Work ethic

Nov 05, 2023

Work should be an integral part of life, so why do so many people working in AEC firms clearly not feel that way?

I was talking with my friend and co-host of our podcast, Big Talk About Small Business, Eric Howerton, the other day, and he went into a mini-tirade about work ethic. “Work smarter AND work harder,” he said. “They aren’t mutually exclusive,” I added.

Of course, the conversation then degenerated into how many hours he and I each worked when we were trying to build our businesses (or save them, at various times!). We both agreed that work/life balance is not the goal, but rather, “work/life integration.” There aren’t (or shouldn’t be) hard lines between them.

The problem with work/life balance is the implicit assumption that work and life are two different things. In the work/life balance equation, the assumption is that “work” is inherently unpleasant and to be minimized so you can “live.” That’s a bad way to think about things!

Work should be an integral part of life. So why do so many people working in AEC firms (young and old – I don’t want to generationally bash here!) clearly not feel that way, and therefore minimize the time they spend working? I think there are a number of reasons. Four of these include:

  1. Social media. It’s a fact that most people spend hours a day on social media. And what do they see? A lot of it is how all of your “friends” are out having so much fun doing things that aren’t work-related. They are mountain biking, going on vacations to cool places, lounging by their pools, and going to concerts and parties. “Everyone” else seems to be having fun doing stuff that you aren’t doing. What’s wrong with you? The underlying message is, “You should be having more fun!”
  2. Example set by leadership. If the owners and top managers of the firm come in a little later than everyone else and cut out a little earlier at the end of the day, or take off on Monday or Friday regularly, how can you expect anyone else to want to be working? On top of that is response time. If the owners regularly disconnect and don’t respond on weekends or evenings, how can you expect anyone else to do so? You can’t. And that (responding) makes up a lot of the “work” that tends to bleed into our personal time for people in this business.
  3. Changing roles in our society. In the old days, it was common for middle class families to have one adult who went to work and the other adult who stayed home to take care of everything else. That arrangement allowed the one who worked to focus on that activity alone. Now I am not advocating we go back to that time, because it isn’t going to happen. Many families feel both adults have to work to make the money the family needs, not to mention that when one member of a couple works outside of the home and the other stays home, the one staying home can build up resentment for the one who gets to leave and go to work. But the fact is when both of the parents have to work, the other side of the equation is both have home and parenting duties to attend to as well. That makes it hard for either to fully dedicate themselves to work.
  4. Perceived lack of rewards for doing so. I recently wrote about this in The Zweig Letter when I compared the culture of our businesses to that of a New York law firm. In the latter, those who work a ton of hours and bill an incredible amount of their time to client projects have huge potential rewards from doing so. We don’t have those huge potential rewards in 99.9 percent of AEC firms. Everyone does well – don’t get me wrong – but “doing well” and completely blowing the top off what is “normal pay” for someone in a particular job for those who really put in a ton of hours rarely happens in our business.

As individual firm owners and managers, we can’t do a darn thing about No. 1 and No. 3 on my list, but we certainly can do something about No. 2 and No. 4. So if you are one of those owners lamenting the lack of work ethic of your people, you have to honestly ask yourselves if you aren’t contributing to the problem yourself. And if so, what are you going to do about it? 

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.