Choice of hours the ‘next big thing’ in workplace flexibility

10 November 2022
Increased work flexibility is a positive, but there are pitfalls depending on your body clock type
Associate Professor Stefan Volk from the University of Sydney Business School explores the pros and cons of 'time flexibility' in the modern workplace.

Associate Professor Stefan Volk

Are you a morning or evening person? Studies show we have strong differences in when we feel most creative and do our best work during the day.

These differences go far deeper than just personal preference. Whether you like to get up early (a “lark”) or go to bed late (an “owl”), and when you are more productive, is a biological predisposition related to the settings of your internal body clock that synchronises your bodily functions with the rotation of the planet.

Research suggests genetic effects account for about half of the variability between individuals. Environmental factors and age explain the rest.

Yet most workplaces take a cookie-cutter approach to time, forcing us to work standardised hours. There are clear organisational advantages to this, but the disadvantage is that you (and your colleagues) may not be working at your most productive times.

The erosion of typical work hours can create a barrier in personal relationships, argues Associate Professor Stefan Volk. Picture: Adobe Stock

In the past few years we’ve seen a revolution in where we work. The enforced experiment of remote working during the pandemic has done much to overcome decades of managerial resistance to greater flexibility. Is it now time for a revolution in when we work?

If done well, my research suggests, it could lead be the next big gain in productivity – but only if the downsides are acknowledged and competing needs balanced.

Variations in chronotypes

Differences in the human body clock are often referred to as chronotypes.

Chronotypes exist on a morningness-eveningness continuum but individuals are often broadly classified based on the timing of their daily performance peaks as either morning types, evening types or intermediate types.

Most kids are morning types. Most teenagers are evening types. In the working-age population about 20% can be categorised as either morning or evening types while 60% are intermediate types.

Women are slightly more likely to prefer earlier hours than men up until menopause, when differences disappear. People who live further from the Equator are more likely to be evening types.

Women are more likely to prefer earlier hours to men up until menopause, when sex differences in chronotypes disappear. Picture: Adobe Stock

Chronotypes determine when during the day we feel energised and prefer to be active and perform demanding work. They also determine when we feel tired and prefer to work on less demanding tasks or to rest. So they are important to to productive you are.

If you’re a lark, you may be missing your best hours working 9am to 5pm. If you’re an owl you may be knocking off when you’re at your most alert.

The pros and cons of time flexibility

Could greater work-time flexibility be the next big key to unlock greater well-being and productivity? My research suggests yes, but only by acknowledging that increased work-time flexibility can also lead to negative consequences.

The downside – particularly if time flexibility is combined with remote working – is less interaction with colleagues, leading to greater isolation and lower creativity and innovation.

The benefits of “serendipity” – unplanned hallway and cafeteria discussions – are well-recognised. The less time we spend with coworkers, the less likely we are to connect, make friendships and develop team spirit.

But these problems are no more insurmountable than the challenges of remote work. There are comparatively easy ways to mitigate unintended side-effects through designing work-time arrangements that balance individual and organisational interests.

How to manage chronotype diversity

The key is for organisations to segment work time into four parts.

  1. Fixed on-site working hours: during these times employees are expected to attend office and be available for in-person meetings, collaborative work and social gatherings. There is no hard-and-fast rule on how many days this should be, but surveys suggests employers generally want at least three days a week, while workers want less.

  2. Fixed flexible-location working hours: during these hours all employees can work remotely if they want, but work a set number of standard work hours – say 10am to 3pm. These hours will depend on the needs of the organisation and the degree of teamwork required.

  3. Flexible working hours: beyond fixed working hours, workers can choose when to work to make up their full hours.

  4. Lockout hours: it is important to prevent excessive, potentially self-harming behaviour by setting limits through “lockout hours” – 7pm to 7am, for example – during which employees are strongly discouraged from working unless absolutely necessary.

Increased work flexibility is one of the few positive outcomes of the pandemic. But revolutions are rarely smooth. We have to be conscious of the potential pitfalls to avoid them.

Through careful attention to unintended consequences, and developing new work structures, there’s no reason to think we can’t have more flexibility over where and when we work.

This article was first published in The Conversation as Morning or evening type? Choice of hours is the next big thing in workplace flexibility. Stefan Volk is an Associate Professor of International Business and Co-Director of the Body, Heart and Mind in Business Research Group, University of Sydney Business School.

Top photo: Adobe Stock

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