One of my favourite quotes is film director Woody Allen’s line, “80% of success is showing up.” But once you show up, how long do you need to stick around when it comes to your workplace?

The perennial question of “face time” (i.e., extra time spent at work beyond normal working hours, especially to impress others) can be tricky to navigate, and the uncertainty can drive even the most self-possessed of us to feel nervous about our career prospects. So, what is a professional to do?

There are two opposing schools of thought on the topic. Some say you make the best impression by being there before the boss comes in and staying until after he or she leaves.

The idea is to show unwavering dedication and an incredible work ethic by always being on call and using every available minute for the good of the cause. On the other hand, others make the case that you should leave when the job is done, and stop wasting precious time and energy on putting in “face time,” which any intelligent boss can see through. If you are efficient and produce results, then these will speak for themselves. In fact, staying late can backfire by making you appear less capable.

My personal view is that face time is counterproductive for everyone involved, and therefore has no place in a healthy work environment. After all, more is not necessarily better, as illustrated by the old joke, “first prize is a week in Philadelphia, second prize is two weeks in Philadelphia.”

However, avoiding face time is easier said than done, especially in environments where such behaviour has become the norm.

Let me share with you a few of the different approaches I have seen over the years.

Charles: Don't do it

Charles was one of our best investment banking analysts and I was lucky enough to have him assigned to my group when I was an associate. Not only did he possess a great math brain and fabulous spreadsheet modelling skills, he was also an effective communicator who our clients found likeable and trustworthy. Charles never did face time, partly because I don’t think it ever occurred to his highly logical and analytical brain, and if he did consider it, he would have concluded that it made little sense.

When he finished his assignments for the day, he would come by my desk, show me what he had done and ask if there was anything else I needed; “If not, then I’ll see you tomorrow if that’s okay,” is what I remember him saying.

Of course, if there was something else, he would happily do it. Bottom line: Charles didn’t need to do face time to try to augment his reputation. He worked long hours when required, but it was always focused on what needed to be done. No one ever doubted his abilities or work ethic, because he always delivered.

Evan: Do it ‘smart'

Evan is an ED in Sales who has found a way to succeed in his career while also spending time with his wife and two young sons, and exercising regularly.

Evan’s approach is to do “smart” face time. This means a two-pronged approach. First, he makes it a point to put himself in situations where he can get to know the relevant senior people who can affect his career opportunities. He makes sure these key people in his chain of command and beyond know who he is and what he has accomplished, preferably through a work-related context.

To Evan, this is “good” face time. On the other hand, he never stays late for the sake of showing his face on the trading floor, which is “bad” face time. If he has to leave early to see his son’s Christmas pageant, then he lets his trusted assistant know how to reach him, slips out of the office unobtrusively, and makes sure he checks his Blackberry frequently. Sometimes, he heads off potential problems by checking in with key clients just before he goes. Other times, he might leave his jacket on his chair. “If you have to leave early, you have to leave early, but you don’t have to highlight it,” is his advice. And make friends with your assistant and technology tools!

Me: Getting over the guilt

For a while, I had the privilege to share an office with a colleague who was in a different but related business. We got along well and learned a great deal from one another, but I remember feeling a pang of guilt when I left our shared office before he did. Would this make me look like a lightweight, or as though I was sloughing off? I am ashamed to say that these thoughts crossed my mind even though I was already an MD, but that just goes to show that this is a very natural instinct, albeit one that we have to fight against.

In the end, I realised that the fact of the matter was that we were in different businesses, each with its own daily rhythms. I had to be in the office before him for early morning meetings, and he had to stay late to deal with the global aspects associated with his business area. As long as we both produced great results, it didn’t matter what hours we kept. And I like to think that as a senior person, I set a good example for others in achieving work-life balance.

As you approach this face time dilemma, the best thing is to figure out what the norm is in your group, and then decide how you want to play it. Remember that this is a long game and you have to stay fit and resilient. If you are going to avoid face time, then here are four points to keep in mind:

  1. Develop a reputation as one who is highly focused and gets things done.
  2. Stay on top of what is likely to come up so you can anticipate and clear the decks before the question of face time even comes up.
  3. Use the resources at your disposal to make sure you are reachable at all times if someone really needs to find you.
  4. When it comes time to leave, just do it – unobtrusively if it makes you feel better.