“We build respect for boundaries into our agreements [with our employees] and we stick to them. Foosball tables can’t compare with being able to go to your daughter’s horseback riding lesson after work.” – Mary Pat Hinton, CEO and co-founder of Emmetros, in The Waterloo Region Record, May 18, 2017.
Most of us are reminded daily of the anxiety affiliated with juggling the competing demands of work and personal life. Compromise one or the other – will work pay the price today or will family? – and we hemorrhage worry and guilt. We’ve all been there.
And so you’ll understand the tears of gratitude that welled up in Tanya McPherson’s eyes recently as she talked about her current employer, Emmetros. When McPherson was hired, Emmetros helped her custom-design a short work week that suited her family needs; it enshrined her work week in a written contract and continues to make iron-clad certain that the contract gets respected.
“It changed my life,” says McPherson, Chief Operating Officer at Emmetros, a three-year-old Waterloo Region startup that makes a software platform designed to help people suffering from dementia better manage their lives.
Companies that commit to work-life balance are hardly unique. Many forward-thinking firms have an informal, or perhaps even a formal, policy of give and take with their people, recognizing that everyone needs time to address personal issues.
What’s different about Emmetros is that its leadership believes it has a deliberate, even moral, responsibility to the people it hires – a responsibility to be sincere, to listen, to take an interest in the lives of its people and to make sure the interplay of home and work life is in a rough approximation of balance. The 70-hour work week? At Emmetros, it’s just not on.
“It’s not rocket science,” says CEO and co-founder Mary Pat Hinton. “You’re always going to have potential investors who want to hear that you’re going to sleep under your desk and be the first to market.
“We just don’t buy it.
“If we can’t succeed this way, we don’t succeed. Full stop. We’ll figure it out. It’s a solvable problem.”
So, what’s that look like in real life? It means that the company’s projects are tailored to work around the agreements made with its people, not the other way around. It means the company encourages employees, and management, to walk their dog, spend time with their girlfriend, take a university course – whatever they need to do in order to be – God forbid – happy.
“We’re really committed to it,” said Hinton.
In McPherson’s case, that means she works four days a week and spends Fridays at home. Salaries are negotiated and adjusted accordingly.
And if there is a cost to be absorbed because project timelines have to be adjusted outward in order to accommodate employees, so be it. Hinton is convinced that in the long and short term, the company reaps a net benefit when its employees are happy.
Take talent, for instance. At Emmetros, prospective employees have a habit of showing up at the door the way people who’ve been walking in a desert show up at an oasis.
“We have zero issue with recruiting,” Hinton says. “Talent comes to us. So, where you’re hearing that people are starved for talent and are finding [talent] challenging, we do not have that issue.”
Employee retention? Same deal. At Emmetros, people stay.
Making good on making employees happy, Hinton says, begins with listening to them. She tells the story of hiring her team’s first full-time developer, Mingyao Liu. Liu had the opportunity to work for another “very successful company.
“I spent an hour getting to know him, and I asked what he liked to do on the weekends,” says Hinton. “He loves fishing. I sent him a map of all the places to fish in the Grand River [area], and where to park. And I know that’s why he took the job.”
Sometimes there’s slippage. Sometimes the competitive urge to finish a project or achieve a company goal means staff stray past the boundaries of their contracts.
“We’re all hard workers, we all want to see the company succeed,” says McPherson. “We all get caught up in the excitement of building this company. It’s really easy to stray away from those values.”
So team members look out for one another and remind each other that it’s important not to stray.
“One of the things that works well is we support each other in knowing that all of us are committed to this approach, so we help to support each other to make sure we’re sticking to it,” says Chief Experience Officer Jennifer Krul.
Krul says every employee’s work arrangement is unique. In her case, one morning a week is spent in London working on a master’s degree.
“Playing video games at work means nothing to me,” says Krul.
“What matters to me is that I work hard when I’m at work and when I leave the building I go home and spend time with my kids.
“For someone to listen to that and understand what I’m looking for at work, and offer me the opportunity to still be a senior leader in the organization, have a family and be there for my kids, means more to me than I can really say.”
Emmetros is still a relatively young company. Its main product, MemorySparx, is a customizable, mobile device-based memory aid that rolled out in May. It helps people with dementia keep track of appointments, daily activities, health and drug information and the people in their lives. The company has seven full-time employees and “a handful” of part-timers.
Hinton says that the way the company treats its people is a seamless extension of the way it handles its product development – that is, listening to the needs of its users and, frankly, caring about them.
“When you work with people with dementia, this is the end of their life,” says Hinton. [You hear] what’s important to them, you get a really good sense of people’s priorities. At the end, what do you wish you had done differently? What do you wish you had done more of?
“People say: “I wish I had worked less. I wish I spent more time with the people I love.’ So we listen to them.
“We just listen to people and then just do it.”
Hinton, Krul and McPherson are all former BlackBerry employees. Hinton says weathering the downsizing of BlackBerry served as something of a training ground in terms of looking after people.
“I think the years of working at BlackBerry, and leading teams, we honed those skills there,” she says.
“Imagine going through all the tumult and change and managing people when they are so anxious. All these young people had bought their first houses, they’re getting married, they’re having kids and they’re getting nervous about what’s going to happen in the future.
“You learn how to care for your team in that environment and help them through those really difficult changes. I think that really set us up to know how to support people.”
Hinton acknowledges that continuing to tailor individual employee contracts might prove too difficult as the company grows.
“So, of course, there’s [a] question: Is this scalable if you increased to 15,000 employees? Well, we’ll see.”
In the meantime, Emmetros will navigate according to a line currently firmly drawn on its chart.
“I’m the founder and the CEO,” says Hinton, “but i’m also an investor.
“[As an investor], you’re always looking for proof points along the way. Are you on the right path? Should you keep going? Should you pack it in?
“This idea of doing good work, with good people, creating a product that is of good quality that will help people … really, just talking about how we work, and what we do, somehow stands out.
“We wake up every day with good surprises in our inbox. It does make you feel like you’re onto something.”