Why the ‘always-on’ culture continues to dominate in professional services

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Sarah Green Carmichael, an Executive Editor at Harvard Business Review has outlined three key reasons why the ‘always-on’ culture continues to dominate in professional services firms.

1. Technology and Economic Incentives

Carmichael argues that economic incentives and technologies mean people are never out of the office and available to the firm and clients at all times.

As David Solomon, the global co-head of investment banking at Goldman Sachs, told The New Yorker in 2014, “Today, technology means that we’re all available 24/7. And, because everyone demands instant gratification and instant connectivity, there are no boundaries, no breaks.”

This idea of ‘no boundaries’ was backed up by Linh Le, a Partner at Elia management consultants who told the BBC in 2016:

“At home the workspace can be the kitchen or the bathroom or the bedroom. We shift from a work email to a personal WhatsApp to a Facebook picture to a professional text – all on the same tool…You’re at home but you’re not at home, and that poses a real threat to relationships.”

Economic incentives are another driver.  In our conversations with firms, ‘activity-driven’ metrics – such as the billable hour and utilisation – are still the most common form of performance metric used by professional services firms.

These ‘activity-driven’ performance metrics institutionalise the ‘always-on’ culture. As long as people are rewarded – often with vast bonuses – for quantity of work over quality of work, they have every incentive to work relentlessly.

Perlow and Porter argue that a vicious cycle has been created in professional services because responsiveness breeds the need for even more responsiveness:

“When people are ‘always on’, responsiveness becomes ingrained in the way they work, expected by clients and partners, and even institutionalized in performance metrics. There is no impetus to explore whether the work actually requires 24/7 responsiveness; to the contrary, people just work harder and longer, without considering how they could work better.

2. Managerial Pressure

We have found the prevailing belief in most professional service firms is that to be successful, you must be entirely devoted to the firm at all times.

Carmichael describes how, in many professional services firms:

“Managers want employees to put in long days, respond to their emails at all hours, and willingly donate their off-hours — nights, weekends, vacation — without complaining. The underlings in this equation have little control; overwork cascades from the top of the organizational pyramid to the bottom.” 

When researching her article ‘Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks’, Erin Reid (an associate professor at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business) worked with a global strategy consulting firm and found the prevailing belief among the workforce was that to be successful required total devotion to the cause:

Many reported 60 to 80-hour weeks, with little control over when those hours were worked and whether they might have to travel. Work was expected to come ahead of other life responsibilities.”

Reid describes how, in many professional services firms, the firm’s leadership have an expectation of an ‘ideal worker’:

Fully devoted to and available for the job, with no personal responsibilities or interests that interfere with this commitment to work—are widespread.”

These ideal workers are put on a pedestal and seen as the standard that everyone else should aspire to reach.

She also found that those people who were unwilling to meet the standards set by ‘ideal workers’ were marginalised and penalised by the consulting firm’s leadership.

3. Psychological Needs

Finally, Carmichael outlines how people have their own psychological drivers that push them to work long hours.

These include positive motivators such as enjoyment, pride, reward, a sense of duty and ambition but also negative drivers such as anxiety, greed and guilt.

Read Part 2. The costs of the ‘always-on’ culture to individuals and firms and important caveats

Special Report: Is it worth it? Examining the ‘always-on’ culture in professional services:

Intro: Is it worth it? The ‘always-on’ culture of professional services

1. Why the ‘always-on’ culture continues to dominate in professional services

2. The costs of the ‘always-on’ culture to individuals and firms and important caveats

3. What can individuals and their firms do to mitigate the ‘always-on’ culture?

4. Challenging the ‘always-on’ culture – lead from the front

5. Is it worth it? Is the ‘always-on’ culture of professional services worth the cost?