Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Culture Of Lateness

I think I have minor OCD when it comes to being late. I hate being late. It doesn’t matter if it is meeting friends at a bar or meeting clients for a meeting. I hate being late.

If I happen to be running late, I start feeling slightly nauseous. Even when I’m likely going to be the first one there, I still feel nauseous.

If I’m going to be 5 minutes late for a restaurant reservation, I usually call the restaurant to let them know even though I know they don’t really care.

My OCD on not being late is why I don’t understand why we live in a culture of lateness. We all have friends who start getting ready at 7:55 when they know dinner is at 8. We have all been to meetings when even the meeting organizer shows up 10 minutes late and walks in without even an apology. I just don’t get it.

When I started working at Sapient in 1999 I was in heaven. It was a professional culture/cult where being late was not accepted. You would often be fined (a dollar or something similar) for even being 30 seconds late to a meeting. I was in heaven. Thank you Sapient for making me realize I wasn’t crazy to want things to be on time. There are a lot of us out there.

Where did we learn being late is OK? I don’t think it was in school because I remember grade school being a time when being late meant being embarrassed at the front of the class. Did we learn it was OK to be late because…it was OK? Because it almost never matters if you are on time or not?

How many times has this happened to you:
  • 4:58: You are meeting a friend for a drink at 5 pm. You get there a couple of minutes early just to make sure your friend isn’t waiting alone. You are the only one there.
  • 5:00: Still the only one there
  • 5:05: Still the only one there. You start getting a bit annoyed.
  • 5:10: A bit more annoyed
  • 5:15: Even more annoyed and you have probably looked at your watch/phone about a dozen times by now.
  • 5:20: Your friend finally gets there and says “Oh my god, sorry I’m late again, blah, blah, blah”. Your response: “It’ OK” (while fuming a bit inside).
That’s why people are always late. Because the rest of society lets them get away with it. It shouldn’t be OK.

I’m obviously not saying you tell your friend “Fuck you asshole. Why are you always late? You think you are more important than me? *throat punch*

But I think calling out your friend or colleagues in a non-deuchebag manner can go a long way.

This last week, I had meetings on back-to-back days with one of my clients. Both meetings had: Me, 3 or 4 people from another consulting company, and 3 or 4 people from the client team including the client CEO.

In the first meeting, everyone was on time except the client CEO. He has his admin open the call up on time and ask us to wait for the CEO. He joins us 15 minutes later without even an apology.

The next day the same thing happens! Same meeting, same people, and another 15 minutes late from the CEO. Lame.

After the meeting I asked one of the guys from the other consulting company if Mr. CEO was always late. The answer: “Always, it’s ridiculous”. But I also got the sense they never said anything to him about it.

After some thought and pausing over the “Send” button a few times, I sent the following email:


I wanted to quickly share some feedback with you.

During our last few meetings that I have attended with the wider team you've been 10-15 minutes late each time. I of course know you must have an absolutely hectic schedule, but at this point I'm sure everyone else does as well [Editor Note: It’s a crazy time for everyone on the team because we are a few days from launch of the site]. However, having 5-6 people waiting on a call for 10-15 minutes when time is so short right now seems inconsiderate and a bit unprofessional.

Personally, in terms of my time, I start tracking and billing my time the moment I dial into a conference call. In the last 2 days, I've tracked just under 30 minutes ($[xx] that will be billed to your company) waiting on the phone. That just doesn't make sense.

I kindly suggest that if you know you will be more than just a few minutes late, to have [your admin] let the team know when we can expect the call to start so we can continue working on other activities. I think this is especially true for the [other consulting company] team that is huddled in a conference room for these calls and not in front of their computers where they can be working to complete this release.

Thank you for listening,
Yes, I was a bit nervous about sending this email. It might have rubbed him the wrong way and when you are a freelance consultant, pissing your clients off is never a good idea.

But this CEO, outside of being chronically late, is a good guy. He is friendly and he is always quick to thank his own team and the other folks working for him. I actually thought he would take the feedback well and appreciate that I sent him a private email instead of calling him out on the call in front of everyone.

And I was right. Mr. CEO sent the following email back:
Thanks Will. This is fair feedback. I apologize for the late start in the last couple of meetings. We have been swamped but that is no excuse. We highly value your time and the time of [Consulting company] and I agree this is not an effective use of time or money. The last few meetings I was stuck in between some urgent matters that I could not break away from but will work with my team to communicate things better and try to estimate the impact of unexpected emergencies.

Well, I don’t know if it’s actually going to make him stop being late. But it felt good to not bottle up my annoyance and give my client that feedback.

So the next time someone makes you wait. Don’t be a dick about it…but don’t be afraid to let them know it’s not cool and their time is not more valuable then yours.

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At 8:39 PM, January 10, 2010, Anonymous C said...

Kudos for pressing "send" and letting him know what was up. Seemed like he needed a wakeup call. I must admit, I tend to run late for appointments or dinners (usually arriving with a lame excuse of some kind). But this post is a good reminder for me to be on time...and were late for our first date...even if it was one minute. SUCKA ;)

At 9:40 AM, January 11, 2010, Blogger traceythompson said...

While not excusing lateness, I've found there to be a high correlation between a particular brand of perfectionism and lateness.

I was one of those kids who got straight A's, played varsity sports, had a part time job, volunteered, all while also going to community college on top of my high school classes. There was a certain expectation that I could do anything. I had to succeed. No goal was too high. Failure was unacceptable.

I couldn't say no to an invitation to responsibility. Take on an extra shift at work? Sure, I'll just stay up all night to get my homework done. 5 am track practice, okay, I can do that, I'll be there. I never slept. I drove like a maniac trying to get from one thing to another. I couldn't lose time anywhere because I hadn't budgeted time for delays.

I went to college and kept going down this road of madness. I worked 3 jobs, went to school full time, and participated in school activities, community events, never slept.

I was late to things. I was late to class, I turned in assignments late, I worked long hours to make up time. Usually it was 5 minutes here or there, sometimes more. Sometimes I'd come early to meetings just to sleep outside the room until the rest of my team showed up. Every minute mattered but I was always getting hung up on the last superimportant thing I had to do. I didn't see it as being late. I saw it as "well I'm working so hard ".

The biggest thing I could have been doing was saying no. I could have been telling myself it's okay to turn something down because I just couldn't fit it in. But that was unacceptable. Not taking on and completing a project was as good as failing.

My first corporate job my boss pulled me aside and told me she was disappointed in my unreliability. I was furious. I completed all my projects on time no matter how ridiculous the changes were from the client. I put in late hours to get my designs to be just right, I worked over lunches to help improve workflow, I attended night school to learn more skills for my job, and yet here I was being chided for 5 minutes here, 15 there (in LA traffic too! ugh). I thought it was absolutely absurd that my boss valued a few minutes over the contributions I thought I was making.

I realized that taking on so many things at the expense of other projects was really hurting me. No one saw me pushing myself relentlessly as a strength, instead they saw my lateness as a failure. It was an endless cycle of my lateness preempting the value of my work, so I'd work longer hours and harder to prove I was valuable, only to come in later because I was exhausted. I was running myself ragged in a no-win.

So I sat down and started to think about my life in terms of my priorities. I know it sounds really silly, but if you're someone like me it's very difficult to say one thing is more important than another. Someone's counting on you to do y, how could it be more important that x?

It's taken years to be able to learn to balance out my schedule and set reasonable goals. I slip back from time to time (right now being one of those time as I'm in a financial crunch), but I have become more aware of how my lateness will be perceived by others and I have been able to plan accordingly.

I was 10 minutes early to work today. :)

I think part of the culture of lateness comes from this idea that we HAVE to do everything or we have somehow failed. Companies can't both discourage lateness and encourage schedule overloading but many of them do. I imagine your late CEO is coming from that same mindset. Congrats for sending your email to him, the best things we can do to overcome cultures of lateness and cultures of perfectionism is to be honest.

At 12:36 PM, January 11, 2010, Blogger lens said...

i also have a slight OCD in being on time as well, although i have to say it's dwindled a bit, and i find myself running late sometimes. but i do ALWAYS give a heads up (what kills me is when people tell me 5 minutes AFTER we are supposed to meet that they will be even later). so in my opinion there are 2 types of people
1) people who are always running late, about 10/15 minutes
2) people who have no sense of time, and will schedule a one hour massage at 6pm, when they have to meet you at 7pm (this is a true story by the way)

i honestly think the bottom line is you can't ever truly change this behavior. you have to work around it. tell people in the #1 category to text you when they leave the house. bring a book. play a game on your phone. for people in the #2 category, same thing. tell them you will leave after 15 minutes of waiting (i've done that one before). i know some people who won't even make plans with a #2. if it something that drives you that crazy, avoid the situation. you can voice your frustration, but it ain't gonna do shit. but letting them know is still better than letting them get away with it.

At 4:30 PM, January 11, 2010, Blogger whatupwilly said...

Great feedback everyone! @traceythompson your comment is a blog post in itself. Good for you to for your self realizations and search for balance.

At 6:54 PM, January 11, 2010, Blogger Jordan said...

When I know that I will be late to an event I describe it as "causing ulcers." This is especially a problem when I am going to be late because of someone else. That other person will say, "Ohhh don't worry. They expect us to be late." All I can think is, "no one expects me to be late."

At 8:50 AM, January 12, 2010, Blogger whatupwilly said...

And is it a surprise to anyone that @Jordan and I worked together at Sapient? "Sapient, where employees get ulcers when they are late"

At 9:46 AM, January 13, 2010, Anonymous The Revolutionary said...

I absolutely agree - I HATE it when people run late. It really is one of my pet peeves.

Ironically, I can't seem to ever get anywhere on time. I would be late to my own funeral, if given the opportunity.

At 10:01 AM, January 13, 2010, Blogger whatupwilly said...

@The Revolutionary - Your comment totally fascinates me. As someone who hates when people are late...but is someone who is chronically late...what do you think are your top 2-3 reasons why you are late?

This blog post from Penelope Trunk has some interesting thoughts on the topic:

Thanks for sharing!

At 10:00 AM, January 18, 2010, Anonymous elise said...

ooh, you boys are hilarious, @Jordan and @whatupwilly. i guess Sapient attracted a certain type, because i hate it when people are late. i have my moments, on rare occasion, but i'm normally early.

i think some of it comes down to poor estimation abilities.

example: i have some lovely friends who i adore, but are perpetually, horribly late. they estimate it will take them 15 minutes to get to a restaurant from theirs.

however, they neglect to include the 8 minute walk from the flat to the tube station, the 4 minute walk from the tube station to the platform, waiting on the platform for 3 minutes for the next train, the 4 minute walk back to street level and another 6 minutes to get from the tube station to the restaurant.

so 25 minutes on top of the 15 minute tube ride, but they don't even leave 15 minutes before we're meant to meet! meanwhile, i get there at least 5 minutes early (due to 'padding' for unexpected delays), wait 25 minutes only to get a text that they'll be there in 5 (but is actually 10).

think my OCD comes from having a mom who was never on time for anything during my childhood and getting bored/impatient while i waited and waited and waited around for her.

it's highly disrespectful to others to be late, suggests your own priorities are more important than their time. life is chaotic, you have to plan for the unexpected and then at least be decent enough to let others know as soon as you can that you'll be delayed. flakiness is just not an acceptable excuse.

drives me bonkers. (to which some might reply, 'short drive')



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