Erin Reid on Handling the 24/7 Workplace

Navigating an intense company culture often leads to serious consequences

When employee performance is based on the number of hours worked, people are encouraged to lie about the time they’ve put in, hoping they’ll be viewed as the “ideal worker”: someone who prioritizes their job above all else. So says research from Erin Reid, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Boston University Questrom School of Business, that exploded in the media last year when it revealed how and why some men at a high-powered consulting firm were faking 80-hour work weeks—and getting away with it.

Reid,Erin 2012
Assistant Professor Erin Reid

Now, Reid is exploring the ways employees cope with management practices that pressure them to to meet unrealistic, time-hungry expectations. What mechanisms do they use to handle an environment that penalizes them if they aren’t constantly available?

With Lakshmi Ramarajan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, Reid addresses what it takes to manage the modern 24/7 workplace in Harvard Business Review‘s June 2016 cover story:

Tales of time-hungry organizations—from Silicon Valley to Wall Street and from London to Hong Kong—abound. Managers routinely overload their subordinates, contact them outside of business hours, and make last-minute requests for additional work. To satisfy those demands, employees arrive early, stay late, pull all-nighters, work weekends, and remain tied to their electronic devices 24/7. And those who are unable—or unwilling—to respond typically get penalized.

By operating in this way, organizations pressure employees to become what sociologists have called ideal workers: people totally dedicated to their jobs and always on call. The phenomenon is widespread in professional and managerial settings; it’s been documented in depth at tech start-ups, at investment banks, and in medical organizations. In such places, any suggestion of meaningful outside interests and commitments can signal a lack of fitness for the job.

That’s what Carla Harris feared when she started at Morgan Stanley, where she is now a senior executive. She also happens to be a passionate gospel singer with three CDs and numerous concerts to her credit. But early in her business career, she kept that part of her life private, concerned that being open about the time she devoted to singing would hurt her professionally. Multiple research studies suggest that she had good reason to worry.

To be ideal workers, people must choose, again and again, to prioritize their jobs ahead of other parts of their lives: their role as parents (actual or anticipated), their personal needs, and even their health. This reality is difficult to talk about, let alone challenge, because despite the well-documented personal and physical costs of these choices, an overwhelming number of people believe that achieving success requires them and those around them to conform to this ideal. That commonplace belief sometimes even causes people to resist well-planned organizational changes that could reduce the pressure to be available day and night. When Best Buy, for example, attempted to focus on results and avoid long work hours, some managers balked, holding tightly to the belief that selfless devotion to the job was necessary.

The pressure to be an ideal worker is well established, but how people cope with it—and with what consequences—is too often left unexplored. Is it beneficial to weave ideal-worker expectations into a company culture? Is it necessary, at an individual level, to meet those expectations? Interviews that we have conducted with hundreds of professionals in a variety of fields—including consulting, finance, architecture, entrepreneurship, journalism, and teaching—suggest that being an ideal worker is often neither necessary nor beneficial. A majority of employees—men and women, parents and nonparents—find it difficult to stifle other aspects of themselves and focus single-mindedly on work. They grapple painfully with how to manage other parts of their lives. The solutions they arrive at may allow them to navigate the stresses, but they often suffer serious and dysfunctional consequences.

Reid and Ramarajan found three strategies that people typically rely on in their workplace. You can read those, and their route to a healthier and more productive organizational culture, here.

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