This month, Iqbal Wahhab considers the reasons behind employees working late that don’t involve propelling the company forward and have more to do with avoiding what’s at home
I’m writing this on a Monday having been pointed to an article saying people look forward to the start of the week often to get away from their relationships. Now, if you forget for a moment that so many of us these days have a seven-day working week, or at least our businesses do, there is nonetheless something worth exploring here.
The wife of a friend of mine who referred me to the notion that “work is easier than love” did so because she wanted to know why I didn’t deploy the same rigour to my personal life as I do to my work (I’m single).
The idea belongs to the author, Alain de Botton, and it goes like this: in relationships emotions spill over, whereas at work we act professionally, respecting the views of others, working around them. You’re trained to do what you do and if you don’t like what you do, you could look for another position. None of these factors are at play at home, he says, where – when the kids annoy you and your partner – you let it show and it affects you. Being an author, De Botton may be unfamiliar with the kind of office environment he makes his case around because many people go to work primarily to pay the bills of the lives they and their loved ones cherish.
But if we are to cast aside our cynicism for a moment and assume he’s right, then what can directors do to make the most of this desire to stay at work longer? And do we want someone staying longer, because working harder and staying longer are not the same things – you can stretch a task that should take an hour to one that lasts for two if your end desire is not so much to make your company more efficient but merely to extend your day so you don’t need to go home to domestic fragility or even outright hostility.
A lot of companies encourage and reward staying late at work, some by offering free personal calls after 6pm (in some publishing companies, for example) and free restaurant meals can be called in for investment bankers staying later than 8pm. These seemingly smart initiatives have no means of measuring how clever they are. I’ve been guilty of this lazy thinking too – for years I’ve revelled in how many of our employees voluntarily come in on days off to learn new things.
De Botton’s annoying curveball makes me wonder if there is something other than the desire to make the company a leaner, meaner fighting machine which drives people out of their home rather than forcing them into work. I suspect many of you will have come across this unverifiable theory: many more people in their twenties and thirties are single than was the case when I was that age. I know many women in this age bracket who tell me they simply don’t get asked out on what we used to call dates.
For them working late, or on days off, fills a void in their personal lives. So whether it’s the swipe-left culture or the result of a dysfunctional family, a more populated than planned workforce is not the same as a more efficient one. And it’s certainly not the happier sort many of us claim we aspire to achieve. Working harder for either category just perpetuates their problems and leaves your company no better off, worse perhaps. Being devoted to work more than the family is an often-cited reason for marital break-ups and if you’re single you fill supposedly your non-work time with things which, in due course, become core activities.
So next time you’re leaving the office late and you see people burning the midnight oil, why not say to them, “Go get a personal life” or “Go fix your personal life”. That should make them happier, and you care about that because it makes them more motivated to work for the right reasons.
Iqbal Wahhab OBE is the founder of Roast. You can tweet him @IqbalWahhab
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