Future Focus

Clockwork Productivity

By Jennifer Schramm Sep 1, 2010
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September coverWhile hiring is picking up in some sectors of the economy, employers are not scaling back their efforts to increase employee productivity. And since there is growing evidence that flexibility in working arrangements, when well-managed, can boost productivity, more HR executives are beginning to consider allowing greater flexibility in scheduling.

In many companies, workplace flexibility has been about enabling employees to balance their work and personal responsibilities more efficiently and less stressfully. But another element of flexibility appears to center on enabling people to work in ways aligned as much as possible with their preferences for either a morning-oriented workday or a schedule tilted toward the later hours of the day.

A growing body of research, much of it conducted in other countries, shows that chronotype—a term denoting the portion of the day a person feels most alert and prefers to be most active—can have a significant impact on styles of working, on productivity and even on creativity and innovative thinking.

Most organizations are arranged in accord with the morning chronotype. As a result, some researchers maintain, individuals with "morning dispositions" have an advantage in career advancement because they are working in harmony with their optimal schedule.

In some industries, to be sure, nontraditional hours and shift work are the norm. But even in organizations that operate according to a shift-work model, managers may not be fully aware that individuals’ preferences for starting and concluding their workdays may play a role in productivity and work quality.

By enabling employees to align their schedules with their individual preferences for earlier or later in the day, organizations are likely to get more creativity and productivity from workers who have "evening dispositions." According to some studies, individuals with evening dispositions are more likely than morning-disposition workers to use creative thought processes and apply divergent thinking strategies.

Younger workers are more likely to prefer an evening orientation, while workers above age 50 are more likely to have morning chronotypes. This difference may cause misperceptions between generations about their respective dedication to work. Awareness of the diversity of work rhythms could help dismantle stereotypes of younger workers as undisciplined if they prefer to work later than traditional schedules.

Organizations employing shift workers could benefit from understanding and accommodating employees’ optimal working hours. The risks of mistakes and accidents caused by fatigue—costing U.S. employers billions of dollars per year—are often heightened in a shift-work environment. Managers in industries employing large numbers of night-time or shift workers are looking at how to leverage workers’ best hours for optimum productivity.

Many organizations do not offer a fluid approach to scheduling. And in those that do, an untraditional schedule may not be culturally accepted or may be viewed as a route to career suicide. But employers that swim against that tide could find an open-minded approach a major factor in reducing turnover and in increasing employee loyalty and job satisfaction, especially among younger workers.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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