A FEW months ago, I met up with my old school friends for a reunion dinner.
As expected, we spent the time catching up on each other’s lives.
Several of my friends talked about the long hours they had spent at work and how they were unable to spend as much time with their family as a result.
One in particular, has days which see her leave her house at 6.45am to drop her children off at school and then on to the office, where she works till about 8pm.
Her in-laws, who suffer from ill health, live with her as well.
I asked her how she coped with the stresses of both work and home and she said, “I’m lucky, as I have a good maid.”
For those who work long hours and are fortunate enough to have a good maid at home, life is manageable.
But we know that not everyone has maids, and not all maids are dependable.
In Malaysia, our work culture is one which lauds employees who spend long hours in the office.
Instead of focusing on deliverables, employers look out for workers who are in the office till late at night.
Their reasoning seems to be that if the staff is seen around the workplace, it means that they must be working hard.
But how productive are Malaysian employees?
An article published in The Star in 2013 said Malaysians spent only four hours out of a nine-to-five work day on productive actions related to their job.
The article says, “Another two hours are spent on social networking sites or browsing through the Internet, while long lunches, cigarette breaks, tea breaks and office chatter make up for the other two hours.”
That’s a lot of time spent in the office being completely unproductive.
In Malaysia, the expectation is to spend our working hours bonding with our colleagues.
Those who prefer to spend their lunch hour working at their desk while munching on a sandwich are perceived as unsociable.
In Western work environment, the culture is different.
I have spent many of my lunch hours when working abroad having a quick lunch while still working.
I have also not spent as much time talking to my colleagues about non-work related matters in the office and spent the majority of my work day working.
The upside was I could leave work early, or on time.
If I wanted to socialise with my colleagues, we would go for a drink after work before heading back home.
Western work culture is focused on what you deliver and whether you do so on time.
There is less clock watching and where you do your work does not tend to be an issue.
I have worked from home when the need arose and that helped with my work-life balance.
The fact that I was judged based on the quality of my work, rather than the quantity of hours I spent on it was also another boon.
It meant I benefitted from being more efficient.
When I returned to work in Malaysia, the work culture here was very different.
People spent more time on tea breaks; although part of the time during these tea breaks could be spent talking about work, more often than not it was spent talking about nothing related to work.
The people in the office were not allowed access to social media sites on their work computers, but with everyone on a smartphone, this did not have the desired impact.
I also found that my efficiency was working against me.
Because I completed my work assignments in a timely manner, many times even ahead of time, my bosses just kept piling up more work on me.
I felt that I was being punished for my productivity and efficiency rather than being rewarded for it!
The 2012 Malaysian Randstad Workmonitor found that 38% of employees surveyed said their employers expected them to be available 24/7.
Another 66% said they were handling work-related matters outside of work hours and even on holidays.
The Malaysian work culture can only change if Malaysian employers encourage such a change.
More employers should focus on their employees’ deliverables without harping on the need to watch the clock and think that the employees who spend the longest hours in the office are the most productive.
A person who spends two work days producing a report while sitting at their desk the whole time is not as productive as a person who produces the same report from home within a day.
Bearing this in mind, isn’t it about time we started changing our work culture to be more productive and efficient at the work place?
> Sheila Stanley is a writer and PR/media consultant based in Kuala Lumpur. She believes that productivity and efficiency is a mental state of mind rather than a clock watching exercise. You can get in touch with her on Twitter @sheila_stanley or via email at email@example.com