Time is a strong but rarely recognized power construct in the workplace

On a recent Saturday morning I spent about half an hour with a friend analyzing the texts she had been exchanging with a new romantic interest. At some point, I realized something: we were barely discussing the actual content of the messages. Instead of parsing words, we parsed the time stamps.

“Okay, when did you send that text?” I asked. “And did he respond right away?”

“9pm or 9am?”

To scholars of chronemics, the study of time as it relates to communication, this would be unsurprising. The way we experience time elicits a range of intense emotions, says Dawna Ballard, a professor of communication at University of Texas Austin. In relationships, time is a currency that we dole out with sometimes unconscious intentions.

Universally, we demonstrate what we care about most by giving it the larger share of this irreplaceable resource. We also punish people by making them wait, or enforcing a time-out. “When someone is jailed,” says Robert Levine, a professor of psychology at California State University, “we say they’re ‘doing time.’”

What’s true in our social and civil life is also true at work: We are influenced by, and send messages through, the ways we and others treat time. Here’s what chronemics scholars have observed about time and communication around the office.

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