Tag Archives: sg

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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9/11 Memories

I don’t have a thrilling or exciting memory of 9/11. It fact the banality of the what happened to me is almost striking giving the significance of what happened.

I was working for the French bank Société Générale in London at the time. On that day I was out of the office in Knightsbridge at a hotel on a management training course. I remember thinking how useless the course was as I had asked questions of the trainer like ‘how do I improve teamwork when my team is based in 9 different countries on time-zones from Tokyo to New York?’ and the trainer was only qualified to train people who were working directly with their staff. None of the other managers on the training course had to manage anyone in another country, so I just sat there – bored – on a day away from the office.

By the afternoon, a few people were getting text messages to say that something was happening in New York. This was before anyone could access the Internet on phones. It was before wi-fi was available everywhere. We were locked in a training room with only a vague idea that something big was happening outside.

When someone got a text message saying one of the towers was down, our trainer said that we should carry on the course for the full afternoon because our companies had all invested a lot of money and would not want to waste it.

We carried on for a bit longer, but everyone wanted to leave early to find out what was going on. I really had no idea until I got home later in the afternoon and switched on the TV to watch the images of the attacks repeating on a loop.

Our trainer was being conscientious, but he had preferred we sit there talking about how to hire and fire people rather than witnessing one of the major events of the new century.

I had a team working for me in the WTC complex. Not in towers 1 or 2, but across the square from there. I was frantically calling them to find if they were all OK, but the phone lines in New York were overloaded and many cellular radio towers had been destroyed along with the twin towers – so cell phone coverage was very patchy.

I did eventually get through to the guy who ran our technology systems in New York. I had a bizarre conversation as I walked my dog in my local park in lovely evening sunshine and talked to him in New York about how he ran from the office to his home and wife… only a couple of miles, but in complete chaos.

We had very good disaster plans in place. My responsibility was the banks connection to the stock exchange. The next morning we had our systems up and running in another office. We were ready to trade, but the stock exchange had been closed.

It was a day when everything felt paralysed – even for those of us not in the USA. I had never imagined a mainland attack within the USA and the events that were created by that one day are still shaping our history now. It was hard to imagine such iconic buildings were there one morning and 90 minutes later were gone – I had been to the top of those towers several times and enjoyed a beer up there in a space that no longer existed.

For me though, it was a day of strange memories. Meaningless to most, but worth remembering here for my own sake. One day I might not remember the sheer terror in the voices I was talking to in New York that day and the paradox of me throwing a ball for the dog as I talked.

World Trade Center - New York City, New York / ニューヨークシティ (ニューヨーク)