Thursday 16 February 2017 2:19 pm

Let’s stop being so British about the chronically late

To this day, my first accounting class remains my most vivid memory of Insead.

For the first 10 minutes, the professor stood silently at the lectern, watching the endless file of late-comers filter down the aisles – coffee and croissant in hand – clamber to their seats, shuffle their bags noisily.

He is a push-over, I thought at the time. These guys are taking precious moments away from the lecture. He has to control his class. But once everyone had finally settled, the professor paused, then, very calmly, said the following: “This is the accounting class and it starts at 8am. Not at 8:05, not at 8:01, but at 8am. In the future, if you are late, you will not be admitted”. He never once defaulted on this promise.

My building’s annual flat owners’ meetings are an extreme example of the opposite approach. One woman rocks up half an hour late year in, year out. Sometimes she bothers with an excuse, most of the time she doesn’t.

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But what fascinates me most is not so much her behaviour, but our reaction to it. We do not start the meeting until we have waited for her for at least 15 minutes. When she finally shows up, we interrupt the meeting mid-sentence, rise to greet her, exchange pleasantries, assure her that it is “no problem at all” that she is late, then fill her in on what she has missed. All this takes another 20 minutes.

Although nothing quite as grotesque tends to happen in the corporate world, most of the time we are still way too British and polite towards lax time keeping.

Apparently, there are various psychological reasons for people’s lateness: insecurity, lack of self-control, anxiety. I think these may be terribly interesting for one’s shrink or best friend to discuss and ponder upon, but all I care about, in a professional environment, is that someone shows up on time.

How they achieve this is up to them, but I think that my Insead professor uses the most effective tool there is: denying access.

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This approach invariably, faultlessly works. Just look how the Barbican Hall fills up 10 minutes before the performance starts. One explanation is that patrons cannot wait to listen to their favourite symphony. A more plausible explanation is that the Barbican doors shut the moment the conductor steps into the pit – so if you are even a second late, you have missed the concert.

Walking away is another good solution. A partner at my old firm was always late for outside meetings, making his team wait in a taxi, doors open, meter running, anxiously looking at their watches. Until one day we left without him, suggesting that he make his own way when he was ready. He was never late again.

At some point, a friend got into the habit of texting me 10 minutes after our dinner was supposed to start to say that she was just leaving the office. “Order me a Bloody Mary”, she would add. One day I did, then got up and left – and when she finally made it to the restaurant, there was a Bloody Mary waiting for her but not much else.

There are valid reasons to be late, of course. When your flight has been evacuated because the engine caught fire, for example. Or when the Central line has been suspended and you have spent 45 minutes in the tunnel. But, mostly, poor time-keeping amounts to bad planning and lack of discipline. It frustrates us and disrupts our day – and it penalises those who have made the effort to be on time. We should never be polite or “British” about it.