is beautiful. What would be your suggestions for a support team? A support team that is 8:00 to 5:00 every day, we have to answer phone calls for customers or any functions of a business that are like that where you are beholden to a customer or another department and you've got to staff it appropriate, any ideas there?

John Fitch:
Totally awesome point. Again, the Animal Ventures model of three months on, one month off should not be copy-pasted. Maybe it would work in a few examples, and so our subtitle in the book is all about designing and finding your own rest ethic, right? There's not a one size fits all, it takes intention, it takes workshop and you have to figure it out for yourself, and all of our deep dives in the book, our job was to make time off more than just the connotation of vacation, because that's typically the default. I mean I was guilty of it too until working on the book like, "Oh, time off equals vacation," whereas no, it's hourly, daily, weekly, annually, regardless of scope, it's a practice, and you have to design your own custom sort of recipe that works for you and your season of life or season of business or department of your business, but the point is make it a part of your conversation, your culture conversation.

John Fitch:
Just to give an example, we don't have it in the book, but I'm big fans of the team Basecamp, and they have a customer success and support team and their team lead, I'm blanking on her name, but if you look up Signal Versus Noise, it's their blog, and if you type in "Basecamp customer service," I'm sure it'd be in the top page of Google results, their head of customer success actually went into detail of how they run a customer support for a software that has millions of users, and again, they choose calm and they go into the details of like "Yeah, the industry tells us you have to like instantly answer," they're like, "No, not really," and so they found their sweet spot.

John Fitch:
They're not saying that their model's perfect, but they're saying question the dogmas around how soon do you actually need to reply? That's one thing. Just design your own culture and operating procedures with the mindset of let's not let ourselves get overwhelmed and overworked. Whatever that is for you, that's for you to decide, but the objective is to not just default to something that ends up with people being not rested and therefore, if you're not rested, you're probably not going to communicate the best, and communication is critical in an arena like that.

John Fitch:
I would say also thinking about that decentralization and clarity that we mentioned on this call is another thing. I see tons of teams workshopping. Awesome, it's important to collaborate and workshop, but like what are you workshopping? If I saw a pie chart based on my experience as a business coach, 90% of people are only focusing on, if I go back to that creative process, all their work is in verification. They workshop how do we get the job done, how are we going to do it, and it's all focused on like time on conversation. Whereas like what happens if you workshop your time off strategies for your customer success team? What staggering fluctuations and shifts can we have for our team where we still have solid response rate but each one of us is oscillating between time on and time off in a more meaningful way, or maybe if you ask yourself, let's challenge ourselves to only work a little...

John Fitch:
Sorry. How do we work less, right? You start with that big question. What would be the ideal amount of hours where all of us are just feeling like totally balanced in our work life and personal life, and you came up with a number. Let's say each person is going to work three hours a day, you're on a customer support team. Okay. If that's your goal, that's going to force you to maybe look at things you've never looked at before like what software tools are out there now that allow us to automate some of our followups so that we're not having to be completely on but there's maybe some AI that you're using as a paintbrush as kind of an assistant to help you with something so that when you are three hours on, you're doing more of that human connection type work, and that's all you have to do because you've built some systems to help you do that.

John Fitch:
I don't have a one answer on how to help a customer support team work less, but I would challenge them if they've never done it before, literally as a team workshop, how can we work less? Intentionally do that because that'll be a conversation in a sandbox for you to come up with things that you've probably never talked about before. If you can accept that things are crazier than they should be, well then it's a good idea to workshop and start designing cultural practices to a point where people start feeling like "I'm not burning out. I'm keeping my enthusiasm in my work at a reasonable level instead of letting it deplete."

John Fitch:
Look, we spend so much time workshopping and focusing on how we get work done. Put that same energy into how do we recharge, because it's really important to set the intention. In the opening of the book, we say "A rest ethic and a work ethic is like an exhale and inhale." I challenge everyone right now in this call to only inhale and tell me how that goes.

Holly Shannon:
Wow, that is such a great way to conclude, I can't thank you enough. This is fantastic. We're going to go get that book.

Paul Jones:
All right, so that was it. That was our exploratory call recording that we wanted to share with you. We hope that you got as much insight as we did from that interview. We want to thank John for joining us and for a great conversation, and thank you all you listeners who are supporting The Culture Factor. We will see you on the next episode.