Punctuality Is Having a Moment
“Fashionably late” falls out of fashion after more than two years of remote work, when, for many people, there was no good reason to be tardy.
June 6, 2022
The start time for the party to celebrate Tina Brown’s new book, “The Palace Papers,” was 6:30 p.m., and that’s when the media crowd began streaming into Michael’s, the bistro in Midtown Manhattan known for its power lunches. By 6:35, the place was packed.
I was standing on the other side of West 55th 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 6:40.
The early turnout wasn’t lost on Ms. 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 shuts it down.”
Downtown, at City Hall, there has been a new emphasis on punctuality since Mayor Eric Adams took office in January.
“Mayor Adams is very punctual,” said Frank Carone, the mayor’s chief of staff. “If you are five minutes early, you are on time. If you are on time, you’re late.”
“We are on Vince Lombardi time,” Mr. Carone continued, referring to the famously punctual coach of the 1960s-era Green Bay Packers.
Katie Honan, a reporter for The City, a nonprofit news outlet covering New York, said she was pleased by the change since the departure of the often tardy previous mayor, Bill de Blasio. A “compulsively early person” by her own description, Ms. Honan said she has noticed — and appreciates — Mayor Adams’s commitment to being on time.
“There is a vastly noticeable difference between Mayor Adams and Mayor Bill de Blasio,” she said.
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 videoconferencing 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. 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 re-evaluation of our relationship to time,” said Linda Ong, the chief executive officer 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 C. Avila 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,” Professor 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.
“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 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 chitchat.”
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 United States 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.
In the last few years the comedian Mike Birbiglia has emerged as a kind of spokesman for the virtues of punctuality. In a Netflix special, “Thank God for Jokes,” he asks the audience members to clap if “you’re a late person.” Amid the applause, he says, “What late people don’t understand about us on-time people is that we hate you.” He delivers the line as latecomers are finding their seats. “Welcome to the show,” he quips.
That was a routine he did before the pandemic. Now, he said in an interview, sticking to a schedule has become even more important. Like many other comedians who turned to podcasting and other side gigs when live shows largely disappeared from their schedules, he finds himself busier than ever.
“I’m trying to cram in two years of work I couldn’t do with all the work I now have,” said Mr. Birbiglia, who has produced 73 episodes of “Working It Out,” a podcast in which he and guests like Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman and Bowen Yang discuss comedy and sometimes test out new material.
A change in people’s relationship with the clock has also affected the restaurant business. “Since the pandemic, we see a real surge in online reservation activity,” said Debby Soo, the chief executive officer of OpenTable, the digital reservation company. “Whereas there used to be more walk-in, people are now planning ahead and scheduling the timing of their meals.”
Diners are also booking earlier reservation times, said Patti Röckenwagner, an owner of Dear John’s, a Los Angeles steak house once owned by Frank Sinatra. “People who would eat at 7:30 or 8 p.m. are now eating at 6 or 6:30, because they’re not commuting,” she said. “They’re not running home after work to change their clothes and, in fact, they’re really ready to leave their homes at 5:30.”
An earlier prime time and the continued popularity of outdoor dining amid continuing coronavirus waves have complicated the running of a restaurant, Ms. Röckenwagner added.
“With the time frame condensed,” she said, “you do have to be more vigilant about managing on-time reservations, so you can try to get that second turn before it gets too cold for outdoor dining, even with the heat lamps in L.A.”
This summer, Ms. Röckenwagner and her partners are opening a new restaurant, Dear Jane’s in Marina del Rey, with a first seating at 4:30 p.m. “Rosé hour,” 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 the 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 Professor Orzel. “By the end of the 1800s,” he continued, “pocket watches get good enough and cheap enough, about $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.”
On a more practical level, far from the frontiers of science, Professor Orzel said he is someone who has had a habit of showing up early, having been conditioned by a high school basketball coach to do so. “I still occasionally find myself sitting in the parking lot playing Pokemon on the phone with my kids so that we’re not embarrassingly early for the thing we’re there for,” said Professor Orzel, who wears an old Seiko.
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.’”
Katie Rosman is a features reporter who covers a range of topics including media and celebrity. She joined the Times in 2014. @katierosman