March 20, 2007 / 9:39 AM / 13 years ago

"Work less!" global companies tell top managers

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chi-Won Yoon likes to leave his office by 6 pm — 7 pm at the latest.

A trader at her desk in a file photo. A global study in the Harvard Business Review showed more than 50 percent of male executives and more than 80 percent of women executives working 60 hours a week or more said they would not be able to keep it up for more than a year. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

A banker with Swiss investment bank UBS UBSN.VX, his day is far from over, what with conference calls with London and New York that will keep him busy until midnight. But he wants to send a message to his staff that it’s okay to go home.

For many managers at global companies, 70-hour weeks are becoming the norm. Yet their firms would rather they took Yoon’s approach.

A global study in the Harvard Business Review showed more than 50 percent of male executives and more than 80 percent of women executives working 60 hours a week or more said they would not be able to keep it up for more than a year.

Women tend to quit such jobs after a few years, the study shows. Men often stay but more than 40 percent who worked those hours experienced “brown-out” within five years and had lost their creative zeal.

Globalization, instant communication and the huge financial rewards on offer in many top jobs are leading to “extreme” working hours, says Sylvia Ann Hewlett of the New York-based Center for Work-Life Policy and a co-author of the study.

“These factors are not going to change so companies will have to create alternative work models,” Hewlett said. “But for nimble companies at the cutting edge there’s an opportunity to hang on to talent if they allow breathers and restorative time.”

NEW APPROACHES

Hewlett said several companies are trying new things:

— American Express Co (AXP.N) allows top talent to apply for a two-year assignment doing high-impact projects for part of the year. “It means they can get down to, say, 40-hour workweeks for part of the year,” said Hewlett.

— Network equipment provider Cisco Systems Inc (CSCO.O) allows some staff to take 6-12 months out to work at a non-profit organization.

— Google Inc (GOOG.O) encourages workers to spend 25 percent of their week on their own projects, free of distractions.

— Wal-Mart Stores Inc (WMT.N) has introduced standing-only meetings where BlackBerries are left at the door. “The point is to cut to the chase,” said Hewlett.

Back at UBS, Yoon underlines his point by arriving in the office at around 9:30 a.m. — two hours after many staff.

Emphasizing sane work hours is all part of talent management for Yoon, the head of Asian equities for the Swiss firm.

“If you have the talent management right you can get the business right,” he told a human resources conference hosted by his company.

It’s no easy matter, though.

Executives say that as their businesses expand globally, unpredictable work demands and tight deadlines are adding pressure, while endless meetings give them little time to focus.

Weekly travel and back-to-back meetings also are making senior managerial positions less attractive.

“Not everyone wants to travel every week and wake up in a different hotel room. Management has got to ask: is this person going to be happy in this job?” said Ronnie Tan, Asia managing director of Development Dimensions International, a human resources development firm.

Women in particular are being deterred from high-level careers, a trend that could have risky consequences as an aging population narrows the talent pool.

“Women are backing off because they see these extreme jobs and losing women from the talent pipeline is going to become an issue with an aging population,” said Hewlett.

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