How many times have you run into a friend and asked “what’s up”, only to hear the equally hackneyed: “Soooo busy. I’m slogging 12-14 hours a day.”
Why do we see that as proof of being a good worker?
Yes, India’s economy is growing and so is your company and mine and we’re all busy all the time, possibly busier than we’ve ever been. But when does face time become waste time?
I like my job and colleagues. Still, with a husband and toddler waiting at home, books to read, dinner to cook, friends and relatives to see, just four or five more decades to live, I can’t afford to use the office as a hangout joint. So, a few times a week, when my work’s done, I simply get up and go.
Inevitably, if it’s before 8pm, someone smoking by the lift will ask, “Leaving already?”
I usually cringe and try to think of a comeback. Weakly, I’ll smile and say, “Yeah, baby’s waiting.” Or, “I’ve been here since 9am.”
Hopefully, these words will put a stop to my lame excuses—because really, I shouldn’t need to make them. Nor should you.
In fact, I think people should stop working hard. And start working smart.
I don’t pretend to have mastered the lesson, but it’s worth an attempt in these hectic, harried times. Only efficiency, after all, will set us free.
Consider Anita Hirani, who works 11am-4pm as an accountant in Mumbai. When she took leave recently, the firm hired a temporary replacement who struggled to balance the books, despite working double her hours.
At 50, Hirani’s secret seems pretty simple: She eats lunch at her desk in 10 minutes or so, doesn’t idly chat with colleagues and doesn’t check email. The mother of two sons, ages 24 and 15, has worked at Harchandrai Sons, an engineering and industrial automation equipment company, for nearly three decades. Even when her boys were young, they were under strict instructions to call her only if it was urgent, not to mediate fights over cricket, homework or television. When she takes the train home two hours to Ulhasnagar, she’s all theirs.
In fact, director Mohit Harchandrai says he prefers to keep office timings short and sweet, 9:30am to 6pm. “I don’t see why my staff should be here so long,” he says.
The problem with employees staying late to finish their work is that it creates a domino effect, especially on subordinates and supervisors alike dependent on them and their results. Before you know it, a large chunk of the work day passes in the canteen or on instant messenger—and the mad scramble for true productivity starts just before deadline.
Recruitment firm TeamLease dubs the phenomenon “presenteeism,” where employees are at work, but their minds are not on the job. By one estimate, services sector employees work 72 hours weekly. In retail and information technology, that number might cross 100. But does it have to?
New Delhi consultant Pritha Dutt has spent most of her career walking out at 6pm and not working weekends—and been steadily promoted nonetheless. She credits her father, who worked as a doctor, pilot and journalist, for her work ethic.
“My father used to say, if you’re sitting back in office or carrying work back home, you are not efficient,” Dutt, 42, recalls. “I keep telling all my colleagues, ‘I just don’t believe that you are working late because there is so much to do’.”
She worked in Singapore for a few years, an experience devoid of small talk and birthday cakes in the office. In India, she says, “we are social personalities at work. We like to fill our time available by walking across the room, taking smoke breaks, tea breaks, and just not planning time judiciously.”
Dutt added that start time is key; early to work means early to leave. And India’s growth is no excuse.
“You have many more aids and tools available to help you finish work in a much shorter span of time,” she said. “Today you can sit on a Blackberry. How much simpler can it become?”
Indian workers, though, boast and complain simultaneously about long hours. “They are working in a stressed-out way,” Dutt said. “Most of them are doing it because they might be missing out on the promotion.”
Take comfort in one man at the top who’s mastered the balance. HDFC managing director Aditya Puri says he leaves by 6pm every day and enjoys two work-free weekends—with wife, two kids and golf game—every month. “If you want to achieve all your objectives for the company and have a life outside the company, you better be clear in strategy,” said Puri, 56.
So, my latest strategy is to make late nights the rare ones—although some parts of my job remain worth the extra hours, extra effort. That’s why, week after week, I concoct this column after midnight, huddled over a laptop, sleeping family nearby. Late night, for sure—but at least not in the office.
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