It can be hard to tell when you need to be in the office, or even if you’re expected to respond to emails nights and weekends. A simple approach can help you navigate the uncertainty.
What are standard working hours for a job these days? Is it reasonable for your boss to send an email at 10pm? How do you navigate the uncertainty of work hours especially across time zones and hybrid or remote work? How do you know the expectations before you take a job?
Let’s start with some history. A century ago, factory workers had clear working hours set by the factory whistle. Office workers may have not had a whistle but working times were generally clear, typically 9-5 with a lunch break. Tech companies, never ones for rules, welcomed flexible work schedules and that culture has spread to other industries. (Back in the dot-com days, when long hours were common, flexibility of which sixty hours you worked in a week was the tradeoff.) As many offices moved to remote work during covid, and now with remote and hybrid workplaces, there are no longer standard guidelines we can count on.
Whenever there is uncertainty, the best course of action is to ask for clarity. Before we see how to ask, let’s understand why hours may vary.
First remember that other people’s schedules are different from yours. Family obligations, such as kids’ schedules or taking care of other family members can add constraints different from your own. Even if you and your coworkers tend to work 9-5, a particular coworker may need to pick up kids at 4pm and so will leave early, only to make up the hours later that night.
Other people may just have different time preferences. Personally, I think best late at night and that’s when I get some of my best ideas, so I may fire off some emails around midnight. Others may be early morning risers. I was at one company where I would be sending emails around 1-2am, my CEO would often wake up in the middle of the night and check his emails around 3-4am and the COO who was a morning person would be going through emails at 6am. We knew each other’s schedules and it worked for us. Microsoft found a trend of a triple peak daywhere people engage with their work not just in the mornings and afternoons but a third peak for some after dinner.
Time zones obviously can impact this. Even if your whole team is in the same time zone, consider that others whom your coworkers work with may not be. While many of my clients and their employees are on the east coast, I often work with offshore development teams in Eastern Europe or India. I need to work early mornings or late nights to catch them. Likewise, salespeople may focus on a territory in a different time zone. In other words, you may be at the same company, but the timing of different roles can vary.
Given all these variables it can make things confusing. The key is to make the implicit, explicit. If your boss is like me and sending late night emails, be clear about expectations. I may send them off then, but I don’t expect people to read or respond to them at night. (If it’s an emergency, I’ll call or text and tell them to check their email.) Your manager or team may have different expectations. Even then a manager may think, “You don’t need to check email outside of working hours, but that means you should be available up until 9pm EST, because we have people on the west coast; you can be off email after that.” She’s thinking 9pm EST is still normal working hours for people on the east coast while you see it differently. Having an explicit conversation can help get everyone on the same page.
Note that there is often both a company policy and a team policy. The company may or may not have expectations (explicit or implicit); but your team/manager may also have expectations (explicit or implicit). These may be in conflict. The company may say you’re done after 5pm but if your boss expects you to respond to emails in the evening, the reality is you need to do it or your boss will be unhappy. Likewise, even if your boss says, “Don’t worry, you don’t need to check emails after 5pm,” but a coworker emails you and doesn’t get a response, you could still get into trouble. It’s unfortunately the (mathematical) union of availability expectations that you need to follow.
During the interview process, I’d recommend being explicit about it. The key is in the phrasing. Asking, “Do I have to check email after 5pm?” sound like you’re not willing to work. Instead, try one of these two approaches.
I know different companies have different cultures and expectations and I want to make sure I can meet yours. What are typical working hours and what are expectations for availability or responding to emails or being available for meetings outside of those hours?
If that still feels a little scary, check out my article Not Sure How to Ask about Corporate Culture during an Interview? Blame Me. (This article covers a number of other critical topics to discuss and how to ask them during an interview.) As I note in the article, you can point at me for the reason this question is coming up.
Career expert Mark Herschberg recommends that during the interview process we discuss expectations of working hours since different companies have different cultures and expectations. What are typical working hours and what are expectations for availability or responding to emails outside of those hours?
If you didn’t ask during the interview, and are currently unclear, you can still raise these questions with your manager. A year-end review (or other review period is a good time to ask). Again, you can blame me by saying, “Career expert Mark Herschberg recommends that during reviews we do a check-in to see what your expectations are for when I need to be responding to emails . . .”
If you're a manager, you should initiate this conversation and set these expectations with your team. Better yet, talk to your team to get their input. Likewise, anyone on the team should share this article with your team and suggest the team come up with team expectations. It’s not just your manager who may be waiting on an email from you, but a coworker. Ideally everyone on the team should discuss and agree to standards. The manager still has final say, but a good manager will consider the opinions of others.
It’s unfortunate that so many things are left unsaid at work. The rise of mobile phones and hybrid and remote workplaces exacerbated the uncertainty when it comes to working hours and availability. Fortunately, this has a simple solution. Peter Drucker once said, "The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said." One way to help people hear it is to actually say it.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.