Technology and Employee Benefits: Finding The Right Balance

By Bradley Tusk  |  May 10, 2016

One of the benefits of owning a company is that it can be a reflection of who you are, or at least who you want to be. Every company talks about its mission and its values but the proof is in how they pay their employees, the benefits they provide, their policies around sick, vacation and maternity leave, and the flexibility they give their employees to work remotely and maintain a better work-life balance.

If you believe in the power of technology to allow employees to work from wherever they want, you’d argue that these new platforms keep team members connected and create a virtuous cycle that produces productive, happier employees who work harder and stay in their jobs longer. In other words – employers can have their cake (being a generous, flexible, beneficent employer) and eat it too (productivity soars, profits rise, everyone’s happy). But I’m beginning to think that’s not really true.

We are headquartered in New York and also have a traditional (i.e. multiple employees) office in Chicago. We also have single employee offices in Miami, Boston, and Woodstock, Vermont and are all constantly in contact via email, videoconference, Slack, text and any number of services and platforms. If we’re on-message about the power of technology to transform the workplace, we’d say that being so flexible allows us to recruit and retain high level employees who have the ability to choose where to live and where to work, meaning they’ll always put in the extra effort when we need it.

But are we really as productive and efficient as we’d be if we all worked in the same place? Probably not. We take up time addressing questions in conference calls that probably could have been resolved in a few minutes if one person could have turned their head and asked the other person a few questions. We spend time and money on travel so we can attend meetings in-person together. We have to work harder to stay in sync, spend more time communicating to make up for the lack of seeing each other, and while we’re able to make it work, it does come at the expense of the bottom line.

Now, if you’re me and you own your companies and don’t have to answer to anyone else, you can afford to have a business that reflects your values and choose to live with lower margins and longer workdays. But ultimately, the goal for most startups is to either eventually go public or be acquired by a much larger company that probably already is public. And while virtually all companies will pledge allegiance to corporate social responsibility, at the end of the day, they know their ultimate responsibility is to their shareholders. And most shareholders don’t really care about employees having a good work-life balance or good benefits or good sick leave policies. They just want the stock to go up.

I’m sure we’re going to see more and more pieces by a lot of people talking about how technology will change the workplace going forward, extolling how new platforms and ideas will benefit employees in a wide variety of ways. And they’re right – I see those benefits every day. But when the employees of those companies go from the startup bubble to the real world of companies held truly accountable for their P&L, how many of those same policies around work-life balance are really going to matter? How many will last?

It’s great to adopt policies that benefit employees at the financial expense of the employer. That’s what the whole debate over income inequality is all about. But that’s a choice employers have to make (or the government makes it for them), and if those employers are public companies, it’s a choice they have to defend to their shareholders.

That’s fine – in fact, it’s better than fine because it’s honest. But let’s not pretend that making those choices are always in the company’s best financial interests too. Virtuous cycles are only virtuous when they’re actually true. So let’s use this as a starting point for a real conversation about profits vs. values, inequality vs. share price and make decisions that are not only laudable but also reflect the real choices we make and the kind of society we ultimately want to be.