Stay Late or Go Home: Do Engineers Have a Choice?

References Cited

The Expanding Role of the Modern Engineer, The Increasing Volatility of Engineering Work

I make an effort to read up on what’s going on the engineering world. Obviously, it’s relevant to what I write here at this blog. It helps me gauge what’s going on with lots of things ranging from technology, to engineering managerial issues to trends in engineering careers. One of the blogs I follow is the Harvard Business Review (HBR). Some of the content is relevant to engineering. Most of it isn’t.

Well, I came across an interesting HBR post the other day titled Should You Stay Late or Go Home? It’s an interesting read. Ron Ashkenas, the post author, talks about how we’re all working longer hours than we have in the recent past. He goes on to state the health risks and home life strains that working longer can cause. He then wraps up with the following guidance.

Reflect on your goals — both professional and personal. Think through the aspirations you have for your career and your life. What do you want to achieve? What are the priorities? What gives you fulfillment? It’s remarkable how many people wander through their careers without a sense of “true north” to guide their decisions. As a result they lack criteria for determining whether to invest more time in work, and at some point may wake up and realize that the accumulation of small choices has taken them to a destination that they did not intend.

Talk about it at home. Discuss your goals and priorities with the people closest to you — your spouse, partner, friends, or children (if appropriate). Find out the extent to which their expectations match yours.Without this dialogue you run the risk of constantly disappointing each other.

Open up a dialogue at work. Make it clear to your boss and your colleagues that you are indeed willing to stay late and pitch in if there are legitimate reasons (a client deadline, a customer crisis, a seasonal overload, etc.). But also emphasize that this should be the exception, and not the rule. In fact, if there are constant crises and deadline dramas, you might want to talk with your team about how to redesign the work process so that you’re not held captive to it.

And don’t stay late just because you want to be perceived as a hard worker. Mostly everyone sees through that ploy. Only stay late if you enjoy what you’re doing (as I do) or if there is a really legitimate work requirement. Remember that if you don’t take conscious control of your own work hours, the work hours can easily take control of you.

Well, I have to say: this struck me funny.

I understand what Ron is saying here. You really should make sure you are staying late at work if there are legitimate reasons. You should also come to a clear understanding with your family the necessity of doing so and why you are doing so. I get it. It’s sound advice. But for engineers, I’m not sure its in the realm of reason.

Is Going Home an Option for Engineers?

So here’s my issue.

In late 2010, I published a post titled The Engineering Minefield and Unplanned Work. In that post, I made a point that on a day to day basis, engineers have issues about products that have been released to manufacturing come back at them with fury. It might be a product that breaks at a customer site. It might be a quality issue that occurs on the shop floor. It could be a myriad of things. But fixing those issues aren’t part of the project plan for that week. So engineers often spend nights and weekends making ends meet.

Ultimately it comes down to this. Engineering organizations have a certain elasticity. They’ll stretch to accommodate downstream errors. Project deadlines are very rarely missed. The engineering organization will simply work harder and longer to make up time. That is, of course, until it breaks.

So when Ron says that you should “open a dialog at work” to pitch in around legitimate reasons like “a customer crisis, client deadline, a seasonal overload, etc.”, I can’t help but think: isn’t that just about every day for an engineer?

Conclusion and Questions

Maybe I’ve painted it all wrong. Maybe I’m in left field. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. But the engineers I engage tell me that work is long, difficult and hard. Furthermore, I know many a unemployed engineer who would die to get back to work. For me, I don’t see how Ron’s guidance is reasonable.

What do you think? Is this reasonable advice? Sound off and let me know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.