Why 9-to-5 Has to Die (and How to Build Smarter Work Hours)
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Why 9-to-5 Has to Die (and How to Build Smarter Work Hours)

Mart Virkus Mart Virkus Last Updated:

Let’s start with a bottom line – routines are good. Doing certain things at specific times helps maintain control over one’s life. Our bodies too, were built to like habits. But while habits themselves are natural, there is no universally applicable routine that suits all people. So why do we still insist on 9-to-5 work?

To stay productive and maintain a routine, I make a point to wake up at the same time every day. Until recently – and for the same reason – I also made a point to get to the office at 9 AM sharp (well, more or less). At one point, during one of our weekly meetings, our leadgen manager brought it up, saying “You know we’re not the kind of company that expects people to fill in office hours, right?” I said I was indeed aware of it (no surprises there, the Toggl offices are inhabited almost exclusively by millennials). Yet I kept insisting that clocking in at the same time every day was important for personal productivity.

And then I realised, that it wasn’t.

I discovered I was getting up at 7 to get to work in time for 9 for no discernible reason. I must’ve reckoned this helped me stay organised – instead I found I was compromising focus on important thoughts in favour of beating the clock. And beating the clock is not what my job is about (and important thoughts are).

So here is the gist:

The objective of work is not to be at work – it’s to get work done.

Sounds simple, but it’s the simple things we often forget about. You can’t have a routine for the sake of having one. Most definitely, you cannot conform to an externally enforced routine, and expect to be the best you can be. Sitting in the office at specific times does not equal productivity – following a smart routine does.

For example – I tend to nail down most of my ideas and plans early in the morning, right after getting out of bed, spending the rest of the day catching up with secondary, low-cognitive tasks. I have no objective reason for stopping a good work flow just to get myself onto a crowded bus to get to the office by some arbitrarily fixed hour.

Yes, certain jobs and tasks require physical presence in a specific place at a specific time. But the need for sit-in office hours should always be rationally justified. By reviewing your policy on physical presence you can determine which people in your organisation might benefit from a fluid workspace leading to an increase in productivity (Harvard Business Review has a compelling interview on the subject matter here).

I’m using the term fluid workspace here to differentiate from the “flextime” concept – the idea that physical presence during certain portions of work time outside a fixed core office time can be negotiated for increased efficiency. A lot of our experience comes from working with a small to medium size organisation. Flextime, on the other hand, tends to be more suited to larger organisations and is, for that reason, somewhat more strictly regulated in its applications.

How to build a fluid workspace?

Once you recognise that it is goals that drive work, and not time spent in a space, you can start putting things into perspective. A fundamental foundation and guiding idea of that perspective is this – different people require different routines.

Another fundamental to consider before you begin to think about experimenting with fluidity in your workspace is your organisational culture. If everybody’s happy and motivated, flexibility will work wonders for productivity. If there is brooding and unhappiness, the organisation might need a few fixes and patches before giving everyone a free pass regarding office hours.

Once you’re willing to commit and mix things up a little, here’s a few things to keep in mind:

1. Know what you want

Every new thing begins (or at least, really should) with a plan. You need a clear idea of what you expect to gain from the more flexible work arrangements and you need to make sure your team is on the same page. Barging in and shouting “you don’t have to be here anymore!” is just confusing. Everybody needs to understand what the change towards more fluid working arrangements means.

On a related note…

2. Know what your team wants

The beauty of working with smaller organisations is that it’s easier to communicate ideas between people. Talk to people to see what they think of implementing a fluid workspace and if they have any ideas on how to make it work with the needs of the particular team. Also, be sure to discuss potential problems with working from home, and how to deal with changes in work arrangements.

Teamwork cannot suffer after changing your workplace philosophy, so it’s important to have the team be involved since the planning stage.

3. Figure out who and when do you absolutely need to be in the office

Start with laying out a clear overview of people that need to be posted at the office, and people that do not. It’s also good to have everybody understand when the team needs to have face-time. Some face-to-face is needed in a fluid attendance culture, because…

4. Fluid attendance culture is not the same as remote work

Abandoning rigid working hours doesn’t mean that everybody can just work from home all the time. Face to face communication is still important. These days, working from home is gaining popularity, particularly in the tech sector. The pro’s and con’s of remote work are still subject to debate, but maintaining at least some physical, human contact can help catch some ideas or problems that might otherwise slip by undetected.

5. Keep your communication lines open

It should go without saying that communication is crucial, especially if you’re cutting back on face-to-face interaction. Make sure you’ve got a solid system for keeping everybody talking to one another. At Toggl, we use Slack to make sure everybody knows what everybody else is doing – in addition to Toggl (obviously) to track our work tasks.

6. Don’t forget to measure your results

Metrics matter. There are many factors that can either make or break an attempt to build a fluid workspace. To see whether your team can benefit from a relaxed attendance culture, you need to have a clear idea of how to measure success. You’ll need to be able to measure quickly wether the quality of work in your organisation is going up or down, and if people are being smart with their time. Again, a time tracking app is useful for this.

Switching to a fluid workspace is largely about experimenting to find your fit. Some people, for better or for worse, need external discipline to stay on task. Others might flourish in the late evening, but won’t, because they’re tired from spending the day at the office, and another half on commuting during the rush hours. Some teams are in desperate need of going free-range, others rely on strict discipline to get the job done.

The only thing that is certain about all this, is the subjectivity of the human experience. Accommodating the differences that arise thereof, is the trick.

This idea of fluid workspaces is “open source” – do you have any thoughts on what else might help make it work? Might it be replaced by rearranging the office space instead? Post your ideas in the comments below, or share this post on Twitter!

Want to know about our experiences with remote working? Get the insights on Toggl’s blog!

Mart Virkus

Mart has a background in anthropology - a discipline which has turned people-watching into a science. He most enjoys working on projects that make you go from “that’s stupid” to “hmmm”.

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