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

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The first four suggestions we outlined earlier in this Report are strategies – tangible rules or steps that firms and individuals can take to mitigate the effects of the ‘always-on’ culture.

Now 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.

1. Rebalance the client relationship

One often unspoken option available to professional services firms is to rebalance the client relationship and to stop treating the “client as king”. We have written a separate Point of View article about it here.

2. Leaders need to set the example and change their ways of working

Many of our clients will tell you that we are unwavering in our belief that the only way people will change their behaviours is if the new ways of working are modelled and shared by the firm’s leadership.

Unfortunately, when it comes the ‘always-on’ culture, the reality in many professional services firms is that leaders are not motivated to change their ways of working. And if the firm’s leadership, are not inclined to stop working in the way they have always done, why should anyone else?

The root of the problem is neatly summarised by Ron Friedman and Erin Reid. Friedman describes how:

When you’re first starting out, working evenings and weekends gets you noticed. It is what differentiates you from less motivated colleagues, yielding early recognition and promotions. In this way, hard work becomes ingrained as part of your identify.

Similarly, Reid argues:

Leaders of organizations, who are already invested in how things work, and who themselves likely made many personal sacrifices to advance, may have trouble accepting the possibility that there might be another way to work.”

To challenge the ‘always-on’ culture of professional services will involve Partners and Directors actively changing the way they have always worked and, in a sense, accepting that the way they have worked – or sacrificed – in the past, is not sustainable.

This won’t be easy for many leaders to accept. As James Surowiecki argues:

“Habit, is powerful: things are done a certain way because that’s how they’ve been done before, and because that’s the way the people in charge were trained…and “I went through it, so you should” is a difficult impulse to resist.”

In a sense, we believe that many leaders in professional services firms are guided by the sunk cost fallacy. They have sacrificed so much to get to where they are, they are unwilling to accept that there might be a better way to work.

People guided by the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ would rather continue to work in the way they’ve always done – even if the costs are substantial – because they want to “avoid feelings of regret” that they may have got it wrong themselves.

Until leaders accept that there might be another way to work, the ‘always -on’ culture is very unlikely to change.  However, some Partners have started to change their behaviour. In a recent LinkedIn status update, a Senior Manager at PwC showed how a Partner for whom he worked had changed her email signature to:

“At PwC we work flexibly – so whilst it suits me to email now, I do not expect a response or action outside of your own working hours.”

On a similar note, we believe that leaders of professional services firms need to recognise that the problem might be the culture rather than the individuals who cannot meet the demands of the culture.

By way of illustration, in a recent conversation, a senior well-respected Managing Partner was lamenting the fact that they were losing many good junior staff members and he couldn’t understand why because they were paid very well, in a high-status firm, with good partnership prospects:

“The problem is, the younger generation are just not willing to subscribe to our working culture which has suited us very well for many years.”

As the quote shows, leaders of firms are still more likely to blame the individuals rather than the culture.

There’s one final thing for leaders to consider: Could their attitudes towards working eventually create an existential crisis for the industry? As anecdotes spread about the work expectations found in certain professional services firms, leaders need to ask whether the industry will remain attractive to talented individuals who might be less willing to make the sacrifices they have seen made by the firm’s leaders?

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

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?

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