I’ve gone through a number of “work phases” in my life so far and reading about the new workstyle shift people are expecting to see in the Obama White House got me thinking about them.
The Obama White House is expected to be much different than the Bush White House:
Bush famously arrives at the Oval Office by dawn, leaves by 6 p.m. and goes to bed by 10 p.m. Dinners out are as rare as a lunar eclipse. Obama, by contrast, stays up late. He holds conference calls with senior staff as late as 11 p.m., and often reads and writes past midnight.
Get ready for late nights and weekends, in other words.
From Work Ethic To Static
Much earlier in my career, I viewed long hours and late nights as status symbols: they marked how committed you were to getting the job done. I would work late into the night, and nod approvingly to myself when I would receive a 1:00 am email from a subordinate. “Ah, he’s a good egg,” I’d think. “Good work ethic.”
But I changed my tune after a while. As I got better at working and managing my own time, I began to see late-night emails and Sunday night cram sessions as symptoms of something more negative: an inability to stay on track. In certain areas, there really is more work than there is time to do it, and immediate response is required. Political campaigns, some start-ups, daily journalism, medical care. But in most cases, even large workloads can be handled in a “normal” work week. The trick is to keep static and timewasters to a minimum.
This is especially true in the so-called “independent sector” (nonprofits). Everyone in the independent sector talks about being “too busy” — but they aren’t really. The nonprofit sector overall contains many of the more forgiving workplaces. (I do understand there are exceptions; I am talking in generalities here.)
And so, when a colleague would send me a 1:00 am email, I no longer nodded approvingly but instead would say to myself, “This is lame. Get some sleep so you can function.” The feeling would usually be intensified by the knowledge that the sender most likely was feeling proud of working so hard, unaware of the impression the late-night note caused.
New Rules About Time, Place And Manner
But now, having been in the truly independent sector for some years (that is, I do not work within an organization) I am changing my tune again. One of the benefits of working on my own is that the time constraints of the workday don’t matter. I can get my work done whenever — and that means I also have time in the day to have a life.
That also means I’m the guy sending late night emails!
But I am not sure this round-the-clock phenomenon is unique to the independent life. Workstyles are changing inside organizations too. The start and end times of the workday, for example, have long been much more permeable than they were a decade ago. It’s not weird for a colleague to come in at 6:00 am and leave at 3:00. Location is less restricted too. It’s not weird for someone to actually work at home most of the time. Most organizations are also much more tolerant of different approaches to work (some people work in bursts andd need slack time in between highly productive periods; otheers are more methodical).
So, while I fully understand that the workload in the White House is crushing no matter what, I also see the new Obama White House workstyle as symptomatic of the broader changes in work overall. Things really have changed when it comes to what we expect of that place called “the office.”
But closer to home, I am also much more charitable in my inward responses to people around me. Late night emails and middle-of-the-day silliness are no longer the negatives I thought they were.
Maybe I am growing up!