In so many ways, a CEO and a barista live in separate worlds. From pay, to resources, to working conditions, a CEO has it so much better than a barista. But two recent stories highlight how they share something in common. They are both dealing with the consequences of a very strong cultural norm in our society – the belief that employees should work whenever their companies want them to.

Recently, Max Schireson, the CEO of MongoDB, made himself a top contender for husband and father of the year by quitting the “best job” he ever had because he wanted better work/life balance. In his public resignation letter, he described how the intense demands of his job (symbolized by flying 300,000 miles in just one year) had made it almost impossible for him to be the kind of husband and father he wants to be. After four years of missing out on time with his family, Schireson decided that the only way he could have the personal life he wanted was to step down as CEO. Instead, he would play a role that only required him to work “normal full time” not “crazy full time.”

This story was followed a week later by Jodi Kantor’s article in the New York Timesabout a twenty-two year old Starbucks barista and single mother, Jannette Navarro, whose life is upended for a similar reason as CEO Schireson’s was – her employer’s expectation that she always be available to work. In Navarro’s case, her life is thrown into chaos because of Starbucks’ scheduling technology. To increase efficiency, many retailers rely on technology to analyze data ranging from spending patterns to weather patterns in order to calculate in real time their staffing needs. If sales are slowing, workers can be sent home. If sales are predicted to increase, workers are asked to come in on short notice.

But what looks like efficiency for business, wreaks havoc in workers’ personal lives. Navarro is constantly scrambling to find child care for her son at the last minute. This takes a toll on everyone, particularly her son, whom Navarro often wakes at 5 a.m, so they can make the three-hour trek on public transportation to his daycare and then to her job. Week to week, Navarro never knows how much she will work or how much she will earn. This makes planning ahead impossible and undercuts Navarro’s desire to create a better life.

Working 24/7

Both Schireson and Navarro are expected to be available to work at any time, regardless of the needs of their families. Both have unpredictable schedules, making it hard to plan ahead and commit to personal responsibilities. Neither of them is asked very much about what schedule would work best for them. Of course, Schireson’s situation is easier: he has the option of walking away, whereas a low-wage worker does not. Nonetheless, both he and Navarro fear that there will be penalties for speaking up about it. Schireson worries that his resignation may dampen his career prospects, stating in his letter that, “I recognize that I may be disqualifying myself from some future CEO role.” Navarro too worries about speaking up. As the article points out, “If she dared ask for more stable hours, she feared, she would get fewer work hours over all.” And Navarro needed every penny she could earn. 

Personal Costs

Hourly workers and professional workers are both affected by this norm of extreme availability, albeit in different ways. As Jannette Navarro’s story illustrates, the expectation that hourly workers should be available to work whenever a manager needs them means that they experience fluctuating and unpredictable work hours. This kind of instability undermines their chances for upward mobility.

Among professionals, the expectation that work always comes first has meant that work hours on are on the rise, especially for men. This comes at the expense of personal and family time. As Rob Newman, a technology executive told me one time, “The negative obviously is that family dinners during the week are totally nonexistent.” And as work hours among professional men go up, so too do the odds that their wives will quit working. Research by University of Indiana professor Youngjoo Cha found that employed mothers whose husbands worked over 50 hours per week were 44% more likely to quit their job than employed mothers whose husbands worked less.

Business Costs

Families are a victim of this cultural belief about the preeminence of work. But business also suffers. Low-wage employers lose because the unpredictability leads to a lot of turnover. For example, a study of a national women’s apparel chain found that the cumulative annual turnover rate among full-time workers was a staggering 74 percent.

While high turnover is thought to be just the cost of doing business in these kinds of businesses, it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, what research finds is that when managers work with low-wage employees to create a schedule that fits with their other responsibilities (child care, elder care etc.) they are much more loyal. A study found that job commitment was 63% higher among low-wage workers who felt their manager provided them with the ability to meet their work and family responsibilities. As it turns out, providing low-wage employees with control over their schedules can lead to lower turnover, reduced absenteeism, better customer service, and higher profits.

Technology companies too are led astray by the emphasis placed on working all the time because it leads them to equate leadership with someone who has no life. To be sure, complete dedication to one’s job has become a hallmark of great leadership. Even Schireson buys into this logic, stating that due to his desire to have a full life, he needs to step aside because MongoDB “deserves a leader who can be ‘all-in’ in and make the most of the opportunity.”

But let’s think about the type of person a company is screening for when the ideal job candidate is not just someone who is always available to work, but in fact WANTS to work all the time. What that company is looking for is someone with no friends or family, no deep connections, no soul. In fact, they are on the hunt for someone who lives a life that is antithetical to the kind (like having downtime) that research finds is essential for creativity, not to mention well-being. If a company wants a leader who can fuel innovation, they should rethink their hiring criteria.

Winners and Losers

In response to the article about Jannette Navarro, Starbucks revised its policies. The company will stop its practice of “clopening” where workers have to stay late to close a store and be back just a few hours later for opening. They also informed managers that work hours are to be posted at least one week in advance and stated that managers will be able to have more input into how the scheduling software is used. Starbucks’ desire to improve the “stability and consistency” of baristas work schedules is a big step in the right direction.

At least Starbucks realizes they have a problem. MongoDB, on the other hand, lost someone at the helm who was a top performer. According to Schierson’s stats, during his tenure there they raised $220 million, grew sales by 30x, and grew the team by 15x. Clearly, Schierson was a skilled CEO. But if I had to put money on it, I bet that he was able to achieve so much not just because of his talents and work ethic, but also because he has a heart and a soul. I bet that a lot of the time, instead of doing more email or taking one more phone call, he logged off, hung up, and spent time with his kids, went out with his wife, and just lived. And that too was what made him a great CEO (even if he thinks having more of a personal life means he has to resign). Thus, like so many other companies, MongoDB lost because working 24/7 has become synonymous with top-notch performance and being “all-in” – despite research showing otherwise. So Schierson’s replacement will likely be someone eager to get on the “work all the time” treadmill to prove what a committed CEO he/she is. And most likely, it will be a guy, whose family will be sitting at the dinner table, waiting, because he’s not home yet from work.


This article was originally published Sep 16 2014, on