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June 2016

A Dud: HBR on the 24/7 Workplace

HBRJune2016What is it with all the underwhelming Harvard Business Review articles these days? "Managing the high-intensity workplace" in the June 2016 is a trite article that doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the problem. (We are told the three coping strategies are: accepting, passing [devoting time to nonwork activities under the radar] and revealing [sharing other parts of their lives to ask for change]. The quotes of the anonymous people interviewed are what you'd expect, some people pretending to be ideal workers when they're far from it and some people complaining about their bosses. Just think about what people would probably say about the topic and you can be sure there's a quote along those lines in the article.)

This article is so shallow I don't even begin where to start, but here are a couple of points that crossed my mind. First, why is there a 24/7 culture? Two primary factors, it seems, are (1) trying to do more without having more employees and (2) testing employees' commitment to the firm. This is a viable strategy for companies that don't care about the long-term well-being of their employees, most likely because they don't expect their employees to still work for them in a few years. Consulting in particular is an industry where many employees rise through the ranks for a few years but then seek to join a company they have done consulting for, or take on supporting roles instead of remaining a consultant.

Investment banking is another industry where long hours are frequent. There can be terrible consequences to the 24/7 culture, as the sad example of a young Bank of America intern illustrates: he died after working for 72 hours straight, from epileptic seizures that could have been triggered by all-nighters. Some quotes in the Bloomberg article include: "It depends on deadlines... Some of it is peer pressure. There is a general expectation in our profession.” and "It’s not like anyone is forcing you to work... It’s way more subtle than that. The young people there just want to succeed. It’s like a race track." Those quotes, I might add, are much more specific and thus useful than the general quotes in the HBR article. Goldman Sachs then reduced the intern day to 17 hours, with the interns expected to go home by midnight and not be back by 7am. Goldman Sachs CEO had the following advice for interns: "You have to be interesting, you have to have interests away from the narrow thing of what you do... You have to be somebody who somebody else wants to talk to.” This is also a much better quote than what is in the HBR article. 

In the current state of things, rising stars often spend 2 or 3 years at a company after college before going on to get their MBA. The grueling hours they've had to put up with might also explain why some MBA students treat business school as college redux, with the difference that this time the parties are sponsored by eager companies. It's hard to spend several years in a 24/7 culture without feeling robbed of one's youth or health and some students may feel business school can help making up for lost time.   

Issues of work/life balance are also prominent in tech companies such as Amazon. A Wall Street Journal blog post argues that the work-life balance of Amazoners lags behind that of other companies while a Mashable article considers more broadly Amazon, Facebook and Uber. Tech startups such as Uber offer breakfast and dinner for their employees in part to help keep them at work longer (breakfast is early, dinner is late). "Glamorous tech startups can be brutal places for workers," said The Economist here. Time is a particularly scarce resource in startups, which often fight for more rounds of funding, but employees put up with the horrendous work hours in the hope of a successful IPO, or enough experience to launch their own startup some day, or to be hired by a prestigious company. 

As people age, get married, have children, they become less willing to put up with such hours. In the same way that the workplace lost many women in the years where it was less accepted to leave early to pick up a child from school (even if the mother worked more hours after the child had gone to bed), imposing a grueling pace also means top companies will lose the creativity of talented performers who will bring their skills elsewhere. This is more than a side remark, since people who subject themselves to an unhealthy work schedule might be more temperamentally suited to following rules without challenging them, and thus be less creative or out-of-the-box thinkers.

It would also be useful to think of the bosses who impose a 24/7 culture without caricaturing them. What pressures do they face from their higher-ups? Are they simply trying to make their team achieve more so that they can list those accomplishments on their resume (as proof of their managerial skills) before they jump ship? What system of incentives could be put in place that would reward the long-term interest of both the firm and its employees? If a 24/7 culture can't be avoided at times - for instance during a challenging consulting assignment with client-imposed deadlines looming - how can it be counterbalanced by a healthier lifestyle in-between assignments? And how can we convey to students, who tend to be always reachable by their friends anyway, that a work culture of 24/7 is unhealthy and should be avoided?

The best companies should behave as if they expect their employees to still be working for them in ten years - not squeeze them like lemons to be discarded as soon as they've been emptied out. Not doing so has consequences on the type of employees they attract and ultimately their competitive advantage. I'll end with links to a 2015 New York Times article about the work culture (as well as comments it generated and a public clash). But in the end managers on the ground make or break their unit's culture rather than the name of the company they work for and it is worth asking whether the right people are getting promoted. Emotionally intelligent leaders don't drive their people into the ground. 

First Quarter: Is your story limiting you?

I was chatting with some graduating seniors the other day and they asked about the ways I'd seen previous grads fall short of their potential. This is probably going to take several posts but one thing that came to mind is how people sometimes end up limiting themselves (or self-sabotaging) based on the story they have in their mind about themselves. This can take low-key dimensions: an A+ student is so used to being praised for doing a perfect job that he selects situations in the workforce where he will also be able to do a perfect job, not realizing that those situations require little growth and learning, which should be two primary considerations in work after college. Or a student who was used to getting good grades without much effort clings to assignments (or jobs) where he doesn't have to work very hard because he has no idea whether he can even succeed otherwise.

But this can also have farther ranging implications, especially given the importance of personal essays to get into college. Admissions committees often like seeing stories of resilience, and who doesn't want to be resilient, really? A student who has been able to defy the odds and overcome poverty, a single-parent family or various personal hardships had much to be proud of. At some point, though, it is important for those students who have defined themselves as outsiders to find their community and rewrite their story. At some point anyway, you realize that few people go through life without any hardships, whether those hardships happen early in life or later.

If they don't, they may only relate to, say, other people from poor backgrounds without realizing that maybe their supervisor with the fancy car has overcome much personal struggle as well, or overly focus on another employee as a father figure because they grew up without one. (While mentoring is an important component of personal growth, my take on failed parental relationships is that you never find a replacement for good parents outside the family, there is much potential for meaningful personal relationships among friends of all ages - just not surrogate parents.) They may also focus on minor issues that trigger them because of their childhood, or may be taken advantage of by people who want to get ahead without being quite technically competent for it but have the street smarts to detect weaknesses in others and exploit them.

You can tell if you're clinging to a story if (1) you bring up the same components of your past again and again to people, who gently comment they've heard this before or (2) the same things or people keep annoying you, to a degree far disproportionate to the actual offense or (3) different people keep providing the same feedback to you and you keep finding "excellent" reasons why their advice doesn't apply in your case. 

If you think you might be in this situation, I'd say you should first honor the story you've told about yourself so far, because it has helped you bring you to the point you are at. Then you have to focus on changing your self-image and telling a more empowering story about yourself, to match your new situation. Pick a new affirmation, like "I relate well with all kinds of people" (instead of only connecting with only outcasts who match your story of outsider-ness) or "I display grit and resilience at work" (instead of coasting through assignments by giving them your minimal effort), and find 5 things to do each day to express this new truth about yourself. If you want to relate better to others, this might be as simple as replying promptly to an email from someone you view as the quintessential insider. If you want to learn grit or resilience, you might simply take a colleague for coffee and ask them how they worked through this high-stakes project you've been hearing about, or watch 1 video on a topic you know you should learn but don't know how. You do not have to volunteer for a make-or-break-your-career assignment this very minute. Pick 3 easy things a day, then 1 slightly more difficult thing, then 1 thing that stretches you more. And of course you can do fewer than 5 things a day, but each thing can be short and part of a bigger whole, and 5 little things will help you reinforce your behavior from different perspectives.

Beware of friends or relatives who want to keep you in the role they have known you. Often people are very comfortable with the role you have been filling and have some personal interest in keeping things the same. (For instance, if you've coasted through college, then your old roommate might want you to stay the same because he's worried about having to display grit and resilience himself and it's safer if he keeps you down in the pits with him.) Sometimes you have to loosen old ties to make progress. Finally, it helps to pick a symbol of the new story or identity you're trying to create, and keep it somewhere you can easily see it.

What made you successful in college isn't necessarily what will help you succeed after it. Plenty of outside factors explain why a promising career might get derailed: a company that suddenly declares bankruptcy, an egomaniacal boss, an important project that fails for reasons outside your control but brands you "bottom line poison" for a year - don't add your own inner issues to it.