Whether you know it or not, your employees feel immense pressure to be committed to their jobs--and available 24 hours a day. 

You might, at first, be happy about this. What kind of founder doesn't want a hard-working staff? But the reality is more nuanced. While you might think your team is devoted 24/7 to work, in truth, most of them are finding ways to deal with your company's inclination toward workaholism. 

In fact, according to research published yesterday in the Harvard Business Review, your employees are likely to cope with the pressure to be perpetually available in one of three ways:

  • Accepting the culture's demands, and working accordingly (43 percent).
  • Passing as the sort of employee who accepts the culture's demands, but secretly doing all they can to escape them (27 percent).
  • Revealing how the culture's demands are oppressive, even if doing so poses a risk to their reputation as being hard-working and available (30 percent).  

The authors of the paper are Erin Reid, an assistant professor of organization behavior at Boston University's Questrom School of Business, and Lakshmi Ramarajan, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. In a recent interview, they told me that in an ideal workplace, most people would be in the "revealing" camp. Leaders and employees alike would be unafraid to push back when there is too much on their plate, or when colleagues won't stop pestering them during nights and weekends. 

Alas, most cultures--perhaps yours, too--frown upon employees who insist upon limits to availability. Still, you might be wondering: What, then, are the advantages of a revealing culture, as opposed to an "accepting" or "passing" culture, where employees conform to the 24/7 grind? 

For one thing, accepter behavior can create a culture of workaholics who lack the perspective and insight you gain from pursuing projects and hobbies outside the job. In addition, accepters aren't good mentors--they have no time for junior colleagues, and even if they did, they're the types who'd make a display of not having the time. 

As for passers, they pay a psychological price for hiding elements of their lives. It means they cannot bring their authentic selves to the job--which ultimately leads to a lack of engagement. "These feelings have real costs for organizations, too," note the authors. "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."

In other words, if you have a culture of rewarding accepters and passers, you may think you've got a good thing going--a culture where everyone conforms to working hard. In reality, it's a culture prone to high turnover, a lack of leadership development (because of the poor mentoring), and narrow-minded thinking (where employees have few outside interests, and those who do are reluctant to mention them). 

The authors suggest you get to the bottom of why you have a 24/7 culture in the first place. Ask yourself: How does your company design, measure, and reward employees? Are you promoting and recognizing the false hustle of those who send emails on Sunday night, or are you doing the more difficult job of acknowledging the employees who do their jobs with quiet, steady efficiency?

Remember: Your employees will not become revealers unless they feel safe enough to do so. The authors say that will happen only when they can find an internal support network of like-minded revealers--the higher up in the hierarchy, the better. That way, a lone revealer won't feel as if she's sticking her neck out. So as you go about building your culture, or tweaking it to create a better workplace, think about what you can do to foster a faith in revealing. A first step is to ask your top team to practice revealing as a behavior. "You don't want to be unrealistic about this," says Ramarajan. "Pragmatically, the more you have coalitions and allies, the better off you are."

You can also change your culture by pointing out how your employees' outside hobbies bring insights and creativity to the workplace. One consultant whose firm had recently merged with another enterprise told the authors that none of his new colleagues ever stayed in the office past 5:30 p.m. He couldn't believe his new culture was so inclined toward a lack of 24/7 availability. So he inquired about it. And his new bosses told him: "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."

Who wouldn't want to work for an organization like that?

Published on: May 18, 2016