Work or Break: Butt-in-chair time

This is part of a series called Work or Break, where we'll examine a particular workplace/job search issue from 2 perspectives: an approach to work the system when you need to get or keep a job, and the approach you can take if you're in a position to help break a toxic or damaging system. Institutional change takes a lot of individual action, and not everyone is in a position to make those moves, but if you are, there's a strong moral argument for doing so.


Forbes has a new piece out with advice on starting a new job. A lot of it is pretty good - make good first impressions, always be learning, energize others... all good tips to start a new job on the right food. 

But #2 on their list gives me a bit of pause: Be the first one in and the last one out. 

I mean, it's an approach with some merit. As author Gary Burnison points out, you're broadcasting your dependability. If a problem pops up after-hours and you're the person there to solve it, people will remember that. People will come to you with other, similar issues. In my experience, the way to build a good professional reputation - the kind that will carry you into better jobs, help you start your own business one day, or help you climb the ranks - is to become the go-to person. The more things you can be the go-to person for, the better. 

(This is a big part of why I personally prefer working in smaller organizations where you can wear many hats... I go nuts doing the same thing every day and work best as a generalist, but it has the added bonus of being a big fish in a small pond if you work hard and are good at your job!)

But there's a danger to the approach as well, which is that it reinforces one of the worst, dumbest norms in business: that coming in early and staying late means you're working hard and giving it your all. That your value as an employee is in some way represented by the amount of time you're at your desk. And that the best employees don't have boundaries or work-life balance. 

My last job was at a fairly big media company (not big compared to, say, Sinclair Media, but much much bigger than any company I'd worked for before). And it's filled with really hardworking, smart journalists. Folks who put in 50, 60 hours a week on their beats, churning out copy. The #1 employee complaint I heard at that company (like, I suspect, basically all media companies) was that the hours were crushing and workloads were too high. I, and others, tried to do things to encourage more social interaction, encourage a better balance for employees, and bring up morale, but ultimately, the issue was simply that people had high workloads and the company had no interest in reducing those workloads in the long term. In fact, they turned it back on their employees: we hire really exceptional, ambitious journalists, so we couldn't slow them down if we tried. 

(At another gig several years ago, a lot of us would remark that if we could just close the organization for a week, and really take time to get caught up, to implement some new systems, to catch our breaths and reduce the backlog, it would pay off so much in the long run. But, of course, that never seems to be an option.) 

I don't say all that as a dig at my company (well, only a little). It's a tale as old as time. Every organization has a list of stuff they feel like they need to get done, and slowing down is simply not an option. Every org is saving the world or fulfilling an important mission or living up to a promise to their readers or whatever. 

But the norms in a lot of our business culture are set so deeply to "going the extra mile" and putting in the work that, in many companies, an employee who works a good, solid 40 hour week and punches out at 5:01 every day is looked down on, regardless of performance during those 40 hours. 

And the more competitive your industry is, the more this happens. It starts at the top: many (most?) CEOs are obsessed with their business. They're the architects of their own destinies, doing the job they've always dreamed of doing. So they start working at 5 AM and answer emails into the night because they feel the weight of the enterprise on their shoulders. 

When I worked (briefly) on a congressional campaign way back in 2008, our campaign had an unwritten rule that I suspect most campaigns (and probably many startups have): you don't leave until the candidate leaves. And the candidate is working 12 hour days, 7 days a week. So that's what everyone worked. 

But a campaign is a finite period. It ends, and then you move on to a different campaign after taking a few weeks off, or move on to a different job. 

Let's take this all back to the piece we're talking about. 

Being first in and last out will help you establish a reputation for dependability. It will probably open you to opportunities you might not get otherwise. But it also sets a personal standard that is hard to keep up. Do you want to be first in, last out forever? If you start leaving at 5 after your first year, will people perceive your performance as falling off, because you're not putting in the time you used to? Will you be able to live up to a 60 hour week productivity level if you drop down to a normal 40? 

Are you willing and able to work 60 hours a week forever? 

What if you simply can't do it at all? What if you've got to drop off the kids at daycare at a precise time and that gives you just enough time to roll into work around 9:30?

What if you have therapy every week at 5:00, so you need to leave a bit early once a week for that? 

Ultimately, when companies assign value (whether institutionally or not) to seat-time, it will tend to disadvantage folks who have, like, a life outside of work. It disadvantages people who have commitments outside their company, especially caregivers (which tend to be more women and more people of color). It will also disadvantage folks who have health issues that require flexibility in the workplace. And it advantages new grads and younger folks who came out of school hungry and ready to prove themselves.

I'm sure that's not entirely what Gary is going for, and I bet he'd agree with me about my conclusions here. But the fact remains: if you take his advice to be the first one in and the last one out, you're helping perpetuate a norm that makes life harder for a lot of people, and closes some doors off to folks who can't swing it. 

Maybe you need to do that! Maybe you got hired at Bain and need to put in 60 hour weeks in order to eventually be in a position to make things better for those who come after you. But be careful about building a reputation that involves giving your company all your time; the more people are willing to do it, the easier it is for companies to discriminate against people who can't, to refuse to build flexibility into their work schedules, and to build their business models around long hours and personal sacrifice of their employees.