Thoughts & Ideas

Monday, November 17, 2014

On Sitting Late in Office

All of us come across situations where friends and colleagues very proudly claim to be extremely hard working and inform us of the long hours of work they put in at office every day. It is also often claimed that one of the main parameters of efficiency, effectiveness, and productivity, in short the worth of an employee  is the number of hours a he or she  puts in at office or the number of holidays on which one comes to work.

Over the nearly thirty years of working in various organisations (though all banks) I have often faced this situation.  The first time was as a branch manager of a medium size bank branch when I was informed by my predecessor as to how difficult running that particular branch was. The gentleman had a reputation of not only sitting very late in office everyday, but also putting in extra hours on Sundays and nearly all holidays. Naturally, it was with great trepidation that I took charge of the branch. This being my first independent assignment as a branch manager, it took me a couple of months to get my bearings. As it turned out, though I had to initially put in some serious efforts I never really had to sit late in office and never on Sundays or holidays. Once I got a grip of things, the branch really functioned on auto-pilot with no pending housekeeping issues (balancing, clean-cash book, inter-branch reconciliations etc.), all returns signed-off and despatched well within its due date, and business budgets achieved. I realized that one of the key roles I had to play as the manager was to keep checking for bottle-necks and removing them as and when they arose. The ultimate result was that my staff was happy and did not have to put in long hours, and neither did I.

I next encountered such a situation when I moved to another organization in Hyderabad. I was reporting to a boss (tyrant would be a better way to describe him) who vanished from office every day in the afternoon for at least 4 – 5 hours ostensibly for meeting customers and drumming up business.  He used to return by early evening and then proceed to sit up till late at night, never leaving office before 9 or 10 pm. And woe betide anyone trying to leave office before he left. He used to wish the person with a wonderfully friendly “Good Night”, but the particular employee would live to regret that. For, from early next morning he would be called by the boss every half hour or so and a string of acts of omission and commission was pointed out. The lesson was learnt pretty fast, don’t leave office till the boss had left! The end result was that the entire staff was extremely demotivated and employee productivity was abysmal. It took me about a good couple of years to understand and then counter the ill-effects of this tradition. But things slowly fell into place, and suddenly business and profits started soaring without anyone having to sit late!

Recently, I heard the need for putting in long hours reiterated and over the weekend the pros and cons of putting in long working hours in office has been reverberating in my mind.  One thought which emerged, is something that Drucker has mentioned on the subject in one of his books or essays. It is a long time since I read it, and cannot really place where and when was this, but the basic outline is still clear in my mind. In his opinion, and something which I instinctively agree based on my understanding of organizational dynamics, there are only two reasons for people to put in long working hours on a regular basis. First, when work is not organized properly, and second when the person is incapable of handling the task at hand. In the first case, it is a clear management failure where work is so unorganized that people have to habitually put in long hours. In the second case, the person’s lack of capability could be either due to lack of skills, aptitude, or motivation. 

Lack of skills can be remedied and it again is the immediate line manager’s basic responsibility to bring up his subordinates to par through either mentoring and regular coaching, or sending the person for skill acquisition sessions. Lack of motivation, is also something which is the immediate line manager’s primary responsibility to understand and address. That leaves situations where a worker lacks the basic aptitude to handle a task or set of tasks related to the job on hand. This situation, is also a managerial problem and the manager has to either make efforts to see if the person can be brought up to par and if the conclusion is to the contrary, it is the manager’s prime responsibility to either see the worker is relocated to a position in the organization more suited to his abilities, or in extreme cases, seek his separation from the organization.

It is my experience that the effects of sitting late habitually leads to slow ebbing away of people’s vitality and productivity, and over time leads to the organization not being able to refresh itself leading to long term decline. Nature (or God) designed human beings in such a manner that our brains needs regular and periodic breaks to keep up its vigour and creative abilities. It is therefore, necessary to periodically immerse oneself in non-work related activities so as to refresh oneself spiritually and mentally. This is also the reason that everybody needs to put in adequate hours of sleep. 

Another negative aspect of nurturing a culture of sitting late at work is that its adds to operating costs, such as cost of power, air-conditioning, overtime, support staff, travel costs etc. Overtime and on a regular basis, can add up to a sizeable amount. A rough back of the paper calculation during my stint in Hyderabad showed that it cost as much as Rs.400 per hour just to keep the air-conditioning up and running!

The practice of habitually sitting late is also not looked on favourably by perceived wisdom as evidenced by popular sayings such as, “Work expands to fill the time allotted for it” or “Sust darzi ka lamba dhaga” (the lazy tailor uses a very long piece of thread). Though, one of the best examples is of an incident where a subordinate went up to his supervisor so as to question as to why he has not been given extra marks in his appraisal for sitting late regularly. The boss, smiled and showed him his reasoning: It said, “Sits late habitually, unable to finish his work on time”.

There are occasions, when one does require to sit late and finish a piece of work so as to meet deadlines, either because of unexpected  work load, or due to seasonal work pressures. One should have the resilience of handling such stresses, but such incidents should be the exception and not the rule. 

Speaking for myself, I find the idea of sitting late in office on a regular basis both embarrassing and enervating. I find it embarrassing since it reflects on my incompetence both as a manager and a worker.  And it is enervating, since it leaves me with little time to indulge myself in pursuits which stimulate me and make me look forward to putting in another challenging day at work.

A few days earlier, one morning while walking from the car park to office, I noticed that there was a strange impassiveness bordering on moroseness on the faces of all my colleagues, as if they were not looking forward to the events which they expected to encounter in course of their normal working day. It was a nice bright, pleasant morning with the summer behind us and the harshness of winter still waiting to pounce upon us. There were no strong winds or dust which infrequently mar the weather in Bahrain, but still everybody looked sad. I just hoped it was not some kind of sadness seeping out from within us which was colouring our outlook on life.