Is “on time” early or late? Elaine Varelas explores recognizing an organization’s culture and adapting to it

"Early" may have been "on time" in one office, but another might run on a different clock altogether. Each organization has its own nuances, and recognizing that may make a difference as you learn their processes. Elaine Varelas explores punctuality, busy schedules, and adapting to a different organization's culture.

Ask the Job Doc.
Ask the Job Doc. –Boston.com

Q: I noticed people in my new office generally don’t like it when I show up for one-on-ones a few minutes early. I’ve always thought of early as on time, and on time as late, but it seems like people in this office see it differently. Is it imposing on someone to show up five minutes early? Am I accidentally stealing their time, or should I keep doing what I’m doing?

A: If you’ve seen that people don’t like it, then don’t do it! Many people work from appointment to appointment, and even those five minutes of transition time is something they need to return a phone call, get caught up on email, or even prepare for your meeting. In a case like this, it sounds like your organization runs on time. That means you should show up on time – not five minutes early, not five minutes late. Just show up on time.

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For external meetings, plan on being early so you will be on time. Traffic, hard-to-find offices, and building security procedures can change even the best timing, so be early to confidently arrive on time. However, in this office, if people have demonstrated their dislike for someone hovering outside their door, then there is no reason for you to continue that practice.

Part of recognizing a culture is noticing interactions and adjusting your behavior accordingly. If you’re not confident in what you see, you can always ask directly, especially for things like meetings with specific individuals. You can tell them exactly what’s going on: “I typically show up early for meetings. That’s been my training, but it doesn’t seem to be the culture here. What’s considered on time?” And they may say on time is early, they may say it’s late, but it sounds like on time is on time. People are busy. Their schedules are full. There’s less flexibility than there used to be.

When you do show up for your one-on-one, you can always ask, “Does this time still work?” The person you’re meeting with could be in the middle of something that they’re trying to wrap up. They would appreciate that consideration, and your acknowledgement that transitioning from meeting to meeting can be time consuming and can feel like an interruption as opposed to a scheduled meeting.

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If what you’re looking for is to start early so you can finish early, you shouldn’t make this a regular practice. Because this is your one-on-one, recognize that your need for that change is really not the concern of your boss, unless it’s something that you’re doing for them. Changing a meeting with a question, “Can we start a few minutes early so that I can work on this deadline project?” is reasonable once. If not, if the time doesn’t work for you or the manager, then offer to change the regular meeting time or frequency. Otherwise, just show up on time.