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

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There is little doubt that the ‘always-on’ culture of professional services comes at a high cost for both individuals and their firms. From research and our own experience, we outline four strategies below that are available to professional services firms and their staff members to mitigate the effects.

Survival Strategies

1. Require consultants to take planned/predictable time off during a project

Leslie Perlow and Jessica Porter spent four years working with the North American office of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and based on their research, they found favourable results, even within a traditional consulting firm that might have favoured the status quo:

“It is perfectly possible for consultants and other professionals to meet the highest standards of service and still have planned, uninterrupted time off. Indeed, we found that when the assumption that everyone needs to be always available was collectively challenged, not only could individuals take time off, but their work actually benefited.

 Our experiments with time off resulted in more open dialogue among team members, which is valuable in itself. But the improved communication also sparked new processes that enhanced the teams’ ability to work most efficiently and effectively.”

The full article “Making Time Off Predictable—and Required”with steps for other consulting and professional services firms to follow can be found here.

2. Reconsider your firm’s activity-driven performance metrics

Activity-driven metrics – utilisation and the billable hour – are still the dominant measures of productivity and performance in most professional services firms, even though they don’t necessarily have any connection to what individuals actually achieve for the firm or the client.

However, one thing these ‘activity-driven’ metrics of performance do achieve is to institutionalise the ‘always-on’ culture of professional services.

Where a consultant’s performance and subsequent career progression appear to be directly related to their level of output (rather than outcomes), it is little wonder that a culture of long-hours and overwork results. If your firm’s performance metrics continue to reward effort over effectiveness, there is no chance that the unrelenting cycle of responsiveness will end.

That’s why we have previously argued that it’s time for firms to slaughter the sacred cow of billable hours and why focusing on value is now the only option for firms. Ultimately, we believe that firms need to define their performance metrics or they will inevitably define them – and not in a good way.

3. Professionals can either pass ‘under-the-radar’ or ask for help

In her work with a global strategy consulting firm, Erin Reid discovered that there were two strategies adopted by consultants for coping with the firm’s ‘always on’ expectations.

The first strategy was for a consultant to find unobtrusive, ‘under-the-radar’ ways to alter the structure of their work such that they could work predictable schedules in the 50 to 60-hour range. Reid defined this underhand strategy as ‘Passing” because employees able to maintain this pretence:

Were able to work far less than those who fully devoted themselves to work and had greater control over when and where those hours were worked yet were able to ‘pass’ as ideal workers, evading penalties for their noncompliance.

However, as Reid points out:

“Passing is not a good strategy for the organization as a whole: not only does it involve an element of deception between colleagues, bosses, and subordinates, it also perpetuates the myth that those who are successful are also all wholly devoted to work.”

The second option for a consultant was to ask for the firm’s help in reducing their work hours. Regrettably – but perhaps not surprisingly – it was these consultants who were marginalised and penalised by the firm.

Thus, it appears that, perversely, the best strategy available to consultants is to ‘appear’ to do more work than you actually do by staying under the radar or ‘passing’. We would advise professional services leaders – especially those working in consulting – to read the full article here.

4. Break the ‘failure to disconnect’ habit using detachment strategies

In his article “Working Too Hard Makes Leading More Difficult”, Ron Friedman suggests that the reason most fail to escape the ‘always-on’ cycle is they start off with goals that are too ambitious and are therefore unable to sustain a change in their behaviour.

Friedman suggests finding one modest change you feel comfortable implementing such as: leaving your smartphone in another room when you get home (so you’re not tempted to respond to emails), programming the emails you send in the evening to arrive first thing in the morning so that you’re not dragged into an email exchange through the night or finding an activity/hobby that enables you to reframe your time away from the office in terms of gain instead of loss.

Firms can also adopt strategies to combat technology overload and help their employees to disconnect. Many readers will be familiar with German vehicle-maker Daimler who set up an optional service for their employees to have all new emails automatically deleted while they were away on holiday, rather than send an automatic out-of-office reply.

In 2012, Atos CEO Thierry Breton announced plans to ban all internal email after a “Wellbeing at Work” program found that employees spent 15 to 20 hours a week answering and deleting emails. In January 2017, French authorities launched the ‘right to disconnect’ law to give employees the legal right to avoid work emails outside working hours.

The four suggestions we have outlined above are strategies – tangible rules or steps that firms and individuals can take to mitigate the effects of the ‘always-on’ culture. Next we suggest ways in which firms, and in particular the leaders of firms, can start to change the prevailing ‘always-on’ culture of professional services.

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

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?