Lessons from a Small Business Using a 32-Hour Work Week

Sep 21, 2017 10:30 AM by Aileron

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“We prioritize people over everything,” says Ben Callahan, President of Sparkbox, an Ohio-based company that designs and develops responsive websites and applications. 

Ben says putting employees first is embedded in Sparkbox’s culture, and has been from the start.

One of the most fundamental ways he nurtures talent and retains his leaders is by investing in the "whole person."

Invest in the Person
 

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Nearly two years ago, Ben and his business partner, Rob Harr, started using a trainer together to improve their eating, sleeping and exercise habits. 

Since then, they have made strides in improving their overall health and wellness, the result of which has been positive for them personally and professionally. “I had never consistently worked out, and didn't even know what to do in the gym before using our personal trainer. Having someone help us figure out how to move in the gym was a big deal.”

Ben wanted his employees to have the same access to improving their nutrition, exercise and sleep. That’s why Sparkbox provides access to personal training, life coaching, and has a wellness budget that goes towards “anything that's going to help people get stronger, sleep better, or eat better.” 

“It's been almost two years now, and my business partner and I still work out with one another,” says Ben. “That's been important for us, and we're trying to find ways to encourage our employees to take care of themselves in that sort of physical way as well.”

“We’re thinking about them as individuals, and all of the things that are not necessarily related to the skillset that we've hired them for,” explains Ben.

Employees participate in what’s called the “Threshold of Empathy,” a program that highlights all the areas employees can gain exposure and experience in. The aim is to give employees experience in an area of operations that they might not normally get a chance to work on. This kind of unique cross-training allows people to build empathy and have greater strategic perspective.

“These investments may not make them better designers or developers directly, but these experiences and opportunities help them understand the context in which they're doing their work.” 

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“We try to recognize that when we hire somebody, we're hiring an entire human,” says Ben. For example, Sparkbox’s business model is based on a 32 hour-work week. This setup gives employees time to dedicate towards bettering themselves, helping colleagues and giving back to their community.  

“We know that all the things that we ask from an individual from 9 to 5 to do, have an impact on their significant other, their friends, their family, and their kids. We're looking for ways to try and help our people get better at all their roles—better at being moms, dads, sisters, brothers, friends—all of those things.” 

Sparkbox has dozens of ways they show they care and respect for team members as “whole people.” A few other customs include: 

Recognition of employees’ loved ones. “We want to let family members and loved ones know how much we value our team members’ time with us. We want them to know we recognize what we ask of our people, and how that has an impact at home and in their other relationships.” 

Ben and Rob have designed “significant other dinners” where they schedule dinner with employees and their significant others. They use the time for casual conversation and to communicate their appreciation. 

Designing business travel with family in mind. Many times when someone is traveling, a team member will reach out to the traveling team members’ spouse or partner and set up dinner for that person. 

It may be something as simple as pizza being delivered, but the significant other finds relief in having a meal taken care of while their partner is out of town, explains Ben. “They know that we were thinking about them. It costs almost nothing to do, but the impact is huge.”

Slowing down to enjoy time together.  When Sparkbox was founded, they were in a loft apartment, which they converted into their office. “It had a full kitchen, and we used that kitchen like crazy. We cooked almost every day in there, and it has carried over into how we operate today,” says Ben.

Every Friday, the Sparkbox team takes the time out of their day to cook lunch together. “All of us get in there and it's a little hectic. We invite our families and our clients to come in, too,” which allows them to grow, but still carry on some of their early traditions together. “We get to know each other on another level and their [loved ones] see that they're actually part of what we're trying to do as a company.”

A ‘Whole Person’ Approach to People Development 

“There's this ripple effect and these things start to happen organically once we've put some of these customs in place, even if it's informally,” says Ben.

“What's really cool about ‘investing in a life’ is that it is actually investing in that person in their entire being—and investing in that person does make them grow as a person and become better at their job.” aileron blogclick to tweet.png

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A version of this post originally appeared on Forbes.com.

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