Balancing Act: Is working late a necessity, or a habit?

(TNS) It’s a challenge almost every worker faces: getting out the office door on time. Many get caught in an email trap, sticking around to send one more message and finding themselves still at the office an hour later. Others linger late to appear committed to their jobs, particularly when the culture demands it.

But as the new year kicks in, resolutions around work-life balance invite new scrutiny into whether salaried employees should work late and why. Recruiting professional Andrew McGregor has gone viral with his strong belief that everyone needs to practice the art of leaving the office on time. In a LinkedIn post that drew hundreds of comments, McGregor, associate director at Design & Build Recruitment with offices in the U.S. and Australia, said that work is a never-ending process and everyone should stop trying to get everything done in a day. He also said a person who stays late at the office is not the most hard-working, but rather someone who is unable to balance his workday effectively.

With mobile devices, more managers now buy into the concept that quality and quantity of work count rather than hours at the office. But not all. In some environments, the culture makes it difficult to walk out before dark, regardless of workload. As one employee ranted online: “I am in advertising, and it just isn’t a 9-to-5 job, so even if I am done with most of what I have to do, no one walks out the door at 5 p.m. It’s stupid and annoying … but it’s just how it is.”

Communication has become important for the right kind of exit. “You don’t want to slip out to the ladies’ room and never come back,” says Elena Brouwer, owner of the International Etiquette Centre in Hollywood, Fla. Instead, touch base with your team, give your boss an update, and if necessary let her know you will wrap up a loose end the next day, and then walk out the door. By regularly leaving on time, managers and clients become less likely to drop to-dos on your lap toward the end of the day, Brouwer says.

Working late has increasingly become the norm for most salaried workers. A 2014 Gallup poll of 1,271 U.S. workers found on average, full-time workers spend 47 hours a week at work, and 80 percent of workers spend time “after hours” answering emails and returning phone calls. But with all this effort, research shows working longer hours doesn’t contribute to higher productivity. In studying a variety of research, the Harvard Business Review found working more than 40 hours a week could make some workers less productive, put them at risk for making mistakes, and create the appearance of poor time-management skills. “Managers are aware that a lot of workers waste time and get distracted … so at the end of the day, they haven’t finished their work, and that is why they are at the office late,” Brouwer says.

Carrying out the art of leaving on time starts before the workday does, with a psychological commitment to a departure time and a plan to make it happen. Maria Paulsen, vice president of Gibraltar Private Bank in Miami Beach, Fla., says, “If you want to leave after eight hours, you need to be efficient within those hours.” Paulsen plans her workday the night before, with a target to leave by 5:30 p.m. Some days don’t go as planned. Many do. During the day, she refrains from checking email every five minutes and hunkers down to work on key priorities early in the day. She attends only meetings necessary to do her job well. “It really is about good time-management skills and setting priorities with your boss,” she says.

A growing number of managers understand a desire for better work-life balance, see the trend toward burnout and are willing to help employees work toward a timely departure — without the need to log back on later in the evening. Nubielena Medina, CEO of NMG Consulting, a strategic communications firm in Doral, Fla., says training her employees and clients to expect the office to close at 5 p.m. took 15 years to accomplish: “We don’t have emergency fires all the time that obligate us to stay late. We plan ahead, create schedules, make sure clients understand the schedules.” Medina says the rule is employees must be there when the office opens at 8:30 a.m. “When we’re done, we leave,” she said. “We’re responsive to the needs of our clients, but we have to be able to have time for families and ourselves.”

Of course, there are careers that won’t fit the 9-to-5 mold, such as doctors and police officers. And sometimes the workload in key positions demands long hours. When a new job function or innovative project comes with a learning curve, the challenge to leave the office after eight hours becomes greater. “Sometimes you have to put in the extra hours because you are catching up with requirements of the role,” says David Hernandez, CEO and co-founder of Liberty Power in West Palm Beach, Fla. But if late nights are chronic, year after year, for an individual, Hernandez says he questions whether there is a problem. “I prefer people go home and sharpen the saw and come back more rested and enthusiastic the next day.”

In studying overwork, experts say people whose job constantly interferes with an outside life because of long hours may need to reexamine whether they are taking on too much — or in the wrong job. As McGregor suggests: Prioritize tasks, minimize distractions, set the right expectations — and then, leave work on time.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Cindy Krischer Goodman is CEO of BalanceGal LLC, a provider of news and advice on how to balance work and life. She can be reached at balancegal@gmail.com. Read her columns and blog at worklifebalancingact.com.

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