Sorry I’m Late But - The surprising truth about the cost of lateness at work

Business Insights

We’ve all heard that lateness costs the country billions in lost productivity. In 2012, research commissioned by Heathrow Express claimed that the UK economy loses £9 billion a year through lateness, a figure still regularly quoted on the Internet.

Yet can that figure be trusted? A groundbreaking new book about lateness offers some intriguing new insights which question whether late people are a liability or an asset in the business world.

According to Grace Pacie’s book LATE! A Timebender’s guide to why we are late and how we can change, 20% of the population has a problem with punctuality, a trait often combined with a bundle of behaviours which she calls Timebending. Unlike the other 80%, Timebenders do not work in a linear way, highly motivated by deadlines, once they are facing a tight time limit, 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.

Pacie questions whether it is correct to assume that an employee who regularly arrives late for work is actually working fewer hours than a punctual one.

“Timebenders tend to get lost in their work, and are less focused on the clock”
she explains.
“In my experience, the people who arrive late for work are also the last to leave, and work longer hours than the average. People who arrive early for meetings and events will be spending less time at their desks than those who arrived a few minutes late because they were 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 strategies are only successful in an environment with a predictable and stable workflow. In businesses which need to be responsive to client needs, and changing priorities, a workforce of punctual timekeepers who work at a steady pace and cannot deal with interruptions is a liability rather than an advantage. Timebenders may often be five minutes late for work, but they are also flexible, not easily stressed, and often happy to 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, see timekeeping as a very low priority on the skills list. Pacie speculates that a deadline doesn’t just force Timebenders to get the job finished – it stimulates them to perform 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. Spike Milligan, Douglas Adams, Lewis Carroll, Aaron Sorkin, Jennifer Saunders and Helen Fielding were all ground breakers and also famously late in delivering their manuscripts.

Punctuality Around the World

When working in international business, don’t assume that expectations of punctuality are 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. 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 is late then no-one is late”. In India the same word, kal, can refer to both yesterday and tomorrow, which is why the Indian novelist R.K Narayan wrote, “In a country like ours, the preoccupation is with eternity, and little measures of time are hardly ever noticed”.

Pacie leaves us with the thought that your most effective employee might be the one who arrives 10 minutes late every morning, but is the last to leave at night. She suggests that perhaps ‘Sorry I’m late’ should be the words you most want to hear when your staff arrive at work tomorrow morning?

‘LATE! A Timebender’s guide to why we are late and how tochange’ is published as an ebook and Amazon paperback, and is also available from good bookshops. Amazon UK -

Grace G. Pacie has a website and blog entirely devoted to the subject of lateness:-

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