YOUR OFFICE DESK TALKS ABOUT YOU

Everyone’s a little bit different in their work habits, and that includes how they keep their desk. Some like to keep it perfectly tidy without a scrap of mess, while others are swimming in papers, pens, last week’s lunch, etc. Then there are those who like to personalize their desk with pictures of their family, plants and other bits and pieces, and those whose desks are covered in technology such as phones, tablets, games controllers and a thousand different wires.

Hungry organizations 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.

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.

Many people manage the pressure to be fully devoted to work by simply giving in and conforming. In their quest to succeed on the job, accepters prioritize their work identities and sacrifice or significantly suppress other meaningful aspects of who they are. When work is enjoyable and rewarding, an accepting strategy may be beneficial, allowing people to succeed and advance in their careers. But a professional identity that crowds out everything else makes people more vulnerable to career threats, because they have psychologically put all their eggs in one basket. When job loss or other setbacks occur, accepters find it particularly difficult to cope, as other parts of their lives have withered away. For accepters, treating work as the be-all and end-all may be fulfilling when the job is going well, but it leads to fragility in the long term.

Furthermore, people who buy in to the ideal-worker culture find it difficult to understand those who do not. As a result, accepters can become the main drivers of organizational pressure for round-the-clock availability. They tend to have trouble managing people who have lives outside the office.  Accepters aren’t necessarily good mentors even to people who are trying to conform to the organization’s expectations. It can be difficult for junior colleagues to get these individuals’ time and attention, in part because accepters are so absorbed in the job. They can no longer understand how unbelievably stressful it is to come in not knowing how to play the game. As a result, they often take a sink-or-swim approach to junior-colleague development.

The strategy employed by another group of workers is to devote time to nonwork activities—but under the organization’s radar. Passing is hiding personal characteristics that might stigmatize them and subject them to discrimination. Consultants who are successful in passing as ideal workers receive performance ratings that are just as high as those given to peers who genuinely embrace the 24/7 culture, and colleagues perceive them as being always on.

Although passing enables people to survive in demanding cultures without giving their all to work, passers pay a psychological price for hiding parts of themselves from their colleagues, superiors, and subordinates. Human beings have a need to express themselves and to be known by others. When important aspects of their identities cannot be shared at work, people may feel insecure and inauthentic—not to mention disengaged. These feelings have real costs for organizations, too: Our research indicates that over time, passers have a relatively high turnover rate. This suggests that although they may get by in the short term, hiding key dimensions of themselves from their colleagues can be difficult to sustain in the long run.

Passing as an ideal worker can also make it hard to manage others. Passers don’t necessarily want to encourage conformance to the ideal-worker image, but on the other hand, advising subordinates to pass—and effectively engage in subterfuge—is also problematic. So is suggesting open resistance to the demands for round-the-clock availability, because (as we shall see) the careers of people who resist are likely to suffer. To complicate matters further, passers may believe that most people in the organization want to work all the time. 

A subtly destructive aspect of passing is that by failing to openly challenge the ideal-worker culture, passers allow that culture to persist. Their track records prove that people don’t need to be workaholics to succeed—but the organization continues to design and measure work as if that were the case.
Revealing.

Not everyone wants to pass—or can—and some who initially pass grow frustrated with this strategy over time. Revealers cope by openly sharing other parts of their lives and by asking for changes to the structure of their work, such as reduced schedules and other formal accommodations. 

Revealing allows people the validation of being more fully known by colleagues, which is denied to the passers. However, it can have damaging career consequences. At the consulting firm, performance reviews and promotion data showed that revealers paid a substantial penalty. Over time, being sanctioned for failure to conform can lead to resentment. Instead of motivating people to devote themselves first and foremost to their work, it may cause them to leave the organization in search of a better fit.

The experience of revealing their nonwork commitments and being penalized for doing so can make it difficult for people to manage others. Like passers, revealers may struggle with encouraging their subordinates to accept ideal-worker pressures, but they may shy away from advising resistance because they know the costs firsthand.

People in leadership positions can avoid the fragility that results from blind acceptance of ideal-worker norms by deliberately cultivating their own nonwork identities: a civic self, an athletic self, a family-oriented self. One architect told us that when he defined himself solely in terms of his work, professional struggles and setbacks made him miserable. Ironically, as he broadened his focus, he found more professional fulfillment. As managers become more resilient, they may also learn that employees whose lives are better balanced create value for the organization.

Managers can start to change organizational norms by pointing out the positive things that employees’ outside activities bring to the workplace. One consultant whose firm had recently merged with another enterprise observed that none of his new colleagues ever stayed in the office past 5:30 PM. When he asked about this pattern, he was told: “We don’t want our folks to spend every waking minute at work; we want them to be well-rounded individuals, to be curious, to see things out in the world, and to have all kinds of different experiences that they can then bring to bear on their work.” People who pursue outside activities—volunteering in local politics, for example, or at a child’s school—are exposed to experiences, specialized knowledge, and networks that would be unavailable to them if they had spent that time holed up at the office.

Employees who choose a passing strategy do so in part because it’s common to evaluate how much people work (or seem to), rather than the quality of their output. This tendency is often reinforced by subtle and not-so-subtle beliefs and practices. For example, a senior consultant expressed his conviction that successful consultants must have the high-five factor: They’ve spent so much time on-site with the client that when they enter the client’s building, employees give them high fives.

Valuing work time over work product—which motivates people to deceive others about how many hours they’re clocking—is an easy trap to fall into, especially for professionals, whose knowledge-based work is difficult to evaluate.

Managers reduce the incentives for passing (and the costs of revealing) by encouraging people to focus on achieving their goals and measuring actual results rather than hours invested. For example, instead of celebrating a high-five factor based on time spent with the client, managers could praise employees for the quality of the advice provided or the number of repeat engagements secured. Managers can also move away from time-based rewards by working to set reasonable expectations with clients.

Most organizations leave it to their employees to set boundaries between their work and their nonwork lives—often with the best intentions. When Netflix offered unlimited time off, for example, managers thought they were treating their people like grown-ups. But providing complete freedom can heighten employees’ fears that their choices will signal a lack of commitment. Without clear direction, many employees simply default to the ideal-worker expectation, suppressing the need to live more-balanced lives.

Managers have the power to change this by flipping the script and actively protecting employees’ nonwork time and identities. They can, for example, institute required vacations, regular leaves, and reasonable work hours—for all employees, not just some. Making a firm commitment to avoid excessive workloads and extreme and unpredictable hours, rather than simply giving people the option to request downtime, will help them engage with other parts of their selves.

The pressure to be an ideal worker is at an all-time high, but so are the costs to both individuals and their employers. Moreover, the experiences of those who are able to pass as ideal workers suggest that superhuman dedication may not always be necessary for organizational success. By valuing all aspects of people’s identities, rewarding work output instead of work time, and taking steps to protect employees’ personal lives, leaders can begin to unravel the ideal-worker myth that has become woven into the fabric of their organizations. And that will enhance employees’ resilience, their creativity, and their satisfaction on the job.

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