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Advisory Column: Does our own time window make us less productive?

Published:Sunday | April 26, 2015 | 4:00 AM

Why does a Jamaican employee struggle with being on time?

Is 'laziness' the right answer? Or is it due to something else we can actually transform?

In my column of May 25, 2013, I made the point that people who live next door are often the last to arrive at work in the morning. I suggested why this is true. As it turns out, I was a bit wrong.

I stand corrected by an article in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. Apparently, all adult human beings operate with an invisible 'on time window' (OTW). To explain, let's imagine that you have an event at 1 p.m. What's the earliest and latest you can arrive without causing a fuss? The answer, consisting of two separate times, defines your OTW.

According to Dr Lawrence White, from Beloit College, and his team, your OTW is influenced by three factors.



Once when I lived in New Jersey, I invited some colleagues from the office to a BBQ, telling them that it started at 2 p.m. When my doorbell rang at 1:55 p.m., I was shocked (and unbathed). Clearly, their OTW for a casual party was different than mine and more like the OTW we shared at work.

White's research shows, in general, that we have different OTW's for work and leisure. For example, in American, Estonian, and Moroccan cultures, it's okay to arrive 40 minutes late for lunch with a friend, but only 12 minutes late for a business meeting. Problems occur when people aren't aware of the difference.


People often remark that Jamaicans who migrate to the United States learn to be on time in a hurry ... or else. Based on the study, it's clear that they are adopting the OTW of a different culture.

Furthermore, they are often learning to be more precise. A book by Robert Levine entitled A Geography of Time is sub-titled 'How Every Culture Keeps Time Just a Little Bit Differently'. It shows that Americans keep track of time in five-minute increments. However, Arabs track time in 15-minute increments. For example, Americans are more likely to say they are running five to 10 minutes late while Arabs might report they are a quarter to half-hour late.

White wondered in his paper: Is lateness measured by psychological units rather than by the clock? In other words, is an American who is late by 10 minutes psychologically equivalent to an Arab who is late by half an hour? After all, each is late by exactly two units.

What does that say about Jamaicans? In my mind, a BBQ that is slated to start at 2 p.m. - even if it's in the US - indicates that no one should even think of arriving before 2:30 p.m. Does this mean that in our culture we think in 30-minute increments? Is a business meeting in Kingston, which starts an hour late, the equivalent of starting a New York meeting 10 minutes late? Do we automatically give each other half-hour blighs? I don't have exact answers, but my anecdotal experience tells me that this might be so.


Disturbingly, a different 1980 study asked professors and students how long they would wait for a student or professor who was late for an appointment. All 248 respondents were clear: they would wait longer for the higher-status professor.

White and his colleagues conducted more detailed experiments showing that a person of higher status was allowed, on average, to be 14 minutes late. Others were permitted to be late by only 10.7 minutes. This finding was true across all three cultures mentioned earlier.

Former US President Bill Clinton was famous for running late, but this finding may show why it amounted to little more than an afterthought. His status as leader of the free world allowed him an out-sized measure of automatic forgiveness.

Why is this disturbing? I have worked with a number of CEOs who fail to realise the impact their lateness has on others. They don't see that their workers watch them for clues to their success. It's, therefore, not hard for a single, habitually late leader to create a legion of followers who aspire to the kind of casual lateness that provokes no complaints.

A casual relationship to lateness has consequences, however. A company which announces an 8:30 a.m. opening time but takes no issue with employees sauntering in at 8:35 a.m., insults the customer.

In my prior article, I argued that arriving at work on time is a skill that must be taught. Now, these studies show that an employee's OTW is a powerful influence.

Companies can help employees at every level see that their OTW's must be reshaped if the company is to thrive.

Francis Wade is the author of 'Perfect Time-Based Productivity' and a management consultant. To receive a free summary of each of his past articles, send email to: