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How to make your top staff work more

Micro-managers beware: new research from the University of Pennsylvania shows the more you tell your best young staff how much to work, the less they want to do. The secret to making them work hard is to give them carte blanche and allow them to set their own schedules.

Professor Alexandra Michel spent a decade tracking young high-fliers at two investment banks. She found that a culture of participation and autonomy (junior bankers were given lots of responsibility early on, and trusted to deliver the goods, without being micro-managed) produced a culture of sometimes massive overwork.

With no one tracking their working hours or how much holiday they took, these educated staff worked up to 120 hours a week, including nights and weekends “even when there was nothing urgent to do”, Michel found.

When bank HR departments tried to limit the amount the staff worked to create more of a work-life balance (by banning working at weekends, for example), nothing changed; staff just took their overwork underground.

From a New Zealand perspective, the study’s results needs to tempered by the fact that Michel was studying investment banking staff – renowned for competitive hard work. Moreover, the results reflect the US environment; almost anyone who’s ever worked in America is amazed by the long hours and short holidays.

But don’t dismiss the results.

One major finding was that staff worked harder when the hours were “self-imposed” – or at least employees believed they were.

“Employees with the best education and the most attractive employment options, such as software engineers, consultants, investment bankers, and lawyers, all believe they choose to work up to 100 hours per week and make themselves voluntarily available 24/7,” the study says.

The bankers did not notice – and therefore did not resist – the subtle ways in which the hands-off management style actually made them work harder.

Michel, who started her own career with investment bank Goldman Sachs, warns that while it might sound great to have your staff working 100-hour weeks, it’s not all rosy.

She found that often after four years, these employee-dictated work marathons led to “debilitating physical and psychological breakdowns [including] chronic exhaustion, insomnia, back and body pain… addictions, and compulsions, such as eating disorders”, which cut staff productivity in the long term.

Chief editor at Idealog, Nikki's a veteran in the journalism industry. A former lecturer at AUT University, she was the chief reporter at NZ weekly business publication The Independent and was deputy editor of Canadian publication Unlimited magazine.

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