How to Deal When Your 9-to-5 Is 24/7

An HR manager and a productivity expert weigh-in

01.10.17

Plenty of death threats and obituaries have been written for the 9-5 workweek. “The 9-to-5 Workweek is Dead,” headlines an Inc.com article that looks at the benefits of reducing work hours. (“There’s nothing magical about 40 hours,” said Basecamp co-founder Jason Fried in the article. His employees work 32 hours a week, May through August. “[H]aving fewer hours to complete a task sharpens employee focus.” ) On Forbes.com is an article that lists “The Countries Where People Are Working 50 Hours Plus.” Meanwhile, Sweden switched to a 6-hour workday — not bad, but not the 4-Hour Workweek, either.

In 2017, because the internet has made us reachable around the clock, the concept of “9 to 5” has been reduced to an empty synonym for job; it’s just an expression. “9 to 5” could mean anything, from the daily start of the markets to clients’ final calls; first footsteps on school ground to final paper graded; whenever the boss shoots off her first email to the last one of the night; whenever the day’s deadlines are met.

Everyone’s job is different, which makes the forty-hour workweek standard a frustrating concept. It sets unrealistic expectations of what the work/life balance “should” look like, especially if you work at a company that admires those who put in long hours, while your friend is employed by a “work smarter, not harder” kind of company.

Smarter Not Harder Friend: “Want to go to happy hour?” You, incredulous, busy, with a million things to do and it’s only 6 p.m. and yes, you know about labor laws: “What?!?!?! No?? Who does that??”

I know this feeling well. And I know that some things are not in our control, like new tasks added on last minute; the general woes of an entry-level assistant; being staffed on a hard, complicated case. Yet according to Lindsey Ducroz, US HR lead at Frog Design, and Chris Bailey, author of The Productivity Project,  there are some things we can do to stop the cycle of existing in a perpetual state of “on the clock.”

Ducroz (whose views reflect personal experience and not those of her employer) said that “we often fail to give ourselves credit as employees in terms of creating and validating the culture of our workplace.” We have far more autonomy than we think. She told me of a creative director who was notorious for 2 a.m. emails, which set an unspoken expectation that everyone was meant to respond at 2 a.m., which meant they were always refreshing their inbox just in case. Meanwhile, he had no idea they felt this way.

“The team was making a false assumption that they were expected to work like their manager did,” she said. “And their manager didn’t realize that he was negatively affecting his team.” When the situation was finally brought to his attention, he changed his approach and communicated his expectations. “This is how I work,” he told them. “I don’t expect you to do the same.” He then promised to prioritize what was urgent, and let his email recipients know when he needed them to respond. Around-the-clock was absolutely not the goal.

“We don’t make our best decisions 24/7,” Ducroz reminded me. You need sleep. Food. Breaks. A life. And during the traditional work day? “Nobody’s peak hours run for eight hours straight,” she said.

9-5-job-long-hours-work-man-repeller-4-extra

But with “9 to 5” hanging over our heads, that’s easy to forget.

In his book, productivity expert Chris Bailey coaches readers to figure out their peak performance time and use those hours to focus on the most important tasks. Then it’s up to you to communicate to your manager and your team when you work best. “Productivity is all about managing expectations,” Baily told me.

(Ducroz said it’s perfectly okay to communicate these hours to your manager and team in hopes of finding mutual ground. She also said it’s an acceptable conversation to have during the job interview process. Companies want you to produce good results, not keep the swivel chair warm until it’s time to go home.)

After you’ve found your peak performance time and communicated when you work best, after you’ve established the hours you’re actually expected to work, next comes setting up a few boundaries. The easiest thing you can do right now, according to Bailey, is set up filters on your email so that you only get notifications from people whose emails you simply cannot miss — which means you don’t have to constantly check it. On weekends, if you must, set a few hard hours to get stuff done (two on Saturday, one on Sunday, for example) and when your self-allotted time is up, stop. Another trick for those terrified they’re going to miss The Email Upon Which Their Job Hinges: set up auto-away messages for the weekends with a number to call in case of emergency.

“It’s easier said than done,” admitted Bailey. After all, the endless, sometimes fruitless attempts to be more productive in less hours is what keeps productivity experts in business. It’s a journey, like anything else. Here’s to making it a shorter one.

Is it okay to cry at work? Can you actually be your true self at work? …Is it okay to play hookie?

Photo by Krista Anna Lewis.

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  • SammySam

    I call BS on the creative director that “didn’t know” his staff was awaiting his 2 AM missives. I think he said that because he was caught looking like a shit. I’ll bet once the scrutiny wanes he’ll be back to expecting 2 AM responses. People like this don’t change. Ever.

    • Amelia Diamond

      Hmm, it’s possible! But I totally work at weird hours. It’s a habit I’ve tried to stop. I’ll work all day, take a break to go to dinner etc, then come home and for whatever reason be like “okay, i’m actually going to tackle my inbox” or — “shit, I just woke up at 2 am and had this amazing idea.” or — “shit, I just woke up at 2 am and had a total panic.” then you send the email to get it off YOUR mind without realizing that if someone internal gets a notification, or randomly checks their email, they may feel like they have to answer. And I really don’t send with the intention that anyone will take action at that time. Love a follow up. BUTTT I realized it was setting a bad precedent (And that I really really really hated weekend or weird hour emails because I *WILL* feel guilty if I don’t respond) so I started scheduling them with Boomerang to send at like, 8 in the morning the next work day.

      • SammySam

        I work for a VP who stays up all night sending emails. The later the hour the more incomprehensible the writer. I suspect he’s up drinking and he’s made more than one joke about “drunken edits.” It is crazy-making. Definitely a different level of problem than “oh I have an idea, let me send an email now…”

        • SammySam

          Writer = writing

  • Hollie Brown

    To be as respectful of other people’s time as possible, I’ll only ever send emails between 8am and 6pm. Anything else I’ve written I’ll draft until my golden window opens.

    Even if you don’t expect responses at 11pm on a Friday, by sending that email you either interrupt someone else’s non-working time or make them feel guilty that you were working when they weren’t.

    • Lindsay D

      Thank you, I do the same and I wish more people did this! Write the e-mail and don’t send it. Everyone wins

    • Mon Valdés

      I am the same way, I never send work related emails outside of my work time. But the CEO of the company I worked for used to send long and detailed emails at 2 or 3 am… I always woke up at 5 am and refreshed my email account on my phone, it was making me paranoid, so I just unlinked that account. But my immediate boss told me once: “if you are awake, just answer him”…. as if I was awake at those ungodly hours.

  • nicolacash

    Simple solution: I don’t put my work email account on my phone so I’m not tempted to do work once I leave the office. Feels good to have that separation between work and home life.

    • My company provides us phones so we can be more available (and it saves me money!). Unfortunately not an option on all 🙁 I definitely close Slack after-hours, but midnight emails still get to me sometimes.

    • meme

      Well when your boss says no e-mail from a client can go unanswered for more than half a day, even on sunday, it’s not really that simple.

  • Stephanie

    I work on a global team (1/2 US based, 1/2 India based) so I get emails at all hours of the night- there’s an 10:30 or 11:30 time difference between us depending on whether or not it’s daylight savings time. It’s a tough thing to manage through because literally at almost any hour of the day somebody is working. I start almost every morning on the phone with my coworkers before I’ve even had a chance to read through the emails. And I end every workday writing a landslide of emails updating the work I’ve completed during my day. I have no great tips on managing through it other than we try to be as open and understanding as possible with each other.

  • grace

    I also think that we, as the recipients, need to accept some responsibility for setting the precedent that we’ll respond at all hours of the day. Part of the problem is that we perceive every single email or inquiry as urgent, whether or not it is. Unless something is flagged as urgent, why do we assume that an immediate response is required? These are emails, not IMs or text messages after all. Why do we assume that people are staring at their inbox waiting for an immediate response right after we hit send? Is it because we expect that of others? Just a thought.

  • meme

    I work better in a “work smarter” environment, but it can be tricky. When you have collegues that have no intention of having a life outside of work, and who are men in traditional relatioships that exempt them from doing anything at home, profiting from the supposed freedoms can be difficult. You think “I’m going home because I’m not being productive and I already finished a huge task”, and they stay there looking busy, even if they are not doing much. And that fosters a false idea of who you are, even if you are being really productive. In those cases, a clearer time table can be liberating.

    • Grace B

      Agreed. My temp job in tech showed me the dark side of it really, no one ever stopped working and no one ever went home before 5 pm and anyone found not producing like mad was booted, it was cutthroat!

      • Kayla K

        Tech is truly the worst about that, in my experience. At my last job, the CEO actually congratulated an employee in front of the entire company during an “all-hands meeting,” giving kudos because they were working so hard that they SLEPT OVERNIGHT AT THE OFFICE. “That’s dedication!” he said.

        WUT. F THAT.

        • Grace B

          Oof that sounds ROUGH! At the job I have now we get progress reports weekly (graded on certain parameters) and 100% earns you a gift card to the grocery store. It’s the small things, I’ve found. I mean, I LOVED the giant tech office I temped at and the free food and the chance to meet my 600+ other co-workers over coffees or juices buuuut I do not miss being there 12 hours/day and eating 3 meals/day there.

    • Andreína Briceño

      This is such an important point! Even though both men and women could lean to working overtime I think this conversation has a lot more to do with gender stereotypes than we’ve realized.

      Maybe a lot of men are trying to justify their stereotipical role and women are trying to prove themselves.

      I, for one, do feel really in tension with these old roles. Is difficult to justify myself, my goals and my choices when I feel exhausted all the time.

  • Adrianna

    I wish more companies would embrace hourly pay. My work/life balance is respected when my boss’s boss doesn’t want me to clock extra hours.

    • Meg S

      I’m one promotion away from being a salaried employee, but there is no clocking extra hours in my office (except on rare occasions). If you stay late, my boss/department head gives you comp time to make up for it, or overtime if you’re not salaried and have approval from my boss’s boss.

  • Amber MB

    YES this is so good to hear – thank you Amelia!

  • Grace B

    I think it depends on the industry. I now work in a very traditional industry (telephone answering) but as we are a 24/7 business we have shifts at all hours of the day. However right now I’m part-time, working 10 am – 2 pm. I show up, do my work, focus on producing good work (which is rewarded – we are a merit based company), and then I go home. I have worked more non traditional jobs (like dog walking and dog sitting) and hours and it got annoying. I really prefer consistent hours.

  • Verónica Villarroel

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  • Kayla K

    Someone should tell these 2am-emailers that there are TONS of apps, plug-ins, extensions, etc. that will allow them to schedule emails to go out at a specified time! If you get a strike of inspiration at 2am, write it out, click “Send at 8am,” and go to f’ing bed.

  • I normally work on average from 9.15am to 7:30 pm, with let’s say 45min lunch break… My boss stays until 8:30 most of the times and works as hell. He joined in March, has a lot of career expectations (and opportunities) within the company, and probably doubles my salary. Still I feel kind of bad if a leave earlier… What should I do? I’d like to have more time in the evenings to work on my own blog, do groceries, order my apartment etc etc.

    Discover the new section on my blog, wonderful women, & meet Itziar Fuentes and her brand Homies Marbella.
    http://www.mgluxurymarket.com/meet-girlboss-2-itziar-fuentes-for-homies-marbella/

    Have a lovely day! MG

  • Jolie

    I’ve actually been thinking about this a lot lately. I recently got a new job where the hours are 9:30 to 6:30 (with an hour lunch break) and I’ve been kinda bummed about the hours since I started. All my previous jobs (also in NYC, like this one) had 9-5 hours. Is 9:30-6:30 a normal schedule and am I being obnoxious by wishing it was like 9:30-5:30? I just feel like when I get out of work, everything is over.

    However, that’s the only negative thing about this job. My bosses are the nicest people ever and they’re super encouraging about flexible scheduling (being able to work from home when needed) and NOT working during off-hours. They definitely encourage not answering emails after 6:30, and especially not on weekends. So after reading this article and the comments, I think I’m one of the luckier ones…

  • Meg S

    I work from 8 am to 5 pm. Some days, like tonight, I was at work until 6:30 because of a meeting. I’m not exactly thrilled with spending 10.5 a day hours at work, but it’s a meeting I can’t miss. The perks of being the resident committee liaison. However, I do get paid overtime for anything I work beyond my regular day. I’m going to enjoy that while I can, because one more promotion will move me to the salaried ranks.

    My boss, on the other hand, sends out emails at midnight or later. I refuse to have my work email on my phone, and he doesn’t press the issue. However, he’s paid lots of money to send out emails at midnight. I, on the other hand, am not.

    I’m a firm believer of working 8 hour (or 9, in my case, with an unpaid hour lunch break) days as often as possible. If you can’t get a normal day’s work done in 8 hours, you aren’t being efficient enough. This might be a product of working in government – you’ve got to be as efficient as possible with your work, and staying late to finish work is frowned upon.

  • belle

    My baseline office hours add up to 45 hours a week, and often end up being more like 60. What’s frustrating is how many of those hours are unproductive because I’m waiting on someone else to produce some deliverable so that I can begin or move forward with my work. I’ve been successful at working both hard and smart so that I’m efficient with time, but in an office environment this can lead to me twiddling my thumbs at 3 pm on a Thursday then having to work until 9 pm on a Sunday. With no kids or pets my schedule is entirely flexible, but I’m currently too low on the totem pole to suggest that I could just leave on days where I can’t move forward with anything, and work when it makes more sense with our project schedules. On the flip side, I can’t afford constant take out or cab rides home so I need a daily schedule that allows me time to cook and commute by foot, ideally not in the middle of the night.

    I’m mentally coping by finding peripheral tasks (whether it’s admin, organizing, research, etc) that I can keep myself occupied with in order to make those empty hours productive. I am a morning person too, so it’s often better for me to duck out of the office as soon as possible after 6 pm, then come in early to pick up on whatever other people stayed up late preparing for me. It’s extremely hard not to feel guilty, although I know I am getting more done between 9 am and 6 pm than the guys in my office who routinely stay late into the night.

    I also consistently draft emails and even email myself notes on things to do the next day, but I try to avoid sending any emails outside of normal business hours.

  • Ana Luisa Alves

    I’m a vet. I have no personal life. The end.