How Your Late Employees Improve Your Competitive Advantage

Guest post from Grace Pacie:

We’ve all heard the story that lateness costs the country billions in lost productivity  – it’s claimed that lateness costs American businesses more than $3 billion dollars a year, but can that figure be trusted?  Are late people a liability or an asset in the business world?

Punctuality issues are very often combined with a bundle of behaviours which I have christened “Timebending” in my new book ‘LATE! A Timebender’s guide to why we are late and how we can change’. Timebenders do not work in a linear way – they get deeply absorbed in their work and can lose all track of time, which can result in them being late. However, Timebenders are not always late – on the contrary, they are highly motivated by deadlines, and when facing a tight time limit on an important task, they are able to concentrate extremely effectively, and often produce their best work. On the other hand, employees who arrive early for work and meetings typically work at a steady pace, allow time for every eventuality, and lose the ability to think clearly when they are under deadline pressure.

According to a YouGov survey, 19% of the US population are late for work at least once a week.  But does an employee who regularly arrives late, actually work fewer hours than one who arrives early?  Lateness tends to attracts universal condemnation, particularly from the ‘time anxious’ who are obsessive about punctuality.   Yet the people who arrive late for work are usually the last to leave, because they can get lost in their work, and are less focused on the clock.  Lateness for meetings also deserves closer examination.  While there is no doubt that someone who is late for meetings can hold everyone up, there is another side to the issue. People who arrive early for meetings and events are typically less productive than those who arrived a few minutes late, since the Timebenders are likely to have been working right up to the deadline on their previous task.

Is Time Management the Answer?

Time Management courses are designed to improve workplace efficiency -, typically advising employees to prioritise their tasks, schedule their time and avoid distractions.  However, these are only successful strategies in an environment which has a predictable and stable workflow.  In businesses which need to be responsive to client needs, and where priorities might need to change at short notice, a workforce of punctual timekeepers who work at a steady pace and cannot deal with interruptions will be a liability rather than an advantage.  Timebenders may often be five minutes late for work, but they are also flexible, not easily stressed, calm in a crisis, and will squeeze extra tasks into a tight time schedule.

The Time Management model fits a traditional manufacturing environment, but can be counter-productive in the new world of flexible working and responsiveness to client needs. 

Creative agencies and consultancies who need their staff to come up with original solutions to problems, often at short notice, know that timekeeping is a very low priority on the skills list. A deadline doesn’t just force Timebenders to get the job finished – it can stimulate them to perform certain tasks better. There are numerous examples of outstanding work achieved under pressure. Martin Luther King famously added the words “I have a dream” to his speech just as he was standing up to make his address. Bill Clinton, Lewis Carroll, Aaron Sorkin were all ground breakers and also famously for lateness. Did they unconsciously realize that the last minute was when they did their best work?

Punctuality Around the World

If you are working in international business, don’t assume that expectations of punctuality will be the same in every culture. In Germany, South Korea or Japan, if you’re not 10 minutes early, you’re seen as late, whereas in Saudi Arabia lateness is a mark of seniority, and it is highly offensive to consult your watch during a meeting.  In Russia and China, attitudes to punctuality match those of Brits and Americans, whereas Southern Europeans, South Americans, South-East Asians and Africans tend to work on the principal, “If everyone’s late then no-one’s late”. 

Where Are We Headed?

The concept of Time Management is now a century old, invented at a time when productivity and efficiency were keys to competitive advantage.  Today the world is a very different place- the future is less certain than it has ever been, and the Timebending traits of flexibility, adaptability and responsiveness will be vital weapons in the fight for economic security.  Maybe in this post-COVID world, your most effective employee might be the one who arrives 10 minutes late every morning, but is the last to leave at night. Perhaps ‘Sorry I’m late’ should be the words you most want to hear when your staff arrive at work tomorrow morning.


Grace Pacie is a strategic business consultant specializing in international buyer behavior.  She has a BA and MBA, and is qualified in Myers Briggs, Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Emotional Freedom Technique, Hypnotherapy, and Marketing.  Her new book, LATE! A Timebender’s guide to why we are late and how to change’ is published as an ebook and Amazon paperback, and will shortly be released as an audiobook. 

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