working time; long working hours; path dependence; management consulting; professional service firms; work-life balance
300 Social sciences 331 Labor economics 650 Management and auxiliary services 330 Economics
This thesis explores the reasons for the persistence of the regime of long working hours and constant availability in professional service firms. Recently, this working time regime has become a central issue for many firms, as new generations of employees demand more work-life balance and flexibility provisions from their employers. However, empirical studies indicate that these firms’ efforts to implement various flexibility initiatives often fail or, in some cases, even seem to reinforce the existing patterns. Whereas extant research has repeatedly highlighted the need for changing such culturally embedded patterns of extraordinary long and inflexible hours, it has not sufficiently illuminated why, despite the numerous organizationally supported change efforts, such firms’ working time regimes remain stable. Why do so many firms seem to cling to their established working time regimes despite rising criticism, growing inefficiency and numerous change attempts?
The thesis addresses this question in several steps. First, it argues that the apparent “immunity” of long working hours regimes against intentional change efforts can be interpreted as a sign of a very specific form of organizational persistence, namely counterfactual stability, or short: ultra‑stability. In order to explore the reasons for such ultra-stability, one needs a special theoretical approach that allows to not only describe the existence of the persistent patterns, but also to explicate the underlying stabilizing processes and mechanisms which continuously reject attempted change efforts. Second, in order to develop a conceptual framework akin for analyzing such ultra-stable working time regimes, the thesis draws on the theory of organizational path dependence, which has gained increasing prominence as a process-oriented approach to explaining such puzzling cases of organizational persistence. Third, based upon a longitudinal qualitative case study of a large international management consulting firm, this framework is applied to explore and explain why this firm’s multiple attempts to adjust its working time regimes to the changing demands of its workforce have so far remained futile.
This empirical study provides three key findings. First, the emergence of the current working time regime could be linked to a shift in the studied firm’s marketing strategy, according to which consultants’ on-site presence in the client’s offices started to be used as a sales argument. Second, this shift in the firm’s strategy triggered two self-reinforcing dynamics which contributed to the perpetuation of the new strategy and, as a side effect, to a shift in the firm’s working time regime towards greater availability of consultants in the evening hours. Third, the analysis also shows that by following this path, the firm has maneuvered itself into an increasingly inefficient lock-in situation. The peculiar dynamics of this lock-in appear to continuously stabilize the inefficient working time patterns and to reject intentional change efforts. Taken together, these findings indicate that the ultra-stability of the firm’s working time regime can be interpreted as a case of organizational path dependence.
These findings contribute to extant research on long working hours regimes in professional service firms in three interrelated ways: first, the findings highlight the importance of the relationship between working time regimes and strategy, a factor rarely considered in extant research on work-life balance, which largely focuses on symbolic and cognitive factors. Second, by taking a longitudinal approach and showing how working time regimes are constituted through the co-evolution of organizations and their environments, the study contributes to a more nuanced view of organizational control. Finally, the findings emphasize the importance of taking into consideration decidedly organization-level mechanisms and processes for explaining the failure of current change initiatives which mainly target single individuals and/or groups. In addition, these findings also have more general implication for advancing a processual view of organizational path dependence, by highlighting the need for (i) a more differentiated concept of self-reinforcing mechanisms and (ii) a more dynamic view of organizational lock-ins.
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