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Face time in Investment Banking

Face time is probably a very bizarre concept of Investment Banking. Once you are done with all your items and have no work left to do, you still have to stay at your desk until it is appropriate to leave. You can eventually go home after your higher-ups have left the office. Yes, this is time spent non-productive and waisted.

Say you are done with all your work for the day at 9 PM. You look around and everyone is still busy – especially your Associate or VP. You don’t just stand up and leave. No, you wait until your VP leaves at 9:45 PM so that you can go at 10:15 PM without anyone noticing. This game of cat and mouse might seem strange for those who don’t work in finance.

Yes, face time is a significant contributor to the long work hours in Investment Banking. Yes, you will be working 60-80 hours per week most of the time. But that’s face time and not actual productive working hours. Part of that time includes waiting for work to be handed down to you or just hiding from work.

What happens if you just leave?

You got nothing to do. It is 9 PM. You want to go home. What happens if you pack your stuff and just leave?

Two scenarios:

(1) Nothing and the next day you get cited for a feedback talk. You successfully snuck out. Nobody noticed that you disappeared at 8 PM. Everyone else had enough to do and at some point, people noticed you weren’t there anymore. Now you have a negative reputation for sneaking out. You’ll be the number one topic of office gossip. “You heard about XYZ, who snuck out at 8 PM without saying anything while we were all busy?!” You don’t want that to be you. Plus, the next day, you’ll get 1-on-1 feedback to not just disappear like that. Even worse, if you submitted work full of careless errors and then disappeared. For Interns, this will kill your return offer if it happens too often.

(2) An Associate notices it and you get assigned more work. You submitted your work and thought you were done for the day. You are packing your stuff together and an Associate notices it. “Where are you going? Don’t you see that we are all busy?” And then you get assigned more work. But this time, you’ll get the mundane items, like proofreading, random research tasks or printing and binding. You will not get assigned interesting work. Nobody distributes interesting work at 10 PM. You might even end up staying longer to complete all the items.

In both cases, it would have been smarter just to complete all your work at 9 PM and take an unofficial break until 9:30 PM and see what’s up. If people are starting to leave, chances are good that you might get lucky and can leave at 10:30 PM without anyone being disgruntled. If people are still busy, you can offer your help and demonstrate that you are a team player.

As you can see, there are situations where it’s just smarter to put in some face time, lay low and avoid more work. In other cases, it might be smarter to take a small break and then offer your help to the team. That way, nobody will be irritated.

You can think about whatever you want. It will always exist within Investment Banking because it is part of office politics and game theory.

Reasons for face time

Now you have a feeling for why face time exists in Investment Banking culture. Yes, you can mitigate it to some extent, but face time will never completely disappear for the following reasons:

You need to maintain a good image of yourself. On the street, they say, “perception is reality”. What people think of you is their reality of you. So, the perception of your performance matters more than what you do – assuming it’s not littered with typos and careless errors. You can’t always be the first to leave the office. Plus, most people in Investment Banking are try-hard overachievers who want to impress their boss with how hard they work. Face time gives the illusion that you are busy.

Investment Bankers must be responsive. Continuing the point above, if somebody sends you an email, you need to answer with “will do” within 15 minutes to signal that you have read it. If somebody calls you and you miss the call, you better call back within 15 minutes. This applies to your relationship with your higher-ups and the client relationship. You always want to signal your availability and readiness for business.

Waiting for feedback and comments after submitting your work. You just submitted your deck. You triple-checked it and made sure all careless errors were fixed. It is your best product of work. You think, just hint SEND and I’m done for the day. Not so fast. You still have to stay in the office and wait for comments and feedback. Imagine it’s 8:30 PM and you just left the office. Then at 9:10 PM, your phone rings. It’s your VP. He wants to go over the deck. You are in the metro or a restaurant with no access to your laptop. Not good. Now you got to take a taxi back to the office. If you scale this iterative work style throughout multiple hierarchy levels (Associate, VP and MD) and multiple deals, there will be a decent amount of waiting for people to review your work.

Saving yourself from more work. This brings us back to waiting for comments. Suppose you have just submitted a deck and are waiting for comments. You are not going to volunteer for more work. You just take a deep breath and chill for a bit, aka some face time. It’s already challenging enough to be a top-tier Analyst. Once you are done with all your items and it is already late, just lay low. Nobody has detected that you have nothing to do. If you consistently go home earlier before your Senior Bankers, they will think you still have bandwidth. That’s where you will get surprised with a new deal you have to manage. And then all of them blow up. So, now you are legitimately busy until 2 AM every night. You want to keep a good deal flow without killing yourself when one deal needs more attention.

How to play the “face time” game correctly

Analysts and Interns suffer the most from face time. Sorry to say, but you are at the bottom of the totem pole. Yes, it’s not cool and it does not make sense from a productivity standpoint. But face time does not exist without reason, regardless of what HR or some Partners say. Although things have gotten better, some face time will be inevitable as an Intern or Analyst.

Face time is the first level of playing office politics. Instead of complaining about the game, you should learn to play the game properly. Welcome to the real world.

Here are some tips on how to deal with face time without tripping:

Use it to take a mental break. Look, Investment Banking hours are long and grueling. If you have just submitted an item, take a mental break. Go grab yourself a coffee, take a deep breath and chill at your desk. You will be working hard enough. That’s how you can take small unofficial breaks in between tasks. But don’t overdo it, though. Everyone can get away with 30 minutes here and there. Don’t make it 3 hours, though, which leads us to the next point.

Stay as long as your team is in the office. If you are an Analyst or Intern, you don’t just disappear. You stay as long as your deal team is there. If you got nothing to do, then offer your help to your deal team first, then you can go talk to your mentor Analyst or Associate. They will find something for you. In other words, you don’t leave at 9 PM while the entire floor is still busy. If you pay attention, no VP or Associate leaves before the Partners go. It’s about signaling availability. If your firm has a staffer, just don’t leave before the staffer goes. If you consistently leave early, people assume that you don’t have much to do and you will get staffed on more projects.

Talk to your team about whether you can leave. You got nothing to do. You are sure about it. Everything is prepared ahead of time. There are no loose workstreams. You offered your help to your deal team and mentor Analyst/Associate. Nothing happens. It’s now turning 9 PM. Now, you can ask your Associate whether he needs something and if it’s ok if you leave. In most cases, they’ll say no, I got nothing I could delegate to you now. It’s ok. You can go home. That’s how you leave early without anyone being disgruntled. Transparency goes a long way and builds trust.

Back in the days, before the Interns left at our shop, they would make the round and ask all the full-timers whether there was something they could help with. In most cases, there was nothing to delegate and the Interns were free to go home. No one was disgruntled or received negative feedback. The point is, they proactively asked.

Advanced: Get a glimpse of the Partners’ schedule. This is more relevant if you are a full-time Analyst. Try to befriend the personal assistants of your Partners and ask them what the Partners’ schedule looks like. Are they leaving for the airport later today? When will they come back? Investment Bankers travel more often than you think. This will help you see what’s urgent and what can wait. Save yourself some unnecessary face time by knowing when your Partners are in office. In other words, if there are no Partners in the office, no work will get delegated.

Where does it leave us?

Banks have been trying to crack down on face time. However, regardless of what everyone is saying, you will have to go through some face time as an Intern or Analyst. Face time is the first level of playing office politics. Instead of complaining about the game, you should learn how to play the game properly.

Some face time is inevitable. You want to maintain a good perception of your performance and signal availability to help when things pop up. Investment Bankers are always on call for their clients. And some face time goes a long way to show your team that you are ready to help vs. disappearing the instant you got nothing to do.

Some face time will also save you from more work. Say, you are juggling 3-5 deals. You have just submitted your work and are waiting for comments. Enjoy the break for as long as it lasts. When the comments come in, it’s back to work. If you were to leave early too often, you will get assigned more work. Leaving early signals, “I got nothing to do”. Better to take small breaks here and there and fly under the radar. You never know when one of your deals will heat up. Better to have some spare bandwidth than constantly redlining the car.

With that said, you can leave when the team has nothing to do. If your floor is busy and bustling, you cannot leave early. You have to offer your help and jump in the trenches with them. That’s what you are there for – to save your team time. On the other hand, if your team is leaving early no need to put in some face time. Just go home and get some sleep. Go with the flow. Never be the first to leave.

If you really have nothing to do and it’s still early (anything before 9 PM), ask the Analysts and Associates on your floor whether you can help. If it’s already late (past 10 PM) and you are done with your items, you can ask whether it’s ok if you leave. Only leave early when you get sent home.

That’s how you leave “earlier” without leaving a bad impression and without anyone being disgruntled.

Additional resources

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