11/12/2012 02:05 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

Working 9-5: An Anachronism to End or Embrace?


Is working 9-5 an anachronism? Anne-Marie Slaughter, author of The Atlantic magazine's most popular article ever, "Why Women Still Can't Have it All," thinks it is. By 'having it all,' she means simultaneously being a good mother and having a top job. And as for whether we can have it or not, she speaks from experience: She gave up her own dream job as head of policy planning at the U.S. State Department due to insurmountable conflicts with family life. Going public with the reasons behind her decision may have been viewed as politically incorrect, but it catalyzed global discussions about social and employment policies that could hold the key to closing the gender gap in the workplace.

At an event I attended earlier this week, Slaughter proposed that one way of getting it all is to instigate a paradigm shift in the expectations and set-up of the workplace. She argued that the insistence on universal compliance with arbitrary set working hours and locations, together with societal expectations (and sometimes personal preference) of women as primary caregivers, causes women to find that if they want to prioritize their families, they need to compromise on their career ambitions, or vice versa. Essentially, if you can't be in the office during office hours, you are judged by colleagues, and not kindly.

I have seen this over and over again. In some jobs I've been in, my colleagues have treated staying late at work as a competitive sport, one in which those with personal commitments cannot hope to win. I have witnessed a tendency of bosses and peers to play the game, equating long hours in the office with levels of excellence. (Personally, I tend to think it's more often a sign of inefficient time management, inappropriate workload or ingratiating appearances.) All too often, there is a stigma to being the first one to leave the office, which puts those with personal commitments (or just a desire for a healthy work/life balance) at a disadvantage. I can absolutely believe that this sort of thing is reflected in promotion decisions and contributes to the gender gap, since women are still more likely to be primary caregivers.

My move to Washington, DC has hammered home the point even further. Not only are people staying late in the office (I'm still reeling from meeting one lawyer for late-night drinks, after which he returned to work), but we are spending the evenings networking. Particularly in the transactional world of DC, it feels as though everyone is a potential contact and there's no social space to just relax. I've seen kayakers swapping business cards across the water. Worst of all, many people I speak to haven't taken a vacation in months or years. People have explained to me that there is a general fear that if you go on holiday and disaster doesn't ensue in your absence, rather than your boss assuming that you did a good job in planning and delegating, there's a general fear that you'll be viewed as dispensable and promptly fired. Maternity or other career breaks multiply that fear exponentially. My friend, upon getting married, was even criticized for taking a one-day honeymoon. None of this is conducive to a healthy work/life balance.

Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests that the answer is shifting the paradigm of what the workday looks like. She says she doesn't care when or where her staff do their work, as long as they do it well. She also says that this is a concept many find uncomfortable (how can you possibly judge whether someone's working hard if you can't physically watch them doing it?). Society needs to recognize that in the past hundred years, a lot has changed with both gender roles and workplace technology, but much less has changed about how offices are set up. Slaughter proposes the work paradigm is outdated. Why not be able to pick up the kids from school and work when they're asleep? Flexibility in time and place of work would level the playing field, freeing up parents (and others) to be better able to balance social and job commitments.

In some ways, this argument makes good sense. There may be some practical arguments regarding the 9-5 physical presence, but for many jobs, there is no real imperative for people to conduct their work during certain, specific hours, in certain, specific places. In fact, with more people working across time zones and our infatuation with emails, increased flexibility probably helps people do their jobs better.

But on the other hand, I wonder what might be lost by having unspecified official working hours and locations. We are already a workforce of Blackberrys, and long gone are the days of closing the office door on Friday night and not thinking about work until Monday morning. I sleep with my Blackberry by my bed. I check and respond to my work emails as soon as my alarm goes off in the morning, before I go to sleep at night, during romantic dinners and pretty constantly in between. This causes me to override time I should be using to relax with thoughts about work. It means I rarely read more than a chapter of any novel without reaching for my phone. Why? My emails aren't usually so urgent that the sender couldn't wait a few hours, or even a whole weekend, for my response. However, if my colleagues were working at different times, I'd feel all the more compelled to keep a fairly constant eye on my emails, to the detriment of my social life and relaxation potential. I imagine the sport of who leaves the office last would rapidly morph into the sport of who answers the email first. Perhaps working 9-5 is an anachronism, but so, I fear, is the concept of switching off from work, either electronically or mentally.

The line between work and social life may be an artificial one in some ways, but nevertheless, I just don't believe that erasing it is conducive to good health. Charles Kenny recently made a compelling case in Foreign Policy magazine that it's not necessarily economically productive for a country. Furthermore, working longer hours doesn't even make you richer or more productive yourself; in fact you're often more productive if your time is limited. Working long hours is linked to a decrease in physical and mental health, and of course less time with friends and family. And I just worry that since workers already can't be trusted to look after their health and happiness, removing the expectations of when and where they should be working (Monday to Friday 9-5, or an extended version of that) and when they are reasonably expected to be offline (nights/weekends/etc) will remove diligent/ambitious workers' final justification to ever just switch off and relax.

That's why while I agree with Anne-Marie Slaughter that increasing flexibility of time and place, and merging work and family life, could help level the playing field and improve equality of career opportunities, I would argue that it would do so at the expense of any last hope of being able to separate the two. It could mean essentially being on-call 24 hours a day. I fear that many of us have already fallen down that slippery slope. Now quick, where's my Blackberry, I haven't checked my emails for minutes...