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Why Work Schedule Flexibility Is Here to Stay

A woman in a wheelchair working on her laptop at home.

​Since the advent of the 9-to-5 workday, employers have largely stuck to this schedule and offered little flexibility to workers, except for vacation time and sick days. In fact, as of 2019, 47 percent of workplaces offered very limited flexibility regarding work schedules, according to Statista.

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations experienced a sudden shift to remote work that forever altered work schedules. At the end of last year, 67 percent of employers provided complete or partial scheduling flexibility. Some even eliminated the 9-to-5 routine, replacing it with hours determined by employees and managers.

One company that made 9-to-5 hours optional is 37signals, which develops Web software including Basecamp, a popular project management application. The company is completely remote, with no physical headquarters. Instead, its 80 employees are spread across 19 countries.

Andrea LaRowe, head of people operations at 37signals, said company leaders made the 9-to-5 schedule voluntary because employees "should work during the hours that make the most sense for them."

"For a lot of people, that is 9 to 5. For others, it's 11 to 7. Or some will split up their workdays and work 9 to 2, leave to pick up their kids, and then work another few hours after their kids go to sleep," she said. "We're not concerned about when people work, just that they're putting in quality work."

Another global remote company, DuckDuckGo, no longer has core working hours. Instead, its more than 200 employees live and work in multiple time zones around the world. But that's not the only reason for the nonlinear schedules.

"We understand everyone has their own working styles, as well as certain times of the day when they're most productive, so we offer them the freedom and flexibility to organize their individual work schedules," said Mike Tullock, senior people operations manager.

And at crowdfunding platform Kickstarter, 9-to-5 schedules have essentially disappeared. Its 100 full-time employees work fully remotely using whatever schedules are best for them, said senior director of communications Kate Bernyk.  

"We recognize that since the pandemic, our team can effectively use their time as they see fit, as long as we're still hitting our goals and focusing on our mission," she said.

Advantages of a Nonlinear Workday

Employers report many benefits from shifting to flexible schedules, ranging from making it easier to attract talent to increasing employee productivity, loyalty and retention.

"Our approach to scheduling makes it easier to recruit and retain talent, and our team's engagement is higher than ever," LaRowe said. As a result, employees at 37signals can work whatever hours they choose, no matter where they're located.

"Jane in Sydney isn't concerned with finding time for a weekly meeting with Bob in Los Angeles," said LaRowe. "Our work happens asynchronously, and collaboration is expected to be written, thoughtful and slower-paced."

Disadvantages of a Nonlinear Workday

To be sure, nonlinear workdays present some challenges. At 37signals, HR has to navigate how scheduling flexibility impacts the company's more-reactive teams, such as customer support, and ensure they have the coverage they need.

"It's up to those managers to work with their teams to satisfy both the coverage needs and the scheduling preferences of the people on their team," LaRowe said. She also expressed concern about the risk of social isolation, which some employees experienced when the company was smaller and concentrated in U.S. time zones.

"Now that we're a bigger company and more spread out, there's usually someone online at all hours," LaRowe said. "It's important for our staff to feel connected to one another, even though we rely heavily on asynchronous work. To that end, we encourage people to connect in real time with their co-workers in social Campfires (chatrooms)."

At Kickstarter, a nonlinear remote workday can make it difficult for people to get to know one another, which is critical when trying to develop company loyalty.

"[One] of the challenges that comes with fully remote work is finding time to ensure we get that face-to-face time with each other regularly," Bernyk said. "[This is] either via team offsites or our annual retreat."

Implementing a Nonlinear Workday

When moving away from a 9-to-5 schedule, certain steps typically ensure a higher level of success, experts say. For example, employers might start with a pilot program for a short period of time to see if the new freedom will actually work, like Kickstarter did when it tried switching to a four-day workweek last year. The pilot was a hit: The company saw productivity gains and employees were happier, so Kickstarter adopted that policy permanently.

Before leaders introduce a new way of working, LaRowe recommends communicating effectively with everyone involved.

"Implementation is all about setting clear expectations," she said. "We're clear from day one, when someone joins 37signals, that their work is theirs to manage. Along with that responsibility comes the trust and freedom to structure their days and hours in a way that allows them to deliver their best work."

At DuckDuckGo, leadership actively encourages employees to have fewer meetings and to collaborate via a project management platform that can be accessed at any time.

"We don't schedule standing meetings on Wednesdays or Thursdays so that team members have the opportunity to do deep work," Tullock said. "We use Asana [project management software] for day-to-day work and asynchronous collaboration among colleagues. There, team members can find every project going on at the company listed in one place, organized by companywide objectives. Team members can also participate in any company initiative if they choose to do so, regardless of professional level, team, physical location or the working hours they keep."

Overall, allowing employees to be in charge of their working hours has been a very positive experience, according to Tullock.

"Each of us has our own way of working. Some of us are night owls, some are early birds, some prefer to break up the day," he said. "We've found that team members do their best work, have the greatest work/life balance and are happiest when they can choose where and when they do their work." 

Kylie Ora Lobell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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