Is ‘fashionably late’ out of fashion? Has punctuality become mainstream during the pandemic?

The start time for the party to celebrate Tina Brown’s new book, The Palace Papers, was 6.30pm, and that’s when the media crowd began streaming into the bistro in midtown Manhattan known for its power lunches. By 6.35pm, the place was packed.

I was standing on the other side of the street, watching the moment unfold in something like disbelief. Years of going to this kind of thing, either as a reporter or a guest, had trained me to show up at least 15 minutes after the time on the invitation. In I went at 6.40pm.

The early turnout wasn’t lost on Brown. “We all crave company these days,” she told me. “Today, we want to arrive to the party as early as possible, before another outbreak of COVID-19 shuts it down.”

In 2022, it’s no longer fashionable to be fashionably late, a change that seems to have arisen from a pandemic now in its third year.

During the first phase, when video-conferencing became the norm for many office workers nationwide, people who had previously struggled with being on time found themselves no longer held up by commutes or workplace gossip sessions.

(Photo: iStock/Edwin Tan)

Collaboration among those in different time zones has become almost seamless, and people are able to weave school pick-ups and other child care duties into their workdays.

“Punctuality is paramount as we are going through a reevaluation of our relationship to time,” said Linda Ong, CEO of Cultique, a consulting firm in Los Angeles that advises companies on changing cultural norms. “There has been less tolerance for lateness because there is expectation that you have more control over your time and so you should be on time.”

As more and more office employees return to the workplace, their ability to manage their own time is not something they want to give up, said Sophie Leroy, a professor of management at the University of Washington Bothell.

“The pandemic allowed people to function for a long time on their own time,” Prof Leroy said. “As you move back to the office, you have to negotiate all these things  commutes, engaging with people and an inability to tend to your personal and family life in the ways we could when working from home.”

The reluctance of some to return to the office will require managers to make efficiency a priority, she added.

(Photo: iStock/Olivier Le Moal)

“People are implicitly asking, ‘Why am I going back to the workplace? There better be a reason to spend all this money on gas or trains for commuting; it better be worth it to risk getting COVID-19 when I’ve proved I can work efficiently from home,’” she said. This could translate, she said, into a culture of “I’m here to get things done, not to chit-chat”.

The idea that remote work has left employees less in the mood to put up with the distractions and inefficiencies of office life is seconded by Marcia Villavicencio, an officer in the Navy stationed in San Diego, who runs a fitness and life-coaching business on the side. “People want to get the things they have to get done faster, so they can do what they want to do,” she said.

The new emphasis on punctuality in daily life has arrived when scientists are working to gain a more precise accounting of time itself. As The New York Times reported this year, physicists and metrologists at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures have been redefining the measurement of the unit of time known as the second.

Chad Orzel, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Union College and author of a recently published book, A Brief History Of Timekeeping, said an adherence to punctuality has been on an upward slope for millenniums.

People who tried to measure time in ancient Egypt turned water vessels into clocks, he said; and modern notions of punctuality developed thousands of years later, in the industrial age.

“With the rise of cities, you start to get public clocks displaying the time, and people get more and more strict about time,” said Assoc Prof Orzel.

“By the end of the 1800s, pocket watches get good enough and cheap enough, about US$1 for a pretty good watch, that most people owned one, and they could just go to the train station once a week to reset their watches to get them back on the time.”

He understands why punctuality is having a moment. “I think there is something to the aspect that there is less lolling-about in offices now,” he said, “with people saying, ‘I don’t enjoy wearing a mask, so I’m coming in, doing my work and getting out of here as soon as possible’.”

By Katherine Rosman © 2022 The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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