How Late Should You Really be Staying at Work?
By Joe Issid
As a child, I could count on two things: 1) that swim practice would never end early and 2) my dad would be home from work at exactly 5:10pm every day.
For years, I just assumed that all companies afforded their employees the freedom to leave work at a predictable and reasonable time just like my father. As you can imagine, it came as a fairly unpleasant surprise when I was told that I had to work beyond 5pm during my first internship at age 16. How uncivilized, I thought. As I brooded at my desk for week upon week, I began to notice that the majority of my co-workers were not actually producing any meaningful work beyond 5pm - they were simply putting in this time as it was seemingly expected of them. How silly, I thought.
Over the years, I have continued to hold the same belief systems that were instilled in me from a young age: why can't we simply leave the office at a reasonable and predictable time every day? Better yet, why can't we simply leave the office whenever we feel like it? As technology affords us greater freedoms, these thoughts may not be a far-fetched as they may seem.
The easy answer: there is no set rule. There are so many factors that determine the length of your work day: country, industry, company, collective bargaining agreements and so on. For example, I spent a few years working in Saudi Arabia, where the average work week was 6 days long. Yup, imagine a world with a 1-day weekend. On the flip side, several countries in Europe are trying to legally reduce the length of the average work week to allow their bon vivants greater freedom in their personal lives. Whereas my dad was able to leave the office at the stroke of 5 every day, others may not have been afforded that luxury. To wit, the average work day is very personal and relative to your situation. But one thing is universal: if you feel like you are spending too much time at work, you probably are.
Remember: you're mobile
Traditionally, employees were expected to put in a pre-determined number of hours at work per day. Virtually all offices employed a "feet under desks" policy to ensure that all their workers were putting in the necessary number of hours (usually determined by the employer, of course). Thankfully, technology has allowed attitudes to shift over the years, resulting in a more flexible and permissive employment model that many modern companies have adopted. If your employer has provided this type of workplace (and that you are available to work remotely), your presence in the workplace does not need to be mandatory or measured. In such a situation, I would feel entirely comfortable leaving whenever it was mutually convenient.
Evaluate your workload
Most jobs have a natural ebb and flow with regards to workload; sometimes are just naturally going to be busier than others. As such, you are going to have to learn to manage your schedule in accordance to what is being expected of you at work. During busy times, most of us are willing to contribute additional hours to ensure projects are completed on time. As a result, it is fair to assume that the opposite is true during periods of down time. As a manager, I am certainly guilty of demanding a lot from my staff during periods of high activity. On the flip side, I am the first one to recognize when we can take the foot of the gas and relax.
At the end of the day, you need to make sure that you are being fairly compensated for the work you are performing. If your workload requires you to put in extra hours, you need to determine whether you are going to be paid for said additional hours. Ultimately, it is up to you if (or whether) you choose to put in this extra time. If you choose against it, I would suggest that you inform your boss - in writing - that you do not intend to work beyond a certain time and the reasons for making this decision. This will allow you to state your intentions ahead of time so that there is no confusion and/or retroactive blame for leaving the office at your stated time.
Look to the future
It is often difficult to see your career arc develop through the haze of a busy job. And, as such, it is often difficult to see the long-term impact of short-term decisions. Yes, it may not be palatable to work long hours or to continually take on additional responsibilities that keep you busy for longer. But the reality is that these are often the sacrifices you need to make to propel your career forward. Hard work is very often rewarded so please keep that in mind if you are looking for the next bump on your career. You may need to bite the bullet today to ensure that your future is well protected.