Jonathan Dance.musings

Early bird dilemma


One of the (many) problems I have with society today is that the early bird is rewarded, while the “late bird” is frowned upon. Meanwhile, $300 million is lost because of this every weekday.

A quick example is commuting. Traffic here in Boston starts to back up as early as 6 AM, and actually flows more regularly at 8:30 or 9am. As each person tries to get up earlier and earlier to beat traffic and get into work early, the problem has cascaded to the point where it makes more sense to go in later, not earlier.

However, people who try to take advantage of this are looked upon as lazy, as showing up to work “late” is frowned upon. 8am, 9am, or 10am meetings cause problems with this approach. If we assume the “normal” time for starting work is 9am (although more commonly, due to this phenomenon, most people arrive around 8am). It’s fine to show up to work 3 hours early (6am)–in fact, this is usually considered a sign of being hard working or responsible–but show up an hour late (10am) and you are likely to be looked down upon. You must have been “up late partying.”

Instead of encouraging everyone to show up at the same time, spreading out the work day should be encouraged. It reduces congestion, reducing traffic on the roads and mass transit systems. It encourages flexibility, allowing people to fit work into their lives how they see fit. Some people are morning people; some are not. Some people have commitments, and need to be home at a certain hour.

Even among my programmer cohorts, who are among those who have realized the folly of this system and often enjoy the flexibility of working on their schedule, some believe that this is detrimental to the work environment, productivity, team dynamics, or even personal health. Even if your organization allows a dynamic schedule, you will probably be partially judged by superiors by the time of your arrival. Debunking these myths is near impossible, as we have been risen in a society where “the early bird catches the worm.” Showing up for work on time is frequently more important than results, even if you would get better results from being well rested.

In short, the workplace should be a meritocracy. Nothing else should matter. This is never the case.

As I mentioned, this is one of many examples. Yet another early bird dilemma is the queue, which naturally favors the one who arrived first, and therefore waited the longest. Now in many cases, I have no problem with this; certainly waiting in line at the grocery store makes sense. However, when it comes to things like product releases or ticket sales, this system is fundamentally flawed. Encouraging people to wait in a queue for hours, sometimes days or even weeks, is not healthy nor productive. Certainly a lottery would be a better approach to this system.

As someone who both frequently rises early (I wrote this entry before leaving for work) and stays up all night, I fear I’ll be fighting the early bird dilemma for my entire life.