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Should work be scheduled around your body clock?

Working nine to five doesn’t get the best out of night owls or the extreme early birds among us. It’s why some employers are letting staff match their hours to their circadian rhythms

It’s 5.30am and PR consultant Paul MacKenzie-Cummins is already at his desk, taking advantage of his clear head and quiet surroundings to get ahead for the day. This very early bird will take a long break between 2pm and 4pm, when he’ll often go for a run, do personal admin and even take a quick siesta. He aims to finish working at 6pm.

He encourages his staff at Clearly, the communications agency he founded in 2014, to take a similarly flexible approach. Team members are on all kinds of schedules, with some even working a split shift of 10am to 3pm and 7pm to 10pm.

“The days of the traditional nine to five have been consigned to the history books – and rightly so, because each person is different,” MacKenzie-Cummins says. “I want to provide an environment where people can schedule their work at the times that enable them to get the best out of themselves.”

Evenings are the most productive times for Sarah Canelle, the owner of online fashion brand canelle bespoke. She prefers to spend her mornings exercising and running errands, before settling into work after lunch and wrapping things up between 9pm and 11pm after a dinner break. 

Holding regular 8.30am meetings with night owls and expecting them to be full of ideas at that time won’t result in anything useful

Two-thirds of full-time employees polled by Glassdoor in October agreed that the ability to allocate whatever time they choose to work and personal activities is the modern definition of work/life balance. Research published by electronics firm Poly in the same month revealed that 69% of employees believe that the nine to five has been replaced by “anytime working”.

Companies that take a more flexible approach to working hours enable their staff to follow their circadian rhythms – that is, an individual’s innate tendency to be more alert at particular times of the day and sleepier at others. Genetics largely dictate whether you’re an extreme night owl, an extreme morning lark or, like most people, somewhere on the scale between the two. Circadian rhythms can even be split into more specific chronotypes, or activity profiles, that outline when people with earlier or later wakefulness tendencies should get up, eat, exercise and do lighter or more demanding work. 

Scheduling your work according to your particular chronotype means you’ll operate at optimal capacity most of the time, rather than struggle within a default nine-to-five schedule that may be at odds with your daily fluctuations in wakefulness. So says Geraldine Joaquim, owner of wellness consultancy Mind Your Business.

“We all have our own optimal times for being focused, active and creative,” says Joachim, who is also a hypnotherapist specialising in sleep problems. “Holding regular 8.30am meetings with night owls and expecting them to be full of ideas at that time won’t result in anything useful, for instance. Or, if your business is geared towards working late to accommodate the needs of an overseas office in a different time zone, say, expecting great things from your early birds may result in disappointment.”

Accommodating the preferences of both owls and larks with flexible work schedules should help them to perform to their full potential, notes Joaquim, who adds: “With so much talk about whether companies will be returning to the office full time, this is the best opportunity we’ve ever had to evaluate what works best for people.”

Our prevailing societal framework is more suited to early birds, yet some studies indicate that night owls are more resilient and able to stay focused for longer. Despite this, they can be stereotyped as lazy, while other research suggests that they are at a higher risk of health problems, particularly dementia, which has been associated with the insomnia that owls can be prone to.

“As well as understanding your chronotype, it’s important to know your optimum sleep time. It’s between seven and nine hours a night for the average person, but it can be as short as four hours or as long as 11. Knowing these needs is crucial to your ability to face the day feeling properly rested, with enough energy to last,” Joaquim says. 

She is a night owl, but has found her natural preference for sleeping and working later impractical since having children. Sarah Canelle can relate to this. She recently switched to a working day of 10.30am to 6.30pm, having accepted that her extreme-owl preferences were jarring too much with her family life. 

Allowing people to work a range of schedules may prove a tricky management task, which is perhaps where firms such as Dropbox may be on to something with their recent adoption of a ‘core hours’ model. The company asks its staff to be available from 10am to noon and from 4pm to 6pm. They can schedule the rest of their working day as they see fit.

But such an approach doesn’t go far enough, argues Anna McKay, another night owl and CEO of Zeez Sleep, a provider of technology designed to help people sleep better.

Enabling staff to work at their preferred times is a quick productivity fix, she explains, adding that firms which truly care about their employees’ long-term wellbeing should take a more holistic view, which includes promoting good sleep. This entails ensuring that people get the right kind of light and eat the most appropriate food for the time of day, spend enough time outdoors, take exercise in the morning and engage in more restful activities in the evening.

McKay has taken this approach herself and reports feels better rested and more energetic than ever. She attributes this to living in alignment with her own unique energy patterns, which, if more employers were to embrace individual chronotype-led schedules, could go some way towards solving the growing problem of burnout.