A Special Report examining the prevailing ‘always-on’ culture in professional services, its impact, and what can be done by individuals and the firm’s leadership – by Jon Cannock-Edwards.
The ‘always-on’ culture of professional services
I’ll never forget the story told to me by a Senior Manager who worked for a global professional services firm…
“Funny thing… When I got home on Friday, my children asked me ‘Daddy, which country did you go to this week?’ and I said: ‘Actually, I haven’t been anywhere!!’ ‘Oh, it’s just that we haven’t seen you all week.’… I’d been leaving so early in the morning and getting back so late at night, that they thought I’d been away!”
What struck me in particular were the contrasting emotions the Manager displayed when recounting the conversation with his children.
I could see his obvious pride at the level of commitment he had displayed to the firm, and his apparent belief that this anecdote was an impressive (and requisite) display of his devotion to the cause. I had little doubt that he hoped his story would be reported to those higher up the hierarchy by the many people he told.
And yet, I could sense his quiet resignation at the situation in which he found himself and his despair that his work was taking priority over everything, with great cost to him and his young family.
From conversations I have had with those working in professional services firms, I know that many will be able to empathise with the conflicting priorities facing this Manager, torn between the expected devotion to his firm and the emotional commitment to his family.
If you work in professional services, you know that you are usually expected to devote yourself almost entirely – including evenings, weekends and holidays if necessary – to your work and clients. This has been dubbed the ‘always-on’ culture of professional services and it is not a new phenomenon.
According to a survey carried out over a decade ago by Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter, published in the Harvard Business Review, 94% of 1,000 professionals said they put in 50 or more hours a week, with nearly half that group turning in more than 65 hours a week, not including the 20 to 25 hours a week most of them spent monitoring their phones while outside the office. The individuals surveyed further said they almost always respond within an hour of receiving a message from a colleague or a client.
Many working in professional services firms, particularly Partners and Directors at the top of the hierarchy, would likely argue that it is this relentless focus on clients and service that separates the most successful firms – and individuals – from the rest.
However, living up to the ‘always-on’ expectation comes at a significant cost to individuals – as our opening story illustrated – and to their firms. For a proportion, the relentless workload is unsustainable. Their level of engagement and satisfaction drops, the quality of their client work falls and eventually they start to look for work in a less pressured environment. We see that proportion rising steadily particularly with the ‘Millennial’ generation.
Is it worth it?
That’s the question we ask you to consider in this Special Report. In the dominant ‘always-on’ culture of professional services, does the cost/benefits equation make sense?
We look at why the ‘always-on’ culture continues to dominate in professional services and we further examine the impact the ‘always-on’ culture has on individuals and their firms. Finally, we suggest ways in which firms and individuals might start to move away from the ‘always-on’ ethic to a more sustainable and beneficial work culture. Ultimately, to challenge the ‘always-on’ culture of professional services will involve Partners and Directors actively changing the way they have always worked.
Special Report: Is it worth it? Examining the ‘always-on’ culture in professional services: