A New Wrinkle in the End of Traditional Office Life: The Decline of 9-to-5

Research shows that as workers no longer congregate in the office, the historic, tightly structured workday that has inspired a movie and a Broadway play is fading.

By Holly Rosenkrantz January 10, 2023

​The post-pandemic workplace has forced managers into overseeing workers in far-flung locations. And an additional challenge has emerged for managers, as well: people working at all different hours.

A slew of data and reports have shown that as workers no longer congregate in the office, the historic, tightly structured workday of 9-to-5 that has inspired a movie and a Broadway play is fading.

A recent study by Slack Future Forum found that workers with flexible schedules report 29 percent higher productivity and 53 percent greater ability to focus than people with set hours. These conclusions were based on interviews with more than 10,000 desk workers from around the world. Significantly, the findings indicated that choosing when to work is more important in terms of productivity than choosing where to work.

The demand for time flexibility is particularly high among parents, who make up about one-third of the workforce.

"A lack of flexibility can result in quiet quitting and having the best talent walk out the door or be less productive," says Jackie Reinberg, senior vice president at American Benefits Consulting.

Indeed, Brian Elliott, senior vice president at Slack and executive leader of Future Forum, notes that schedule flexibility—and not just location flexibility—should be a key priority for managers.

"Providing schedule flexibility is really important for middle managers," he says. "In our latest Pulse survey, we've seen that burnout is on the rise, up 8 percent since May. It's particularly high for middle managers, 43 percent of whom report that they're burned out; that's higher than executives, senior managers or individual contributors."

A global study by WTW found that 45 percent of employees want the option to select when they work. "Managers see the end of 9-to-5 as a key retention and engagement tool," says Tracey Malcolm, global future of work leader at WTW.

But this new normal is creating new challenges for managers, who have to keep track not only of workers in different locations, but also of workers engaged at different hours.

Management experts say that while it is important to accommodate these needs for flexibility, there should be some markers of regulation and routine set up for this new type of workday.

"Certain positions do allow greater flexibility," Reinberg says. "However, managers should endeavor to make standing meetings at a time to be as inclusive as possible to continue to maintain team collaboration and engagement."

In addition, Elliott advises that managers, at the team level, set core work hours. A team could have, say, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Pacific time Monday through Thursday for in-sync work, whether that's quick conversations, team meetings, one-on-ones or cross-functional meetings.

Working on Trust

The data shows that managers have a ways to go before they trust their workers with flexibility on not only where they work, but also when they work. A recent Microsoft Work Trends report found that 85 percent of leaders don't feel confident that their employees are working hard from home. As executives face resistance to revive in-person, 9-to-5 work, their stress and anxiety levels are up 40 percent in the last year, Future Forum found.

Addressing the Need for Status Updates

Ben Jackson, founder of Hear Me Out, an HR strategy company, notes that in most 9-to-5 workplaces, status updates happen in a meeting. "But in a flexible workplace, that's not always possible," he says. "If an employee [encounters a problem] while working a late night, they may be stuck until the next day—and their manager may not even know the project is off track until it's too late."

To address this issue, Jackson says managers need to lower their teams' reliance on real-time collaboration. They can do this by moving from a meeting-heavy workday to one in which people spend a lot more time in shared documents, and creating a system to manage goals, projects and tasks, so everyone knows what to work on next without asking a colleague, and setting clear expectations for availability and response time, including an escalation policy for emergencies.

Ultimately, though, managers may have to find creative ways to fill in the gaps if the team is working flexible hours, Malcolm says. She recommends expanding the use of non-permanent talent such as gig or contract workers to cover peak demand periods or regular overtime shift schedules less favored by employees.

The Burden on Middle Managers

Because middle managers often carry the load of individual work as well as leading a team, giving them time to do focused work when they're at their best is essential, and that can't happen if you're cramming a 40-hour workweek full of meetings, Elliott notes.

That means setting up broad "no internal meetings" periods, he says, and investing in tools and training on how to collaborate asynchronously.

"The biggest beneficiaries of focusing on schedule flexibility are front-line managers," Elliott says. "Giving them the support, training and tools to do focused work is essential for retaining talent and improving business performance."

Holly Rosenkrantz is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.



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