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Staying Late at Work Vs. Leaving on Time

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100 employees were asked about their working habits. Debbie Mitchell shares the results.

“Just leave your jacket on the back of your chair when you go home, and they’ll think you’re here working late”.

This is the sage advice that I was given early in my career. It quickly became apparent that a long-hours approach was the key to perceived success and career progression. That was nearly 30 years ago, but has the desire (or is it a requirement?) for working long hours changed?

What has changed for sure is the context we work in.

Technology has enabled us to be ‘always on’ – to work remotely, to access our emails and messages via our phones 24 hours a day, and to be able to work in any location thanks to portable devices and wifi. It has enabled global working, connecting employees with overseas offices and stakeholders through collaboration tools, regardless of the time difference.

What's more, our need for flexibility is growing. For many, carer responsibilities take priority, either as parents of children or caring for old or unwell relatives - or in many cases, both. This necessitates balance, but more and more employees without such responsibilities are demanding flexibility – enabling them to manage lifestyle choices such as health, charitable work and social causes or a desire to travel. Or they may just want to have a choice about when to work and when not to.

These factors can suggest that ‘typical' working hours are a thing of the past, and yet this too creates challenges in the setting of boundaries between work and home. Frequently we hear about the blurring of the two – that work-life balance is a thing of the past, and now a blended approach is more fit for purpose.

To understand a bit more about the experiences of people at work, I carried out a survey of 100 employees, across hierarchical levels and different organisations types. Our findings showed that 81% of our respondents were working late with 16% of them doing so every day, and 80% staying for up to 2 hours.

At face value, it’s a worrying trend, particularly given that the most common reasons for doing so were that there is too much work to do in a normal day (70% of respondents) and/or too many meetings during the day to get any work done (43% of respondents). There may be a number of reasons for this – it could be argued that employees need to take more accountability for prioritising workload and focussing on value-added activities, but it must also be said that people managers need to take a strong leadership role. Leaders need to ensure that there is an environment of trust that enables and empowers employees to speak up when they feel overworked. They need to help their teams to prioritise, using coaching and regular check-in conversations to uncover issues and concerns and work collaboratively to find solutions. And of course, they need to understand the workload and the resource requirements to enable everyone to do a good job, but of course in the context of often challenging budget constraints. It’s a difficult but important balance to find.

There are some positive reasons why people choose to stay at work late, too. Some people stay late so that they can flex their hours at another time (54%), while some feel they have a quieter space (25%) or can focus better (26%). It is equally important for leaders to recognise that some employees value flexibility and prefer to work a pattern that plays to their strengths, rather than to an enforced ‘standard’ or ‘typical’ working day. Being able to provide the opportunity and the equipment that can enable flexible work times and locations will help people to manage their conflicting priorities more effectively and without the stress.

17% of participants said they are working late simply because they love their job. Managers would do well to harness the value of this level of passion for work and engagement with the company and the job. However, they also need to be careful that working long hours and/or taking work home isn’t seen by others as ‘necessary’ to succeed or progress in an organisation.

Most worrying is that 6% of our survey participants said they worked late because they felt it would impress their boss. 9% felt it was expected in their organisation, and 22% believed working late was expected at their level in the hierarchy. This ‘presenteeism’ is a worrying trend – that employees feel they must be at work longer than may be needed for their work is concerning and contradicts the current focus on employee wellbeing. It suggests that employees feel insecure in their work and that managers continue to value attendance over and above the quality of outputs and deliverables.

For those respondents who don’t work late, the most common reason given was that they have other commitments or activities in the evenings (49%) and work is not a priority (43%). 45% of respondents said that they prioritised their own wellbeing over work. Organisations need to do the same – and recognise the bottom-line benefits of doing so. Many are getting on board – I’ve worked with clients recently who have launched ‘wellbeing weeks’, appointed wellbeing champions and have healthy choices available for activities, food and relaxation. These will only be effective if leaders also support wellbeing through a focus on the work that people do, how it is done, and when and where they can do it.

Without a doubt, as employees change the way that they want to work, so organisations need to adapt. In the war for talent and with a focus on wellbeing, balance and purpose, leaders need to be equipped and enabled to focus on delivery of great outcomes, in environments and methods that enable people to work at their very best.