Time is a strong but rarely recognized power construct in the workplace

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On a recent Saturday morning I spent about half an hour with a friend analyzing the texts she had been exchanging with a new romantic interest. At some point, I realized something: we were barely discussing the actual content of the messages. Instead of parsing words, we parsed the time stamps.

“Okay, when did you send that text?” I asked. “And did he respond right away?”

“9pm or 9am?”

To scholars of chronemics, the study of time as it relates to communication, this would be unsurprising. The way we experience time elicits a range of intense emotions, says Dawna Ballard, a professor of communication at University of Texas Austin. In relationships, time is a currency that we dole out with sometimes unconscious intentions.

Universally, we demonstrate what we care about most by giving it the larger share of this irreplaceable resource. We also punish people by making them wait, or enforcing a time-out. “When someone is jailed,” says Robert Levine, a professor of psychology at California State University, “we say they’re ‘doing time.’”

What’s true in our social and civil life is also true at work: We are influenced by, and send messages through, the ways we and others treat time. Here’s what chronemics scholars have observed about time and communication around the office.

Managers rarely make explicit all their expectations about time, and sometimes that’s intentional

Let’s begin with the biggest problem: Unfortunately, most managers do not adequately discuss their beliefs around time, says Yoram Kalman, an associate professor in the department of management at The Open University of Israel who studies the impact of technology on communication. That’s in some ways perfectly natural, he says. People assume the norms are norms because they’re known, practically part of our DNA. In reality, that’s not always true, and believing your norms are someone else’s can lead to misunderstandings. One person unfairly becomes known as the group laggard, for example, and his relationships suffer for it.

What managers need to do, says Kalman, is spend some time thinking about what they want. For example, what are the rules about email in the evenings, during vacations, or on weekends? How should one decide what’s urgent and what isn’t? (As Quartz has reported before, some managers are on it. Publishing and wellness mogul Arianna Huffington deletes messages that her employees receive while they’re on vacation.)

Then again, sometimes leaders don’t want to be frank with their teams, Kalman adds, because their norms are attached to what would be unpopular expectations. “If I really want my employees to monitor their email all day and night, they probably don’t want to do that,” he says, “so I might not make that explicit.”

Time is a power construct that some people abuse

 In history, the powerful have literally controlled our time by dictating and rewriting the calendar that we live by. Following the French Revolution, the French National Convention attempted to establish a revolutionary calendar that made 1792 “Year one,” divided months into 10-day periods, and days into units of 10 instead of 24, Levine writes in his book, A Geography of Time. In 1929, Stalin tried to do something similar with a calendar that introduced a five-day week among other curious adjustments. Both efforts eventually failed.

Your CEO or manager is not going to throw out the Gregorian calendar, but in subtler ways, employees do settle into the flow of an employer’s goals and rhythms, be it hour-by hour or quarter-to-quarter, learning when to be extra productive or when it’s deemed “safe” to take a vacation.

On an interpersonal level, too, company leaders expect others to value the boss’s time—but to which degree varies by the individual. The most egotistical managers may delight in making employees play what Levine calls “the waiting game,” making people use their time to come to him, then putting them on stand by for an unknown period.

At work, where achievement and productivity are prized, the waiting game can be painful. By the same token, underlings demonstrate their deference to power in several ways, by making it clear that the person with authority never has to apologize for delays, for instance, or by waiting to leave the office until after the boss has gone home.

That’s a habit that managers are often surprised to learn of, according to the Wall Street Journal (paywall). It sounds suspect, but Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Flex + Strategy Group, a training and consulting firm in New Jersey, told the Journal that bosses need to be reminded that their every move is being clocked. Employees should simply ask whether they’re expected to follow the leader’s example, he advised, saying, “people make way too many guesses about managers’ expectations that are just wrong.”

Mobile technology has changed the power dynamic in meetings

It’s probably safe to assume that since humans began meeting, the powerful ones have made others wait for them. They’ve also communicated who doesn’t have power by starting meetings without low-status members of the tribe who are running late. But, says Kalman, digital media has introduced “a new twist” on this interaction of time and power in an office gathering. “Now, some percentage of the people are busy with their digital media either covertly out in the open,” he says, “their laptops are open and mobile phones are on the desk, and you’re not always sure if people are fact-checking what you’re talking about or shopping on Amazon.”

Meetings used to be places where people were isolated and forced to give their attention to the boss or the group. Now it’s more difficult to monopolize someone’s time since they literally are holding a private channel to the world outside the room. Add to this mix remote workers, who are not in the room at all.

How you interpret all this upset depends on where you stand. If you’re forced into a meeting where you don’t need to be, says Kalman, or where a mansplainer is wasting your time as your phone blows up with notifications from a client, your smartphone is suddenly an equalizer.

Work is “always on” for all, but power structures and social bonds dictate how responsive we need to be

Over the past two decades, there’s been a sea change in our attitude about time and work, says Ballard. Her surveys have shown that where employees once protected their personal time from the companies they worked for, they now see round-the-clock availability as a sign of dedication. With technology playing the enabler, it has become common that colleagues will get back to each other within a short time frame (whether a few minutes or hours) no matter the time of day.

That said, we grant high-status employees more leeway to respond when it suits them. And not only do we not experience that delay as a negative, we see it as a positive, according to one study by researchers at Rutgers University. The lower-status peer thinks “that powerful person cares enough to give my correspondence the time and thought it deserves,” says Kalman.

Of course, some “powerful” employees might take three weeks to respond to an email and send back a useless answer, says Kalman, and others might quickly type back exactly the piece of insight or data needed. “The point is you will be more open to interpreting a long response time as positive if the power structure is one versus the other,” he notes.

Only one type of delay is guaranteed to be interpreted poorly regardless of the power dynamic: that which never ends.

“Unresponsiveness is one of the ways to truly frustrate someone,” says Kalman. Neuroscientists have found through fMRI scans that when people experience social rejection online, it triggers activity in the same areas of the brain that are associated with physical pain. That’s why it’s always a good habit to acknowledge receiving something, he adds, and to let a person know when they can expect a reply.

We reveal implicit biases in the way we treat time

“We bring our biases with us everywhere. The less aware we are of them, the stronger they are,” says Kalman. So, if you’re not sure what implicit biases subtly control your behavior— if you don’t know what unconscious beliefs you assign to people of different genders, ages, or race— you’re in luck: Your email or instant messaging log is collecting evidence. With some people you may be generous with your best witticisms and meticulous explanations, and you might respond without delays. But who isn’t receiving that treatment?

While you’re at it, look around the office at all the work that gets done but doesn’t belong to any one job description. Who is and isn’t putting their own work aside and volunteering their time to answer a newcomer’s question, make coffee for the crowd, water the plants?

Research has shown that  invisible work in unequally distributed between genders. Those who, on some level, see their own time as more valuable than someone else’s—as men are commonly socialized to do—will rarely be involved in “helping.” As Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote in a New York Times editorial on office housework, “A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’”

We expect people to know which modes of communication have higher “chronemic agency” 

On my first day working at Quartz, I missed two Slack messages from the editor in charge of onboarding, and that was not cool. The editor wasn’t angry, just baffled. Or perhaps she felt disrespected. But Slack, the team messaging platform that has blown up since it hit offices in 2014, was new to me, and I wasn’t aware of its outsized importance. Keeping an eye on my Gmail (on my phone), I wandered out of the office to buy lunch, ignoring an invitation to dine with a group of new hires.

Ballard and Kalman would say that in my office Slack has high “chronemic agency,” a term they coined to refer to the weight given to a specific mode of communication. In organizations, there may be 10 ways to reach someone—through instant messaging, email, by phone, by (gasp!) wandering over in person—and offices or teams tacitly assign different levels of chronemic agency to each one.

“If something has high chronemic agency, you track it closely, you monitor it all the time and respond quickly,” says Kalman. But importance and high chronemic agency don’t always go hand-in-hand. Important news that isn’t urgent might be better suited to email or a social media platform like Facebook.

The idiosyncratic ways that groups assign chronemic agency means it’s not possible for sociologists to make a definitive statement that, for instance, a phone call always takes priority over a text message, as may have been true in texting’s early days. WhatsApp has high chronemic agency in Europe, says Kalman, but he’s noticed that professors in the US rarely use it.

When there’s group communication, timing works against remote workers

Every team has what we might call a first responder, the person who has thoughts to share in a group message before anyone else. Their motivation for hitting reply-all ahead of the pack will differ from person-to-person, but it may be a method for signalling power and dominance, says Kalman.

Whatever the case, the first responder sets the tone, psychologically “anchoring” the conversation. Most follow-ups will then be influenced by that first reply: they’ll arrive quickly and be similar in characteristics like voice, length, and depth of thought. However, there’s also the possibility that someone will choose not to respond as a way to say, “I’m too busy or important for this.”

All of this complicates life for remote workers whose awkward time zone is often not factored into the timing of group messages, says Kalman. If you’re a manager, he suggests, “Think about when you send an email, and maybe you send it toward the end of the work day or let the team know that you’ll be looking for responses for the next 24 hours to let everyone have their say.”

In your professional life, it pays to think positively when you’re confused by a delay

The subtext of verbal communication is often easy to decipher, the unspoken norms clearer. With time and its hidden language, it’s different. When you’ve instant messaged a colleague you can see sitting right in front of you and they’re not responding, or you’ve made a sales call and haven’t heard back after several days, it really could mean anything.

The nature of the request, its level of importance, and whether or not the matter at hand relates to a mutual goal, or just one person’s, all factor into the power dynamic. Are you asking for a raise, for instance, which requires some discussion and budgeting, and matters more to you than to your manager? Or are you requesting that a report take four hours of their day to complete a delegated task?

“People feel it’s much easier to make demands on other people’s times when you do it from a distance,” says Kalman, “and sometimes not responding can be a way to exhibit some power” in the face of that request.

Then again, a lack of response might be the person’s way of being polite. Indeed, some people believe it’s a waste of another person’s time, or an assault on the person’s inbox, to write back “thank you” or offer some other type of brief acknowledgement.

It’s tempting and normal to read too much into another person’s rhythms, but you’ll stay saner and save energy if you don’t. That person in your office might be in his own world and “deeply involved in something urgent on his screen, and you have no indication of that,” says Kalman.

At work, if not in matters of the heart, it’s safe to favor the most positive of all possible interpretations of another person’s time-related behaviors.