Is it really so strange to leave work at 5.30pm?

I once moved job from a French financial services company to an American one – Société Générale to Sanford Bernstein. My new boss was based in New York and he used to endlessly mock the holidays we were given by our employers in Europe.

After one particularly “hilarious” episode talking to him about holidays, I reminded him that I had moved from a job where I had annual leave of 30 days to his company where I was only permitted 20 – and that was the absolute minimum allowed under EU law. He claimed that I should be grateful because in New York he gets a week off for Christmas and a week off in the summer for a family vacation.

I never even wanted to move from a French company to an American one. The bank was reducing headcount by 50% (in London) and I was offered a job in Paris, Bangalore, or half my annual salary to leave the firm. So I took the money, left, and was in the new job within weeks.

This macho work culture also prevailed in the London office of Bernstein. I would get my work done and head off home at about 5.30pm most days. I almost always had to listen to colleagues calling out jibes such as “…going home now? Part-time or what?”

Frankly it never bothered me. I was getting paid more than the guys calling out and boasting about their long hours – who is the fool when you are putting in more hours for less cash? And looking back now, I know that spending long evenings at the office would never have made me any happier. Why do people do it?

I started thinking about my former employer when I read the breathless reports that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg leaves the office at 5.30pm each day so she can enjoy dinner with her family each evening. The way it is reported makes it appear unusual for American office-based employees to leave work before 8pm – and assuming they might spend an hour getting home, then having dinner, it means that for most people it is normal to not enjoy any free time after work . The day is just commute then work then commute then eat then bed.

I work with clients now who respond to emails 24/7, schedule calls when they are on family holidays, and never seem able to switch off. Has it really got so bad that employees are now expected to be walking around DisneyWorld with their family and yet still taking calls from the office? This really happened on a conference call I participated in recently – with the guy at Disney trying to focus on work and keep his kids busy at the same time. What a multi-tasking dad!

I realise that in a tough economic climate people are scared and will do whatever they can to appear invaluable to the company, but why don’t employers switch the emphasis on what they expect of people to the output and value rather than time? If the employee is clear on what is expected for them to be judged successful in their job then the emphasis can be shifted away from long hours appearing to be impressive – if you know you are delivering for the company then you can feel comfortable heading home to see the family.

Of course, many people fear the idea that they might be judged on results rather than just time and apparent effort. It means that the less successful members of the team cannot hide their inability just by working 12-hour days when others can achieve more in 8 hours.

But while America – and the world in general – focuses on long hours as the key to remaining in a job, expect family problems and mental health issues to soar. If only companies learned to measure employees by what they achieve, rather than the hours they spend achieving.

Only psychiatrists benefit from the present approach, and I bet they get home in time for dinner with the kids.

Sunbathing?

Photo by David Reid licensed under Creative Commons

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4 responses to “Is it really so strange to leave work at 5.30pm?

  1. Interesting article. I disagree that people work late to impress, more to survive! Reasons I work late include tasks taking longer than evisaged, having to turnaround work more quickly because you find out senior colleagues (in UK) are off on holiday for two, three weeks, having to deliver items before bank holidays, because you want days off and projects have to be completed by then, taking conf. Calls with north america, covering for ill colleagues and, I put my hands up,cause I am inefficient during the day and help on other people’s projects instead of focusing on what I am measured on.

    • Bella, we live in a business environment today that is global so I know what you mean. Sometimes you have to take a call at an odd hour because it is with someone in another part of the world, sometimes you have a deadline to meet. This is just pragmatism – we all have to put in extra effort now and then. But when long hours and late nights are institutionalised then there is something wrong. It was certainly the case in the last company I worked for before working for myself, yet I had the confidence to just not accept that the status quo was ‘normal’ – maybe because I always felt I could just work for myself anyway? I appreciate that many people will feel they just have to do it to survive, which comes back to my point that companies should judge people by what they achieve, not how long they spend doing it… it is a cultural change that is needed.

  2. Be thankful you don’t work in Japan 🙂

    • David, I have worked in Japan in the past and you can guess that I don’t have much time for a system that rewards time since graduation above ability and where managers are still almost exclusively male. When I was managing a team in Japan, the competent people – who could also speak English – were the women, yet it was the men who held all the power. Absolute nonsense and I trust that a younger generation of Japanese will see where it has led them.

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