Working from home has traditionally been viewed as a benefit for employees who are looking for a better work-life balance. However, this has not been the case for junior employees of Goldman Sachs who are pleading for the luxury of working only eighty hour weeks. The pandemic triggered an exodus from office buildings but it brought no relief from the relentless hours. In fact, the lack of definition between home and work life made the situation even worse!
Goldman employees are hardly a sympathetic group. After all, the carrot at the end of the very long stick is a lucrative career that promises financial freedom at a relatively young age and everyone knows that investment banking is notorious for long hours.
They signed up for this.
This is the traditional view of long hours, especially on Wall Street. Why do the bosses expect and demand it? Mostly because they went through the same thing as junior employees, and by God, so will the new generation of underlings! Traditionally, this has meant long hours at the office with plenty of face time with the boss, but in a pandemic era of working from home, the same expectations exist for junior employees to be available on a 24/7 basis remotely.
So much for a work-life balance. You can sleep when you’re dead.
Given the obvious dysfunction of expecting people to be productive for sixteen to twenty hours a day, it is tempting to dismiss this practice as self-evidently stupid but any tradition that has been in existence for decades should be more carefully examined. Are there any benefits?
The military is famous for putting new recruits through hell in the form of boot camps. There is no private time, no individualism, and the idea of a work-life balance is completely foreign. The goal is to indoctrinate recruits into the military way of life and, more importantly, to establish a set of shared experiences that will build unit cohesion in the long run. The United States Marine Corps has a motto of “Earned, Never Given”. Those who finish boot camp have earned their place in the Marines and know that their fellow soldiers have also earned it.
But Goldman Sachs isn’t the United States Marine Corps, and the ultimate goal is making money, not serving and protecting the country.
This is not to say that investment banking does not serve society — it does, not only in theory but in practice, by helping to facilitate the allocation of capital that is vital in a market economy. There is obviously a sense that “recruits” must prove themselves to be totally dedicated to the firm and must pay their dues in order to earn their place at higher levels. And you can bet that these new recruits in 2021 will remember their experiences and impose the same thing on their underlings in the 2030s and 2040s.
But is any of this useful or productive?
Other than a brief internship in a brokerage firm in college, I have no professional exposure to the finance industry. But I did have extensive experience in the startup culture of Silicon Valley during the 1990s and 2000s. The culture of Silicon Valley during that timeframe had much in common with Wall Street, at least in terms of working hours.
In technology startup culture, working insane hours was the norm, not the exception, and eighty hour weeks were common. this typically took the form of 12-14 hour days, six days per week, with plenty of cases where even more was necessary. Or at least we thought it was necessary.
What happens when you put a young software engineer in front of a screen for twenty hours a day? At first, you get a lot of productivity, or at least what you think is productivity. You get many lines of code written in a frenzy and most of it even seems to work, at least most of the time. But 10 pm comes along and that additional feature still isn’t working quite right, so the pizza arrives and soon it is 2 am, then 4 am, and you’ve pulled an all-nighter, but now at least the feature you were working on works, at least it seems to.
In a start-up culture, there is pressure to write code in order to quickly show results and ship products, but what you quickly discover is that there is a point where additional hours stop producing incremental benefits and start to create incremental harm.
I cannot count the number of cases where bugs in source code that were introduced during all-night coding sessions ended up costing enormous amounts of time and money to rectify later. Lack of sleep and the desire to just get … it … done … is not conducive to quality work, at least not for most people.
There are exceptions, but most human beings cannot function well for very long in a culture like this. You might be able to bootstrap a startup working insane hours for a period of time but this is not a good way to build a team that will stay together for many years. From what I have read recently, there are some signs that the larger technology firms have begun to recognize the self-defeating nature of a culture that requires crazy hours, but I am sure that startup culture has not changed very much.
Looking back at the years of sixty and eighty hour weeks, it is clear that it was hardly worthwhile. Not only because it made a decent work-life balance completely impossible but because it was often counter-productive and useless. Having been through this culture myself, I expected it from employees who reported to me and I thought that continuing to work long hours myself would set the right example. Instead, it probably sent the message that long hours would never relent and that if you want a better work-life balance, you should look elsewhere.
“I did it, so you have to do it” is not exactly an intelligent way to structure a team, but it seems to be the way things are still done in many industries today.