Perhaps one of the most frustrating and inefficient facets of investment banking is the concept of face time.
Face time is time spent at your desk when you have no work to do. It’s non-productive and effectively wasted time. Face time is one of the biggest contributors to the crazy hours in investment banking.
Face time occurs when you’re still at the office after normal working hours and you have no assigned tasks, but you still can’t leave.
It is a relatively common thing to experience as an intern or analyst and it’s a key factor that can make investment banking feel so demoralizing. But it’s not a phenomenon that exists without reason.
If you have a severe face time problem at your workplace, it’s likely because of how your firm or group is culturally run. You can try to determine a firm's culture when networking with people over coffee chats. Many senior bankers grew up in big face time organizations and simply have it instilled in them that face time is required to provide high-quality work to their clients. I view this as a toxic and ugly reason for face time to exist.
Banks have worked hard to eliminate these kinds of working conditions.
Inevitable Causes of Face Time
That being said, even with the advent of mildly improved office culture, I think it’s unlikely that face time will ever be completely removed from investment banking. Managers can do their best to minimize it, but I think there are always going to be fundamental personnel reasons for it to persist:
Hierarchy: Most people want to impress their boss. Most people in investment banking are naturally pretty try hard and will want to prove to their boss that they work hard. This has a strong trickle-down effect – if your Partner is here, you can almost guarantee that your staffer is here and that all the other analysts are here.
Iterative Work Leads to Sub-optimal Schedules: The nature of investment banking work can be incredibly iterative. Consider the typical work cycle: you take the first crack at a deck, then you send it to your associate. Then you get comments from the associate. You turn the comments and then you send it to your VP. Then you get comments from the VP. This continues a couple more times up the chain. When you combine the heavy iterations involved with a number of different projects, there’s bound to be a decent amount of time waiting around for other people to review things.
Sales Roles Require Responsiveness: If you’re on a live deal with a client, you unfortunately might have to wait around in anticipation for a work stream or deliverable to come in, particularly if the client is in a different time zone. Investment banking is inherently a sales organization with tons of client service and showing up can be a large portion of the battle. Woody Allen famously said that 80% of success is just showing up.
Lateral Competition: This is at its peak awfulness when you’re a summer intern, but if there’s a high level of competition in your group, it’s likely that people will also want to try to out-work each other and stay later than each other. This is very true if you guys are angling for a full-time offer, buy-side recommendation, or particular staffing.
Dealing with Face Time
Some people will say that only cruel or outdated firms will make you put up with face time. I’m here to tell you that a) that’s a very idealistic perspective or b) most investment banks are cruel and outdated, so you should just learn to deal with them.
Many of these organizations are filled with extremely competitive, hard-working people who are eager to outshine each other. There are also moments when it might make sense to put in a little face time to make a good impression and avoid future unwanted work.
Here are some tips to effectively deal with face time culture:
Confirm With Your Associate that You Can Leave: Some analysts delude themselves into thinking they have to stay late because they don’t have a clear working relationship with their associate. Before you leave for the day, check with your associate or direct report if there’s anything else that needs to be done. Make sure there’s no work stream you’re forgetting about or that there’s a chance something might pop up within the next hour. Find out if things are due that night or in the coming days.
Don’t Leave Before your Staffer: Some groups won’t have an overt issue with you leaving early. When you’re not working, they don’t want you to waste their time at the office. The thing is, you leaving before others is a signal that you have capacity. A simple solution is to befriend your staffer and not leave before them. Befriending your staffer is one of the key things you should do as a starting investment banking analyst. Know where they sit, when they do their checks, and try not to leave before them. If you have to leave before them, then try to do it after the other analysts have already left or embrace the fact that you might get staffed.
Befriend Your Partner’s Admin to Plan Your Schedule: After the staffer, the most important person to befriend to understand your schedule’s line of sight is your Partner’s admin. Are they gone for the night? Are they on the road tomorrow meaning you can probably come in a little later? Your admin has direct access to this knowledge because they run your Partner’s schedule. Save yourself some unnecessary face time by clearly knowing when it’s totally good to leave the office.
Some face time is undoubtedly going to be inevitable as an analyst.
You’re paid well largely in part because of your ability to handle insurmountable amounts of pain. Rather than bemoan it, just do it wisely and deal with it gracefully.