Wall Street pay

Why banking and work-life balance don't mix

February 4, 2014: 10:17 AM ET

Citigroup is the latest Wall Street bank to limit work hours, but that won't mean underlings will have more time to kick back.

By Sanjay Sanghoee

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FORTUNE -- Citigroup, the nation's third-largest bank, is giving its junior bankers a break from Wall Street's infamously rigorous work hours. In a memo last week, the bank told its underlings they'll be required to take Saturdays off and use all their vacation time each year; the firm joins a growing number of banks, such as Bank of America (BAC), Credit Suisse (CS), and Goldman Sachs Group (GS), in limiting work hours to retain staff and give young bankers more predictability and flexibility with their time.

As well intended as this may sound, however, can it work? As a former investment banker, I'm surprised by the trend -- it's a far cry from the macho days of Wall Street.

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Even during slow times, banking is a labor-intensive profession. From poring over reams of annual reports and analyst research to creating complex financial models and writing large offering documents and pitch books, analys­­ts and associates have their hands full at all times. Even word processing departments and copy centers that are meant to support bankers often create more work when they screw up (which happens quite a lot) than reduce it.

It is easy for banks to tell employees not to work too hard, but in practice you either put in the hours to get the work done or pay for it with your career prospects. If banks really want to alter this dynamic, they need to streamline the work process, but that too is easier said than done given the nature of the business and the demands of clients.

As much as technology makes our working lives more efficient, it also makes taking off a lot harder: I once worked with an analyst who "accidentally" dropped his pager into a toilet bowl so that it would short out. It was, he explained, the only way he could get a good night's sleep. This was before smartphones became ubiquitous; today the situation is a lot worse. Citigroup (C) does not require junior bankers to come into the office on Saturdays but still expects them to check their emails, which means they are still on the hook. Like most other jobs, constant connectivity means constant accountability, and whether you are in the office or not is irrelevant.

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And face time continues to be a big part of the culture; it's often used to measure commitment and rewarded with large bonuses and promotions. So young bankers, in particular, feel pressured to provide it. Moreover, as the deal market has shrunk and competition amongst banks has intensified, banking fees and the compensation pool have also contracted. This creates a Darwinian struggle for money and advancement, and makes the substitute of work-life balance less attractive. Wall Street is, after all, an ambitious and competitive place.

This is not to belittle the value of work-life balance, which is considerable, but without systemic changes in the banking industry and a realignment of expectations, this shoe may not fit. In the meantime, banks should be careful not to demotivate junior bankers by replacing pay with spare time without first ensuring that the tradeoff actually works.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a political and business commentator. He has worked at investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner, as well as at mutli-strategy hedge fund Ramius Cowen. He has appeared on CNBC's Closing Bell, MSNBC's The Cycle, TheStreet.com, and HuffPost Live on business topics. He is also the author of two thriller novels.

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