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Goldman Finally Tries to Get People to Work Less

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This post originally appeared in Harvard Business Review

Now they tell us. After years of hearing that it was impossible to restructure jobs to make them more doable, guess what? According to The Wall Street Journal, when Goldman Sachs discovered it couldn't attract and retain the most promising recruits with pay and perks alone, it woke up to the idea that you can actually restructure the way work is done. Earlier this year, Goldman formed a task force made up of senior staff to improve quality of life for junior employees. The group is trying to find ways to help young employees adhere to a five-day workweek without all-nighters and ruined weekends.

By spreading tasks out among a broader group of younger analysts (they hired 14% more new analysts for 2014 than they did for 2013), and asking managers to take the time to explain more clearly upfront what they really need them to do, Goldman says it can create a saner and more efficient workplace. Turns out you may not need people pulling all-nighters to crank out that 100 page presentation when two pages of talking points will do. This isn't the "softer side of Goldman", or the "right thing to do": it's good business.

The most talented Millennials, as Goldman has learned, aren't willing to sacrifice their lives to their careers. Neither are plenty of other exceptional people--men and women--who currently opt out from the grind of traditional corporate life and investment banking in particular.

Restructuring the nature of corporate work makes employers more efficient and productive since they no longer have to buy people's entire lives or pay for work they don't need. But that kind of change takes a lot of time and thought, and Wall Street in particular has been able to coast along mindlessly, ignoring the problem because it's easier to just pay young grunts - and older grunts for that matter - to work around the clock to get the work done.

It should come as no surprise that economic forces (e.g., companies that can't hire and retain great people) rather than human forces (e.g., why would you only want to hire people willing to sacrifice everything) are driving this change on Wall Street. And Goldman - long the poster child for how success is defined on Wall Street - should be applauded for taking the first step.

However, at first blush, it seems that their changes don't go nearly far -- or high up -- enough. Lloyd Blankfein, who admitted to a group of interns that his fellow execs "could also relax a little bit, too," should start leading by example. If Goldman's leaders organize their work more intelligently, the entire C-Suite could show it's possible to kick back a little and still deliver for shareholders.

For too long, managerial laziness has driven the way our top corporations have thought about work. Better to find a "superstar" who can drive a team ruthlessly until everyone burns out, the thinking goes, than to develop a work plan that can get the same result with more creative and flexible management strategies. Time in the office is an "old think" factor that still shows up in too many HR department performance ranking grids. Instead, work can be broken up into discrete projects that allow for varying time commitments. And, people who are performing at the highest levels -- even if they choose to work fewer hours -- should be treated as stars, not slackers. Goldman and other high-pressure, high-powered firms should retire the notion that important and quality work can only be done by people who boast of their 24/7/365 commitment to their jobs. Why does someone need to work 12 hours a day to be considered a high performing player?

But despite the challenges with driving this kind of organizational change, I have hope for Goldman. Before this focus on junior employees, Goldman invested a lot in trying to crack the code on attracting and retaining another elusive group: women. The Goldman Sachs Returnship Program recruits people - largely women - "who are seeking to restart their careers after an extended, voluntary absence from the workforce." The program touts that "a returnship provides individuals with an opportunity to sharpen their skills in a work environment that may have changed since their last experience with a full-time job." (Emphasis added.) Nothing would help Goldman's returnship program more than actually changing their work environment by decoupling time and performance. And their willingness to be creative with women returning to the workforce makes me think they'll be able to structure work more appropriately for other employees, too. Maybe they'll even figure out a few things other organizations could try, too.

Then Goldman Sachs really would be doing "God's work."