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Why some startup CEOs are starting to live in their offices

Bobbi Rebell
Bobbi Rebell

Sarah Elizabeth Hill, a 29-year-old CEO, sometimes sweeps the floors of her company’s office at night after her employees leave for the day. When an investor visited recently from Australia, he even asked to do his laundry in the middle of the work day.

Why are so many household chores happening at Hill’s workplace? She lives at the Soho loft that houses her company, Bookstr, a website that helps people organize and share their book lists.

“When I first moved to New York I remember saying to everyone, please just give me a job — I will sweep the floors, etc. I don’t care as long as I am in the right place and I will work my way up,” Hill says. “Now I am literally sweeping the floors (although sometimes I hire someone to come help), but I think it’s funny because I asked for it. It’s just now, I am the CEO and I’m doing it.”

Hill moved to the spacious loft at the suggestion of investors, to allow her to focus 24/7 on growing the digital platform for readers. Her bedroom is separate from the work space.

“I feel less stressed, which is super weird,” Hill says. “I’m still stressed, but now I am not worried about a roof over my head or money in my account. I am not always fighting crowds trying to get to work on time. It gives me more time to decompress which is something that I really value.”

Sarah believes living at the office will make her a more successful CEO.

“I had some friends who were unhappy about my moving situation. They vocalized their concerns about my work/life balance. A lot of them were weirded out or shocked that I was going to commit so deeply.”  She admits it won’t help her social life but given the demands of her job, it’s on the back-burner, anyway.

Recent research shows that kind of work/life merge may be not be so bad.

“Blending work and one’s personal life together may not always create the conflict most of us imagine,” says Brandon W. Smit, Ph.D, Assistant Professor of Business Administration at Indiana University – East. Smit has been researching the merging of work and life and says that his research shows “employees who integrate their professional and personal lives tend to have an easier time mentally switching back and forth between these roles, and consequently, maintain effective performance on the job.”

Ann Shoket, author of “The Big Life,” supports Hill’s move, and says the entire premise of work/life balance for career women in such an intense position is a sham anyway.

“For this generation of millennial women, it’s all work all the time and all life all the time — and Sarah Hill is living proof! So many start-ups are actually happening in living rooms of young women across the country…why not live in your office for a while.”

From stay-at-home CEO to empty nester

The strategy worked for Zach Hungate. The startup he founded, Simplifeye, a workflow app for health care teams, recently outgrew its original office — his apartment. The company grew to as many as eight employees in the two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. He had converted the second bedroom into a workspace. He says it gave him the ultimate focus.

“That meant no social life. Really having no dating life. 24/7 focus on the company. I had to do that. You have that point in a company’s trajectory to make it happen. I sacrificed everything. I am a fan of leading by example so by putting the company in that environment I was able to set a culture of, we are all in there including me so let’s do this. “

He says startups these days have a lean mentality and want to keep costs low. They have learned from the past when companies spent too much too fast to grow, burning through cash.

After about a year and a half, he recently relocated his employees to a nearby workspace — and now has his apartment to himself. He is commuting to work, and is starting to date again.

Living with work also means breakups can be accelerated

For Hill, the relationships she is most focused on are those with her employees. By having her team immersed in her living space all day, she can quickly see who’s the right fit for Bookstr and who’s not. That’s already meant some tough breakups.

“I think for Bookstr, so far, it has helped us work out some staffing issues. When you’re in an open space like this, you can’t hide. You start to see the employees that are facing the same direction as you are and the ones who aren’t.”

She’s had to fire some employees but has also been able to identify the rising stars.

What about sick days?

Detaching from such intensity can be a challenge.

But Hill says she can now be laser focused on growing the company’s 3.4 million social media followers, upping the content output as well as expanding into new lines of revenue. But she can’t deny she literally lives with the pressure. “There are a lot of skeletons in the tech/publishing space from failed companies that serve as a reminder that you can fail, too.”

And that kind of stress and pressure is an unavoidable reality, according to the research done by Smit.  “Living at work creates an unconventional circumstance for employees which may affect their ability to relax after a hard day and recuperate their resources to face the next day’s demands,” he says. “If employees are constantly surrounded by reminders of work, and especially reminders of important tasks that have not been completed, they will likely have a more difficult time ‘switching off’ and ‘relaxing.’”

Millennial workplace consultant Lindsey Pollak wonders “what happens when she needs to ‘stay home sick’ or take a personal day?”

“The pitfall is whether she feels that because her company has provided her a bedroom at work, will she feel she has to work 24/7/365. I would hope there are conversations about setting boundaries between working and not working and what expectations are on both sides,” says Pollak.

Shoket says the more you try to “balance” the more you amplify the anxiety that everything should be equal…and it’s not.

The key is to carve out time for yourself to separate from the workday after the team leaves, according to Shoket.

Hill is still settling into her new home, and is figuring out boundaries. “I think overall it will be more helpful than hurtful for the business. I really try to separate the two though, so I don’t consider myself being here 247. I am here from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and after that I try to check out when possible.”

Bobbi Rebell is the author of “How to be a Financial Grownup.