It’s Friday evening, and a young investment banker, let’s call him Ted, has a date: dinner and the theatre with his girlfriend. At 5 p.m., many of his co-workers and, more important, his boss, are still at their desks. So Ted hangs his suit jacket on his chair, turns on his desk lamp, slips into another jacket and leaves for the date. To anyone walking by his office, Ted appears still on the job and definitely not a slacker who took off early just because it was Friday.
This is a true and not-uncommon story, says Ronald Burke, a professor of organization studies at York’s Schulich School of Business and author of The Long Work Hours Culture: Causes, Consequences and Choices. “This pressure to be seen in the workplace has always been around, especially within the billable-hours crowd,” he says. Despite gains in work-life balance among some progressive companies, certain industries still value old-fashioned face time from their employees, perhaps now more than ever. “Since the economic downturn, people feel even more pressure to be physically present,” says Burke. “And to look like they’re always working so they don’t seem expendable.”
Recently, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg caused a stir after revealing in a video interview that she leaves work every day at 5:30 p.m. to have dinner with her family—and she’d been doing it since she had kids, even when she worked for Google. “It’s not until the last year, two years, that I’m brave enough to talk about it publicly,” she said. Ensuing web chatter applauded Sandberg for not yielding to corporate peer pressure that correlates time spent in the office to one’s worth to the company. Of course, when you are a powerful senior executive, it’s easier to leave early, and it’s not as though the work stops once you have the left the office. So, the issue is not productivity and long hours, but the perception of productivity, and in competitive industries like law, banking, consulting or technology, this puts enormous pressure on employees to be at the office.
An equity research associate at a large Canadian bank puts it bluntly: “You can leave only after your boss leaves.” Wishing to remain anonymous, this researcher admits, “If your boss stays late and you take off, you’re probably going to get called out.” On the investment banking side, he says, juniors have the most pressure to put in long hours, because they’re “doing the behind-the-scenes grunt work,” which can’t be measured as easily as the productivity of senior bankers, who can be judged on the clients they woo and how much business they bring in.
Burke says this is a widespread problem. “The reality is that most companies don’t have good ways to evaluate your contribution, so as a proxy they use how many hours you’re putting in.” Burke suggests managers sit down with employees to explicitly set measurable expectations and targets. But that’s assuming a manager sees putting in long hours as a problem. In many offices, the work culture originates from the top. “At some firms, the bosses are nuts and work six or seven days a week,” Burke says, “and that sets the tone.”
Jonathan Mikhail, a 31-year-old software developer and technical writer, bucks traditional office protocol. “I’ve always been very stubborn about coming and going at unconventional hours, which, in my early years, caused me considerable grief from employers,” he says. Mikhail has since tried to work either for himself or for small companies that foster close relationships between a supervisor and team and therefore tend to be more understanding about work schedules. Now, as president of Xcellence Inc. of Toronto, a small company that provides tax and patent services for startups, Mikhail and his partner have reached an understanding. “I come and go as I want, but if a client needs us or it’s crunch time or there’s a problem and I have to stay until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., he can count on me to be there.”
Ultimately, Burke says, an employee must figure out what schedule works for him or her in the long haul. “A lot of people work hard and put in long hours because they’re given rewards—money, perks, status—so they are generally prepared to make the sacrifice,” he says. “But most would also say they’d rather be at work less.”