Building shield

It’s the winners that I feel sorry for. After weeks of non-stop campaigning, they’ll be ushered into Whitehall and chained to their desks, where somehow they’ll have to fulfil their duties as Members of Parliament (a full-time job, we’re told) and as Ministers of the Crown (surely another full-time job).

Whether Conservative, Lib Dem or Labour, I say good luck to them – especially those undertaking a third full-time job, that of parent.

Adequate sleep is one of the first things to be sacrificed, but what of the other costs? In an article for the Harvard Business Review, Erin Reed looks at the impact of the long hours culture that now characterises a number of professions. Drawing on her in-depth study of a “global strategy consulting firm”, she found that men as well as women struggle with long hours:

“They complained to me of children crying when they missed their soccer games, of poor health and substance addictions caused by how they worked, and of a general sense of feeling ‘overworked and underfamilied.’”

However, she found some key differences in the way that male and female employees responded to overwork. Women tended to reduce their hours by formal agreement, but at a penalty to their professional advancement. Men, on the other hand, were more likely to outwardly conform to the working culture, while surreptitiously subverting it:

“…many men found 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. In doing so, they 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.”

Of course, merely appearing to be at work is time-honoured tradition. Old tricks like leaving a jacket on the back of a chair have enabled many a skiver to skip Friday afternoons. However, the interesting thing about Reed’s research is the sheer sophistication of some of these dodges:

“…one whole team that I interviewed seemed to mostly reveal their unwillingness to work constantly to each other, yet passed to the broader community of the firm. They traveled little, worked reasonable days (e.g., 9-5) and often worked from home, without apparent penalty. One Partner within this team told me:

“‘We kind of have a shared agreement as to what work–life balance is on our team. We basically work really closely with each other to make sure that we can all do that. A lot of us have young kids, and we’ve designed it so we can do that. We’ve really designed the whole business [unit] around having intellectual freedom, making a lot of money, [and] having work–life balance…’”

This is fascinating stuff: a counter-culture dedicated to family life hidden within a corporate culture of long hours.

One has to admire their pluck – all the more so for turning in some of the best results in the whole company (the best bits in any organisation are usually those that defy its collective stupidity). However, it shouldn’t have to be this way. It’s great that some people have the spirit to resist the macho, workaholic nonsense of total commitment to the job  – but not everyone gets the opportunity:

“…women’s work time may be under greater scrutiny than men’s: people at this firm seemed to assume that women who left the office around five went home to their children, while men who left around the same time could be, in the words of one administrative assistant ‘on the way to a client’s.’”

By sticking to the formal procedures for reducing their working hours, women are further disadvantaged compared to their sneakier male colleagues.

Some jobs will always be more demanding than others. But, as on other issues, performance should be judged on outcomes not inputs. Which is why the resistance to the long hours culture should be out in the open.

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