The life & times of an HVAC Engineer

{July 9, 2012}   Working 9 to 5

9-5 Clock by Jonathan Aspinall Design

I get to work every day at between 7.30am & 7.45am, and leave at 4pm. I always try and leave my desk for lunch as I genuinely believe I am more effective in the afternoon if I’ve taken a break away from the office environment. Many of my colleagues work the same pattern as me. On occasion, when deadlines or site visits require it we work a few more hours. A significant proportion of my colleagues however, most of whom are in the higher echelons of seniority, work more hours than I do (more hours than they are paid for), every single day. They are an admirable, passionate, dedicated core of employees, whose sheer quantity of hours spent in the office is very impressive, and which I am sometimes a little cowed by.

These impressive folk are, to an extent, placed upon pedestals for their dedication to their work & the company. But (and I mean no disrespect with this comment, so please forgive me super-dedicated-colleagues) do they actually get any more work done than those of us who merely work our hours do? Or, is the respect they are endowed with based upon presence (and possibly stamina!) rather than a measured output. Do we even measure output, or is it just hours? More worryingly it seems that this additional ‘commitment’ is something that is not merely admired, but is something that the business has come to rely upon and expect in order to function & generate profit. Certainly it has been said to me that I will need to “give 110%” and “expect to have to give up” some of my STEM activities, which are mainly done in my own time, when I get to a senior level.

I know that beyond 8 hours I am not as effective as I am at hour 2 or 6 of the working day. It’s not just because I know I’m due to be at home, but because I’ve used up my brain’s capacity and focus for the day, I need to go home & rest, relax and eat. With the way that extra hours at the top seem to be the norm I had started to wonder if that need to rest was just me being weak and would damage my career. I did a little reading though, and it’s not just me. There are some great articles out there, this being one of them, which brilliantly summarise the research that has been done proving that workers, particularly knowledge workers, are just not as effective when working longer hours. Way back in the 1890’s employers found that by decreasing the working day to 8 hours, productivity per worker increased. Somehow we seem to have forgotten that.

I think certain industries, engineering consultancy being one of them, have an issue with machismo regarding hours worked. Also it’s a lot easier to measure hours worked than quality & quantity of work output & the impact that work has, but that’s a whole new blog post. I don’t know what the answer is though, except possibly for us dedicated “9-5ers” to infiltrate the top ranks (if such a thing is even possible!) and grow understanding around the benefits for all parties in folk only working an 8 hour day.

But until that happens, if you’re reading this in the office, past home time, then stop ‘demonstrating your company commitment’ and go & show your family & friends some commitment instead. Then come back in tomorrow morning & show how amazing you are after a good evening of rest and relaxation.


An interesting article, and actually, I’m reading this sitting at my desk, during my lunch hour. Generally, I work 8am – 6pm, most days, and mostly only leave my desk for calls of nature, or meetings. It’s not good. I’m trying to be better at leaving on time, and moving around, rather than sitting at my desk all day long.

Good article though, thanks!

geekchloe says:

Hi Nick,

Thanks for reading, glad you enjoyed it. I think we can all end up so overloaded with work that we have to keep staying late, then that amount of hours rapidly becomes the norm & so does the workload. It’s a problem we suffer from throughout society I think. And possibly one that can only be tackled by behavioural change at grassroots levels combined with cultural shift at management levels. what do you think?

geekchloe says:

I publicised this blog post on facebook, and there were quite a few comments there, so for posterity & the potential to continue the debate I’m copying them into this comment:

Jason Farmer: Exactly the same here – I just refuse to do more than 8hours as the ‘norm’ but with everyone above me doing 10-12 even 14 hour days, I don’t expect any further progression here… As with you I don’t think working longer helps. Even if it d…oes ‘help’ it seems to be the wrong thing to do as projects are planned around 8 hour days, but often planned by people who work 10 hour days… Little wonder then that the projects are late and questions are asked as to why! Not to mention the customer is getting work for “free” because a project has been under estimated.

Me: I completely agree Jason, extra hours have become an assumed aspect of projects, making profits, and working life generally – time for a cultural shift!

Nic Tall: When I had a “normal” job I told my boss that we had a contract – I gave a fixed number of hours in exchange for a fixed amount of cash. If he assumed the right to claim more hours than agreed, as and when it suited the firm’s needs, I would assume the right to claim extra pay, as and when it suited my bank balance.

Me (to Nic Tall): overtime complicates it even more, I don’t get paid overtime but even if I did I don’t know that I’d routinely be happy to work extra hours and I still don’t believe it would be productive for me to! I do think that overtime, or time in lieu, should always be the benefit of extra work.

Adam Prestwich: Difficult issue to discuss but as engineers if we do want to be considered as professionals we do need drop the fixed hours approach – but it works both ways. I ran a team of 11 engineers across Europe in Ford and a flexible approach was a…lways required when they had to deal with prodiuction emergencies. So i always traded long hours with an early finish at the end of the week for example. Some good and flexible HR policies help here – but seldom found in many organisations I have found!

Nic Tall: I don’t mind flexibility in exceptional circumstances, it’s when it becomes routine, or even part of the culture, that I would start looking at my contract. But in my current line of work I have no contract yet do 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for no pay, no leave, no sick pay but lots of hugs and fun. Wouldn’t swap it for the world.

Jason Farmer: Sorry Adam I disagree, the classic approach disguises the effort and relies on goodwill.. Eventually this disappears and the employer loses a good employee. A properly run project can be done without experience or overtime and still hit its targets… Managers just need to believe that we can do it that way

Me: I think that a very occasional long day because of an unexpected emergency situation is acceptable, but even the majority of these should be avoidable with sensible resourcing levels, risk mitigation plans and good project planning (that in…cludes some float/contingency!). The problem isn’t the occasional emergency though. The problem is that people are doing long days, every day, for months or even years on end. It’s the industry’s reliance on people working these hours, and the expectation that people will continue to do it that has to change.

[…] So, I’ve been a bit slack on the technical articles front recently, and for that I apologise, work has been a bit hectic with a big project going live (read the case study here). However, now that’s done and things should return to a normal 8-6 day (yes 9-5 is normal, but really? Does anyone actually work that? – interesting article here) […]

Kris says:

I think you are right that the key is culture change. I would really like to see a shift a long way towards flexible working. Obviously there is a need for some common working hours to allow phonecalls, meetings and collaboration to happen with relative ease, but when it comes to the actual work (writing reports, creating drawings, etc), surely this would be most effectively done at a time that suits the person (e.g. I am a night person, I may be in the office at 9, but I definitely not at my most efficient). The big problem with this is that the number of hours of work expected needs to be well defined in advance. If everyone actually worked only the 40 hours each week (excepting emergencies), I expect that everyone would be happier. Lots of people have commitments outside of the office, such as caring for elderly parents or kids, and these people (predominantly women) get greatly disadvantaged by the current long hours culture. I’m sure the industry is losing some great people because of this!

geekchloe says:

Hi Kris,

I completely agree with the need for flexible working hours (and core hours to facilitate team working and idea sharing), and to a certain extent many companies do offer that, my own included. I don’t think most places have gone far enough with it though. As you say, it would be much for convenient for many people to work in 2 separate chunks each day in 2 different locations. Some office work with others is definitely needed, but working from home is very feasible for most and this really helps those with caring duties.

I think flexible working for some though can mean working your ususal ‘9-5’ in the office and then ‘flexibly’ going home and working another 3 to 6 hours there as well! For some companies flexible working just means that their employees are flexible enough to work longer!

Jaxtasha says:

Happens in teaching too. We actually praised a retiring senior member of staff who was said to ‘never leave’ many members of staff testified that they get in at 7.45am and she is already there and they leave at 7-8pm and she is still there. Her leaving statement “I owe my husband some time now”. I get in at 7:30am and leave most days between 4:30 and 5pm. That is a full 2hours over my alleged hours every day, without considering my lunch which I mostly take but often have students in. Yet I often here how hard others work because they stay at school until 6-7pm. My view is rapidly becoming that of yours. ‘Visible working’ over your hours is a way to show hard good/hard you work in an obvious way. However, for me personally, I think it is a sign of weakness that I cannot get my work done and balance a life. I do not want to be merely a worker drone thanks, even if it means never getting tot he top of my career. I have always said, and continue to do so to my kids, take a B and a life over an A and no life.

kayels says:

Great post Chloe! I have to say I’m divided over this issue – my contracted week is Monday to Friday, 8.30am – 5.30pm with 1 hour for dinner & 15mins in the morning & afternoon for breaks. I am terrible in the mornings & am generally at my desk for 8.45, leaving around 7pm.

There can be a ‘last man standing’ mentality but I don’t buy into that; if I have work that has to be done, I will stay as late as required but otherwise I try to leave at a reasonable time. However the past couple of weeks have been crazy busy with 12 hour days the norm rather than rare exception. I have found to my surprise that I still work as well at 9pm when I have an urgent request to focus my mind! I did find that I was exhausted when I left work at 4pm last Saturday (after ‘only’ doing 6hours on my day off) so there is no way I could do that week in, week out like others do.

I definitely agree that in general a shift is needed in companies where long hours are expected as its just not fair on staff.

I hope being a 9-5er doesn’t hurt your career prospects – in my company doing long hours doesnt seem to be the only way people get promoted, thankfully being good at a job is more important! Indeed I’ve overheard a conversation where a member of staff’s productivity has been questioned as they were doing a lot of hours, with not a lot more to show for it.

Interestingly Williams F1 Team have recently brought in flexible working – their core day was 9-6 but now people can do 7-4. There’s no way I’d manage getting to work for 7 so it’d be a bit pointless for me, but I’m sure it will benefit lots of others.

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