The case for forcing your staff to leave the office at 5

When it comes to encouraging a healthy work-life balance, you can lead by example...or just lock the doors

Woman at desk with computer warning it will shut down in 10 minutes

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

When the clock strikes eight at Patagonia’s headquarters in Ventura, Calif., you can bet the offices are empty. That’s when the outdoor clothing brand locks its doors for the night. Employees don’t have to stop working, but they can’t stay at the office. It’s one way Patagonia signals to staff that while they’re free to set their own hours, they shouldn’t be excessive.

“A lot of parents pick up email threads or work later in the evening after they’ve put the kids to bed,” says Adam Fetcher, director of global PR and communications for Patagonia. “There’s an expectation that people are not burning the midnight oil here at the office.”

The old idea of first in, last out is a powerful one, despite evidence that working long hours is neither effective nor healthy. Research has shown that giving your staff downtime and making the lines between work and time off clearly visible can actually lead to greater productivity, creativity and wellness.

In a 2009 study, the Boston Consulting Group forced 250 employees to take one day off per week during periods of peak intensity. The staff resisted at first, but came to appreciate the enforced breaks. As one manager told the Harvard Business Review, “It really helped the team overcome the perception that they had to be on call 24-7.” More important, the study participants were as productive as before, despite losing 20% of their workweek.

Ideally, you shouldn’t need to force employees out of the office. Karen Wright, managing director of Parachute Executive Coaching in Toronto, encourages her clients to implement a three-step process to help set boundaries between their work and personal lives: “Decide what’s important to you, communicate those rules or boundaries and enforce them.” Wright suggests leading by example. “It’s the responsibility of the leader to set the tone, and make sure you’re clear what the expectations are.”

At Amex Bank of Canada’s new Toronto headquarters, the company has implemented systems to offer employees more flexibility in how, when and where they get their work done. While the company has no policies requiring staff to go home at a reasonable hour, CEO Howard Grosfield is strict about leaving the office between 5 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. each day so he can have dinner with his family. “In the long run, setting those boundaries and holding myself accountable helps me to do my job better. I encourage my employees to do the same,” he wrote in an email to Canadian Business.

Actions like that can have a trickle-down effect, says Naomi Titleman, vice-president of human resources for Amex Bank of Canada. “If executives are telling their teams, ‘Oh, no problem, you can leave early,’ but they’re here to all hours of the night, that doesn’t set the right tone.”

Wright cautions it’s important to remember that balance doesn’t look the same for everybody. (She even prefers using words like “integration” or “sustainability” over work-life balance.) She points out that encouraging healthy attitudes toward work doesn’t necessarily mean restricting office hours to nine to five, but rather encouraging employees to have lives beyond the confines of their cubicles.

Should you need to resort to drastic measures to pry your staff away from their workspaces, you could consider making their desks disappear, literally. That’s what Amsterdam design studio Heldergroen does. Every day at 6 p.m., a manager turns a key to lift all the desks, papers and all, to the ceiling via a cable pulley system. If that doesn’t signal to your employees that it’s time to go home, you might not be running a company; you might be leading a cult.