Embrace the Grind!

Rejecting today’s drive for a more friendly work culture, some firms are telling employees and recruits to expect grueling workweeks if they want to get ahead. 

Conventional wisdom says the pandemic will usher in a new era of flexibility. Work from home? Sure. Time off during the day to run errands or take care of family members? No problem. And then there are firms whose leaders are saying, “Forget that.”

In one recent case, an investment bank quantified how much time, even after the pandemic, that it believes young workers need to quickly log to reach so-called base-level mastery: 10,000 hours. In practical terms, that could mean three straight years of 72-hour workweeks. At the same time, many tech companies are making clear that their experiments in working from home still involve long work hours. All of which flies in the face of the friendly work culture concept that has become popular today. “There might not be a group that says ‘work me to death,’ but there is a segment that wants to become partner in three years,” says Juan-Pablo Gonzalez, a Korn Ferry senior client partner who specializes in professional services.

The size of that segment may be changing, however, given today’s unprecedented job market that has left firms scrambling to fill millions of vacancies to catch up with the booming economy. Already there’s been a wave of quits across industries, and the pandemic has upended the professional expectations of millions of people around the world. Indeed, in a recent Korn Ferry survey, 36% of professionals said the number one reason they want to quit their current job is that the pandemic allowed them to reevaluate what they really want out of work.

“I’m not saying people won’t put in the time when it’s needed, but there has to be more balance,” says Elise Freedman, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and a leader in the firm’s Workforce Transformation practice. “There are a lot more job doors open for people to take.”

Historically, of course, there have always been some industries—and some parts of the workforce—that thrive on the grind. Big law firms often expect some of their young associates to bill 2,200 hours a year, which in practice usually means actually working 12-hour days. Truck drivers can routinely put in 70-hour workweeks. Video game developers historically have expected their designers to put in “crunch time”—16-hour workdays for weeks to finish up a game. Then there’s the famous “996” schedule adopted by many technology firms in Asia: 9 A.M. to 9 P.M., six days a week. Many corporate leaders thought that lifestyle was something ambitious employees should embrace. “There will always be people who are attracted to positions of power and prestige,” Gonzalez says. And while long-haul truck driving doesn’t offer much glamour, it often provides a nice paycheck; the role, on average, pays about double the average US annual salary.

But experts say studies have started to show that hard-driving workers who don’t understand work-balance issues don’t necessarily make for the best leaders of the future. “The difficulty is that a lot of the leaders today in some of these sectors are the ones who put in 80-hour workweeks,” says Freedman. She says many of them will worry that changing their culture may put them at a competitive disadvantage if other firms stay with the all-in, no-balance approach. “Some will see it as a risk,” she says. “It’s a change that won’t happen overnight.”

Hard-driving firms that are slow to change may face also make the mistake of trying to have it both ways, adds Miriam Nelson, a senior client partner in Korn’s Ferry’s assessment and succession practice. New hires could get attractive packages and the impression of a well-balanced work environment. Then the reality sets in where expectations and workloads are high, and there may be little bandwidth of those around them to support their onboarding. "That will create a culture clash,” she says.