- The Hours Etc. -
what time should I start?
by fergus mellon
This is one of the most basic of all requirements and despite being a no brainer is where I have seen many, manyEarly Stage Professionals ("ESPs") fall flat on their face. While it can be tempting to think that results, and not time spent in the office, matter, I promise you that while results are important, getting to great results is generally speaking going to be the product of putting in a lot of work. The two are closely correlated and if you are ambitious you need to be prepared to put in the work. Even if you are not ambitious and even if your employers do not pay you by the hour they expect a certain minimum amount of time in the office for it to be worth employing you.
Time in the office is key.
To make it even more confusing, most of the employment agreements I have seen recently do not specify minimum office hours (and admittedly I am limited in my view here as I work in the digital sector where companies are less likely to do this anyway - it just ain't cool).
If you are in a situation where the hours are not specified, or even if you are not I would recommend as an absolute minimum finding out what time your peers get into the office and then at least echo this. You may think that no one notices what time you get into the office but you would be wrong. While most professional firms do not require you to "clock in", your manager and others in the company will notice those stragglers who are forever late into the office. Being forever tardy may not mean you are going to be put on some type of performance improvement plan (why risk it?), but if you are consistently arriving outside of the normal hours this will eventually reflect in their opinions of you and if you start to make errors in your work, then laziness could become one of the reasons attributed to your performance and this will be a difficult reputation to rid yourself of.
If you work for a cool tech start up where some people show up at 10:00 or 10:30, do not do it. All companies no matter how overtly laid back do care and do want employees to be in the office during normal business hours. I define normal business hours as between 9:30 and 6:00 at a minimum. You should too and if it is 8:00 until 6:00 or even later so be it.
You may think that no one would not listen to his or her manager, unfortunately I have found the opposite and lived this first hand. In my time working at one venture backed company that was going through some tough times (revenue was declining and we needed to focus on efficiency improvements) I inherited a small team of four people who had not been closely managed and had developed just awful habits of showing up at 10:30(ish), working until 12:30 and then taking an hour lunch and leaving at exactly 5:30 (they were good at watching the clock themselves!). As I said they had not been closely managed so there was an excuse for their lack of work ethic. However that excuse ended when I sat down with the team and explained that they needed to change their behavior and I asked all of them to get in the office at 9:30 and for them to only think about leaving at 6:00. I did not think this onerous and went so far as to explain the reasons for it so they knew it wasn't that I was just being a clock-watcher. I explained to them that, as they were in a sales support function, they needed to be in the office when our sales team and our clients were doing business so that they could get answers back to clients quickly. I explained that this would help us win more business. I received nods all round in the team meeting. Not necessarily enthusiastic nods, but no one disagreed with what I was asking for. The brightest of them, a young woman agreed that the hours were still very easy compared to what many other companies asked of their employees.
You can then imagine my surprise when over the coming days only one of the four (the bright young woman) changed the hours that they were working. It was beyond disappointing. I had spent a great deal of time with the individual who could not manage to work the 8-hours (taking out a 30 minute lunch break) I was asking of them but to no avail. So what did I do?
I put him on an informal performance improvement plan in partnership with his new manager (my responsibilities had broadened) and it was demeaning to this ESP. It was intentionally demeaning because the employee had shown he could not behave as a professional: he would have to join a morning call every day at 9:30 to plan out his working day. This made him feel like a junior employee, but as he had shown that he could not respond as an adult we had no option. And we also identified this employee as someone we would want to replace once the company had stabilized.
Mistake 2) Asking for special treatment. As an Early Stage Professional, while being an important source of future talent for the business you are also not in a position where you can ask favors of your employer. The reason for this is that your value to the company is still pretty limited. You won't have a large network to help you move the business forward, won't have significant professional experience that makes you truly effective and you will have limited responsibility. Therefore you have low bargaining power: your employer wants to keep you, but you are not crucial to the business. This means you are unlikely to get special treatment.
One experience that surprised me (and continues to!) was when, on a new employee's first day, I was asked quite rightly what the office hours were. When I explained that 9:30 was the time I wanted her to start she then responded that she would prefer 9:45 as that would help with her commute and she would not have to get an earlier train. I was floored that this employee wanted to push it and get special favors on her first day and before she had even proved herself. Her actions immediately put her on my "watch list".
This may sound harsh, but as an ESP your job is to prove yourself in the workplace and you cannot prove yourself unless you are present and performing when your peers are. I am sure you won't be surprised to hear that the new employee lasted approximately two months: her early ask for special treatment was a sign of things to come and she was just not committed enough for the company to continue to invest in ramping her up so we started to work on a plan to exit her.
Mistake 3) Echoing the hours of your manager. Your manager, if at a mid- to senior-level will very likely work different hours to you and it can be a mistake to think you should echo theirs. As I said above ask them what hours they want you to work. As your manager is more senior their activities are different and not always tied to in-office activities. In addition, he or she may have negotiated a different work schedule and then been granted it based on the fact that the company wants to retain them.
This does not mean you should then assume you can work the hours that your manager does. Some of this is because manager's hours are basically always-on (they will very likely be working most evenings) and also because they may be doing outside networking and meetings. So even if not visibly in the office they will still be working, for example by taking a breakfast meeting, after work networking drinks etc.
In addition, and this is an area where I still struggle a bit with the justification, there is an argument that because the manager has already put in the early foundations of working hard hours they have reached a level where they are now able to find a greater balance in their work and home life: they have put in the early "grunt hours". As I say, I struggle with this one, but from conversations with managers whom I trust and have experienced to be effective leaders is something they will often comment on. These experienced managers will have put in very heavy hours as an ESP and have got to a point where their "value-add" is not just on the output of their physical tasks. Instead they bring additional value to the work place through a combination of deep industry knowledge, relationships and management judgment.
Caveat One - Avoid Burnout
There is one thing worth noting here. What is reasonable? The above hours and behaviors are I believe reasonable and working variants of between 8:30 and 6:00 is unfortunately what we all need to do in the current workplace.
There can be times when your company burns you out by asking junior members of the team to work 18+ hours a day. If you are an investment banker or a lawyer then this is part of what you signed up for and big reason why you are on a huge salary relative to your peers in Marketing, HR, Operations etc. However if you feel that your hours are unhealthy for you, there is no shame in looking at alternatives to get to working hours that are closer to what you can manage and that are sustainable for a long period of time (i.e. over the course of your 45-year career!).
In addition, if you are already on a low salary that feels close to minimum wage (even though it really isn't!) and are then being expected to be "grateful for your job" I would recommend really questioning if it is worth it and meets your career goals. If the pain of a 10+ hour day is worth it (I have worked them, but did so because at the times I worked them it was needed of me and I was on the fast track) then keep up with it. If not, find another job. No one can blame you for not wanting to work 18 hour days in your twenties which, while tough professionally as you are still figuring it all out, should also be personally fulfilling (where you will be hanging out with college friends, finding boy or girlfriends and ideally a life partner).
Caveat Two - Don't Miss Out On Life. Find a Balance
I still remember looking at a friend of mine from college who as a young Investment Banker would have about one Saturday off a month to have fun. While I know he was rewarded through meeting his goal of being a “financial professional in the making” (or maybe a future "Master of the Universe"!) and thriving on the all-nighters, I did think he missed out on the fun of living in London in his twenties. I thought he was throwing away some potentially great personal experiences. At the core though it just shows how deeply personal the work/life balance piece is: if he was fulfilled who am I to question this? The trick then is likely this, work the hours that are expected of you and do not expect the company to change for you.
Bottom line: have a good work ethic!
Next section: What If I Am Running Late?