Looking for a promotion? Get to work earlier.

August 15, 2014

“Don’t worry, we’re flexible here. Just as long as you get everything done and you’re here for core hours, you can work when it suits you.” Sound familiar? Sound tempting? But taking advantage of flextime could unwittingly damage your career prospects.

Flextime is a wonderful thing. You can adjust your working day to suit your life. You can miss the rush hours and cut down the drive time, work around the kids’ school schedules, or just sleep in and work late into the evenings if that’s the way you like it. That freedom allows us to have a better work-life balance and be more productive, and it reduces turnover and stress, so everybody wins. Right?

Except that managers don’t always see it the same way.

Christopher Barnes is a Professor of Management at the Foster School of Business in Seattle, specializing in how sleep patterns affect productivity and workplace culture. His most recent research looks at how our sleep patterns and working hours affect the way we are seen by our co-workers and managers.

“In three separate studies, we found evidence of a natural stereotype at work,” he says, writing in the Harvard Business Review. It’s simple. People who start work earlier are seen as more productive, more diligent, and more conscientious than those who start work late. The actual quality of work, or even the total number of hours worked, don’t matter. If you choose to work late, you’re likely to be seen as a slacker.

It’s an unconscious bias. Managers like to see that their staff are keen to get going each day, and that the company is buzzing when they get in, with the day’s tasks already under way. On a practical note, they don’t want to have to wait for someone to get to the office – they want to know that they’re already there.

Unfair to night owls!

Yes, it is. All those hours you’re putting in, staying late after everyone else has gone home – they mostly go unnoticed and unappreciated. Meanwhile, the person who gets there first and is very obviously replying to emails and getting things done while everyone else is still having breakfast is the one getting a pat on the back for working so hard. And if they get to go home at 3pm – that’s their just reward for being so hard-working. You, turning up at 11 – you’re obviously lazy, uncommitted, and not a team player.  As Barnes notes, “ It seems likely that some employees are experiencing a decrement in their performance ratings that is not based on anything having to do with their actual performance. Organizations may be inadvertently punishing the employees who use flextime to start and finish working later in the day.”

There is, however, one ray of hope for those who like to work late. If your boss works late, he’s more likely to be sympathetic than one who likes to get in early.

How that affects your career

If you’re looking for a promotion, the most important thing is to impress the people around you. It’s not enough to do great work – you need to show the right attitude. So unless you work for someone else who likes to start late, then don’t be tempted by the offer of lazy mornings followed by long evenings. Get in early – ideally before your boss.

If you’ve got a valid reason for choosing a later shift pattern, then talk to your manager and make sure they’re totally okay with it. Lisa Leslie at the University of Minnesota notes that when managers see late working as merely a lifestyle choice or convenience, they tend to regard it more negatively than when it’s presented as a way to improve productivity and beneficial to the company.

Lastly, remember that to impress people with your timekeeping, people have to see you do it. “Don’t telecommute,” urges management consultant J.L. Yang, writing in Fortune. “Working from home makes it harder for your boss to know you. Arrive early… and make your commitment visible.”

So don’t fool yourself that answering emails on your phone while you drink your morning coffee in bed will do the trick. Get up, hit the road, and get to your desk before anyone else.

It’s a cheap trick, but the data shows it works.

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