Battling time warriors: What strategies do you suggest?

photo-206A reader describes a situation: He works for a company that talks a good game on flexibility and diversity (it makes various magazine lists). It’s also full of competitive, over-achieving types. This reader would like to have a full life outside of work. But he can’t shake the suspicion that some of his colleagues are deliberately competing with time. For whatever reason, these people are available for work 24/7. So they’ll set up phone calls in the middle of weekends, meetings in the evenings, and always jockey to be there in person with clients when a call might have sufficed. If he can’t make it, or doesn’t want to make it, well, perhaps that makes these other folks look better.

So, our reader wonders, what can he do?

I think there are a few ways to look at this, and a few questions our reader can ponder. First, does he want to work here? It always helps to know there are options, even if you don’t take them. It helps you feel in control of a situation. He can cast an eye externally and see what’s out there, to remind himself of the career capital he already has.

He can also battle his own insecurity. A few follow-up questions found that our reader had been steadily promoted and given high performance ratings. So on some level, why worry if other people make their own lives difficult? If someone else wants to spend all weekend writing a report, let her. If someone else wants to fly across the country for a meeting and is fine with you being on the phone, great! The client gets both of you, and you avoid the 12 hours of flying time.   

He can figure out what boundaries he’s willing to live with. Even in a 24/7 culture, things don’t always need to be either/or. Our reader could elect to be available around-the-clock Monday through mid-day Thursday, and then not on Thurs or Fri evenings, or on the weekend. While this won’t work with all family situations, work/life balance doesn’t have to happen within each individual day. A week can also be bifurcated, and balanced overall.

The unit of “balance” also need not be a week. In some client-facing industries, the reality is that when you’re on, you’re on. But you don’t have to be on 365 days per year. I am hearing from people at a few such companies that they’re pushing the idea of managing life by taking more leave. Instead of asking for a 75% schedule, work 75% of the time (e.g. take 3 weeks of leave after a 9-week project). This isn’t immediately appealing for families trying to figure out day-to-day childcare schedules, but it does allow space for a personal life in some situations.

Our reader can carve out his own situations. After a while in any company, you figure out who is reasonable and who is not. You cultivate relationships with the reasonable people and work with them as frequently as possible. If you need to work with unreasonable people, you plan for this and try to make these engagements limited. Incidentally, there are clients who are reasonable too. While they may like the idea of people writing their reports on the weekends, they actually have no desire to meet at 5 p.m. on Friday, or to go out to dinner frequently. They have their own lives. If they’re paying expenses, they may not want to be constantly springing for air fare when they’ve got Skype like everyone else.

Finally, our reader can be level-headed about this. While it might seem unfair that some people are available 24/7 and use that availability as a weapon, the truth is that people use any advantages that are available to them. If you went to the same business school as a bunch of senior people or clients, do you refuse to use that advantage because it wouldn’t be fair to people who didn’t get in? Of course not. People do what they can. In the long run, though, constant availability is less of an advantage than being utterly awesome at what you do. Being able to stay up all night writing a report is less useful than spotting a fatal flaw in the business model on day 2 of the engagement. As Cal Newport might say, you want to be “so good they can’t ignore you.”  

What advice do you have for dealing with time warriors in a competitive environment?

18 thoughts on “Battling time warriors: What strategies do you suggest?

  1. Another factor would be the precedent that this reader has set in terms of his availability. Did he earn his promotions and raises in part because he was also available around the clock? I’m not clear on that part. (I can see that he does not want to be available 24/7, but I’m not sure if he actually is).

    So I lean toward “if they want to do that- great! But I’m not going to” sort of approach. But that is made difficult if he earned his spot in the company, in part, by playing by those rules.

    1. @Katherine – good question. I don’t know. Lots of people’s careers likely follow a trajectory where they work longer hours with more availability when they are younger and have fewer claims on their time. Then when they are older, they cash in some of that capital, but also have the expertise/connections not to need to use time quite so much as their primary advantage. I think the trickier thing is when some people don’t follow this trajectory, and other people who are looking to mellow out a bit are faced with how to respond.

  2. It’s a tough one, and I know the feeling.
    My advice is get done the appropriate amount of work for the role. GO above and beyond when needed and strive to be a good employee. That eventually gets noticed. The guys going out of their way to look good are doing it for a reason and usually are hiding deficiencies.
    My largest competition was fired a little while back and I felt like him sending an email at 9pm and complaining he worked SOOO many hours was getting him a leg up in the business, so I tried to make my availability match his. The reality of the situation is, I’m at my desk 6:30am-5:00pm with MAYBE a 1 hour lunch daily. He didn’t come in until 9-10 and was gone for extended lunch to get his child from one daycare to another and left promptly at 5pm, no matter the situation. So to accomplish what I can in a regular schedule he had to fulfill the extra hours. Granted, a “thank you, good job.” email at 9pm isn’t fooling many, that’s not real work.

    1. @holly – this brings up a whole different category of office politics: people who send emails at odd hours to look like they’re working even if they aren’t. A manager described an employee who always sent an email at 7:30 a.m. — it usually had no point. Well, it had a point, which was to show that he was on email then.

  3. I would probably be looking for another job, because that sounds like an unpleasant culture. But, assuming he wants to stay… One thing you can do is make sure you get “credit” for any after hours work you do, even if you’re at home. So, save a few emails to send at home. I dislike doing this, because it helps perpetuate a truly unhealthy culture, but it sounds like the culture is already broken. My other suggestion is to pick a few times when putting in the extra time will actually make an impact, and put in the time then. That creates a reputation as someone who will put in the hours when they are needed. The rest of the time, don’t stay late or work weekends. Only do it when it is necessary. Make sure you don’t miss your deadlines and are keeping your productivity high, and then just walk out the door, have a life, and don’t worry about what the other people are doing with respect to hours. If you notice that your performance reviews start to suffer… look for another job before either you or your colleagues get bitter about the situation.

    1. I agree with this. One of my best (and first) managers told me that if I DO happen to be working at night, then I should send that email with the deliverable in the evening rather than waiting until morning, but also not to do this too often because then it sets the precedent of being available 24/7 which is unsustainable over time.

      The same manager also suggested NOT responding to emails immediately (unless something was on fired) because it subtly sets the expectation with others that you are constantly available to them, so when you inevitably get busy or want to focus on something, it looks to them like you’re slacking.

      It all sounds icky, I know, but I’m not sure you can really avoid it in many corporate cultures.

      However, this sort of reminds me of something I read in Essentialism by Greg McKeown – he had an example of a guy who just stopped doing some of the things he didn’t care for, and no one noticed. He still delivered on the strategic things he was good at and ended up being able to just focus on that.

      I think there will always be people who can and will spend more time than you in the office, and maybe that even makes them happy and the culture rewards it, but so what?

      Is it worth making yourself miserable just to look good in comparison? Is it worth losing a bunch of free time just to get paid a little more? Is that even a sure path to promotions/raises or does it just seem like it? I think it’s worth experimenting for a length of time to find out. It’s not like people are openly comparing salaries or levels at most places, right?

      1. @ARC – I agree with your last paragraph. I also know that I’ve always had a free agent mindset and in the corporate jobs I’ve had, I never intended to stay long. I think when people assume they’ll be somewhere for a long time, how they fit into the culture matters more to them, even if they aren’t in any danger of losing their jobs (as I have no reason to suspect this reader is). If we’re going to go all psychological, I also wonder if there’s some male/female element here. Guys may be socialized to identify with their jobs. Being seen as the best at their jobs means they are good providers. It goes deep, even if their partners are fully capable of supporting the family too.

  4. Try reading Sleeping With Your Smartphone. It tells the story of how Boston Consulting Group used Predictable Time Off to work better and work less.

    1. @Mike – I haven’t read that book, but I’ll check it out. What I’m always wary of with programs is whether they actually have any effect on people. Cultures are deep things, and when you have an environment of over-achievers, competition is natural. So it’s not that people can’t take time off, it’s just that you won’t be known as a power player. Does that matter? Probably not, but if you’ve got overachievers, they hate coming in second.

  5. Sleeping With was a systematic change. It started as a pilot program within a single team at bcg and then grew from there. One of the cornerstones was getting buy in from the largest relevant unit.

  6. I think that most companies pay lip service to flexibility and then still end up promoting those who put in long hours. You also get more promotions if you work late vs. coming in early, even if you do the same hours. Those are just the easiest way for the boss to gauge who seems to be the most dedicated. On the other hand, I have been able to get decent raises just by working smart/hard. It’s just harder to get the higher titles even the company culture caters to the long hour = hard work mentality.

    I also have seen many many colleagues who work longer hours because they do work/reports that are not important but make them look important or super busy. I have strategically dropped things that I didn’t care for and no one ever noticed.

    1. @oilandgarlic- I think you’re on to something with the early hours vs. late hours, and it’s something I’ve mentioned anecdotally to people who are trying to deal with an environment that values face time. Often, face time offices don’t value both ends of the day equally. So if you can’t control what time you leave, you may be able to control what time you start. Two hours of quality time with your young kids before a work day is no less valuable than 2 hours afterwards, at least in my opinion. That isn’t helpful if your kids are in school and that starts at a set (early) time. But it does help if they’re toddlers.

  7. Interestingly, I’ve had the opposite experience on working hours – where I work now being in the office early is the done thing. It was particularly extreme in the regional office I worked in – there most people started between 7 and 7.30am and the office started to empty at 4pm. I was frequently the last to arrive at 8.45am and then the last to leave at 5ish. Staying late never got me any credit there because there was never anyone to see it! I think this was a factor of the industry (water utility) and the general nature of the weather & lack of daylight savings in summer. People in Perth tend to be up and doing stuff early in summer while it’s cool. In the afternoon, the wind can be quite strong and it gets really hot so it’s not fun to be outside.

    1. @Zenmoo- good point. While a lot of orgs value the late night face time, there are some that go the other way and the important thing is to know where your company falls on that scale.

  8. Admittedly, I’m guilty of sending out the 10:00 emails/memos. It’s not to pretend like I’m working 24/7, but because I leave at 2:30 three days a week to pick up my kids from school and log back on after they go to bed. I struggle with whether to send out the email at 10:00 exactly because of this–I don’t want to contribute to a culture where people feel they need to respond at 10:00pm (and I’m actually put off when they do!) But at the same time, some times I just want to hit “send” so that I can put my mind at ease and sleep better. So some times I do.

    My point being—we don’t know if people really are available 24/7 because we just don’t know their schedules. I try not to worry about what people think when I leave early three days a week because as you said, I think I’m pretty good at my job and I know I’m hard working enough to get the job done when it needs to be done. I don’t hide the fact that I leave at 2:30, but I also don’t advertise that the reason I’m sending something at 10:00 is because I left at 2:30. What matters is the substance of what I’m sending is good (hopefully!).

    Sometimes I feel like it’s a game where you can’t admit that you have a personal life until the other person admits it first. For example, my youngest was home sick from daycare earlier this week and my husband and I both had meetings that we didn’t want to reschedule and we’re figuring out who would stay home with him. Fortuitously, the person my husband was meeting with emailed last minute asking to reschedule because he forgot he had to take his daughter to dance that day. Score! Of course, my husband responded that it worked better for him and then they got to bond over “oh these kids!”

    1. @EB – this is a good point, though I’m pretty sure that scheduling a phone call from 6:30- 7:30 p.m. is not in the same category as sending email after the kids go to bed. A lot of people split shifts (as you do). The behavior in question is running straight through the evening. I don’t know a good way around the issue you describe. A manager can put NOT URGENT in the subject line until her fingers go numb but some people will assume you don’t mean it, and it’s human nature to want to respond to your boss instantly.

    2. On the team where the management made a conscious effort NOT to email anything past 7pm, they would just set their email client to work offline, and then the messages they worked on would queue up and just get sent out first thing when they connected in the morning. So you do get the satisfaction of clicking ‘send’ without having to send emails at night.

      Here’s the thing – if my peer sends me an email at 10pm, I feel no need to respond until the next day (if I see it at all!). But if my manager or his manager sends me one, I feel like I need to deal with it then. So maybe it also depends on how high up you are in the organization and thus your ability to influence the culture.

  9. I could hardly believe this part: “So they’ll set up phone calls in the middle of weekends, meetings in the evenings, and always jockey to be there in person with clients when a call might have sufficed.”

    I’ve never been issued a company email device. I don’t answer emails outside of normal business hours. If you think you can work all the time, one often gets less focused because “I can always finish it on the weekend.”

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