Widespread remote working has demonstrated that employees can be trusted to manage their time and productivity, so should companies now be letting workers choose the hours that suit their body clock?
US President Donald Trump may require less than four hours’ sleep a night, but for the rest of us, not enough shut-eye can send our body clock into a tailspin.
While studies have shown that Tuesday morning and Friday afternoon tend to be our most and least productive times, individual circadian rhythms can vary widely. Remote working offers all of us the chance to work, rest and play in sync with our bodies, rather than the demands of the traditional working week.
“As long as people are accessible when clients or team members need them, those who prefer to get non-client facing work such as research, planning or strategising done out of office hours can do so, playing to their own body clock and circadian rhythm to maximise personal productivity,” says Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder of consultancy JourneyHR.
Yet working online throughout the day, as well as in the early morning and late evening, can not only impact on productivity and creativity, but may also trigger a higher level of burnout, she believes.
Zooming in on the bright lights
While many organisations have found remote working plays to the strengths of quieter, less gregarious staff, who enjoy working independently and with minimum input from managers and colleagues, being starved of an audience can be very hard for an office extrovert.
Allowing louder team members to regularly host or even lead some of the more workaday Zoom meetings can help boost their morale and, with time, even the most outgoing, sociable employee can learn to love remote working, says John Hackston, head of thought leadership at business psychology provider Myers-Briggs.
“Working remotely does not have to mean being removed from people or from the buzz of social interaction and, provided they are still able to connect with and get their energy from other people and the outside environment, working from home can be positive,” he says.
“Things that will benefit these types include creating a stimulating work environment, with background music and lots of visual input, being able to take regular breaks and feeling connected to the outside world. Going for a run or a walk, enjoying the garden or even walking round the house can all help.”
Playing to your own body clock and circadian rhythm can maximise personal productivity
While both the early bird and night owl can use the freedom of remote work to explore their own body clock and enhance their personal productivity, there may be a problem with managers who stick to the old ways.
“In reality, it all depends on how flexible an organisation is,” says Hackston. “When a team has a mandatory video conference call at 8.30 every morning, remote working may not suit individual needs as well as it could otherwise do.”
Losing sleep over Circadian rhythm disorders
With misaligned circadian rhythms a known contributory factor to obesity, heart disease and even cancer, sleep deprivation, which costs the UK economy some £40 billion a year, affects us all profoundly.
Brendan Street, professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health, warns that despite the many positives of remote working, it may also lead to some of the chronic physical and emotional problems long associated with shift work.
While the natural body clock is, he says, designed to “make us more alert in the morning and drowsier at night”, this can be thrown by unpredictable working hours and a lack of structure in our sleep-wake patterns.
“Living within the circadian rhythm helps manage the chemicals in your body and, when this is disturbed, it is also associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression,” he adds.
Using EQ to measure productivity
The dramatic reduction in commuting times during the coronavirus pandemic has given many people enhanced energy and motivation levels, but the need to take regular breaks when working at home is paramount if we are to continue to perform well.
“We have already started to get into what I call Zoom overload and we can very quickly find ourselves sitting in front of our laptops or computers all day long, to the detriment of our overall productivity and wellbeing,” says Vigor-Robertson.
“I think all good managers would be able to use both observation and listening skills to build a pretty good understanding of their team’s most productive times, but this very much relies on them having a strong EQ [emotional intelligence] and being both supportive towards and interested in their people.”
Although she says tracking and collating data on individual employee’s sleep-wake cycles would be a step too far, Vigor-Robertson believes a good awareness of when staff are at their most productive will be “of enormous help in managing remote workers”.
It’s easy to become ageist when assessing how easily different groups of workers can deploy remote technology, but Street explodes the myth that regular home working should be reserved for millennials.
“Most of today’s remote workers are over 40, which probably reflects the fact that some businesses are more comfortable if an employee using flexible working is older and has more experience,” he says.
Whatever the age of the employee, self-discipline and motivation are the essential prerequisites of all successful remoters, allowing them to manage their own working hours and remain productive without supervision, Street adds.
Productivity is more than pure performance
While many people are enjoying the novelty of working in their pyjamas, the potential distractions of partners, children and neighbours cannot be underestimated. Ensuring the home office becomes a place of concentration and accomplishment may require organisations to embrace the broader, more complex issues of employee wellness.
Jessie Pavelka, co-founder of the health and wellbeing consultancy Pavelka Wellness, urges employers to look at “screen time, not moving enough and not eating well, all of which can destroy a healthy internal body clock, and to consider discussions on nutrition, movement and mindfulness”.
“By executing a holistic approach to remote working wellness, utilising external support and being transparent, I believe organisations have the power to impact both individuals and business positively,” he says.
In just a few months, those organisations which have clung to presenteeism or micro-management have discovered staff can be trusted to get on with their jobs even without close supervision.
The next business tenet to be put on a final warning is the nine to five itself. “It is entirely possible that the traditional business day may be heading for the dustbin of history, more for economic and pragmatic reasons than because organisations have become more aware of individual working styles,” says Hackston.
“If organisations can reduce the need for expensive city-centre office buildings, they will. And as more companies become multinational and work across different time zones, the pressure to move away from a traditional working day will intensify.”