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What does flexibility look like in a non 9 to 5 world?

17 October 2023 6 min read

Flexibility at work. Woman working with laptop in cafe

The rigid structure of working environments has undoubtedly changed for many within the last few years. As flexibility at work has become the norm, some even argue that the traditional 9 to 5 schedule is outdated and no longer fit for purpose.

As many organisations around the world are trying to encourage a return to the office, surveys suggests that flexibility is a key workplace benefit that employees are not willing to do without. In fact, a recent study found that 4 million UK workers have changed their career and 2 million people have left their jobs in the past year because of a lack of flexibility at work.

So, what does flexibility at work look like in practical terms? And importantly, how do organisations achieve the right balance between offering enough flexibility and continuing to measure productivity and performance?

Early birds and night owls

We’re all familiar with the terms early bird and night owl. Some people find they have more focus, productivity and creativity at night, while others prefer to rise early and get started on a big project first thing in the morning.

Which category you fall into is not simply a question of preference – it’s actually influenced by genetics. The traditional 9 to 5 working model tends to suit the early birds – the ones who are eager to start work at 9am (if not earlier), while a night owl’s productivity might not fully kick in until mid-afternoon. As a result, it’s inevitable that everyone’s concentration naturally peaks and wavers throughout the working day.

But with the rise of core working hours and hybrid and remote working, employees around the world are now benefiting from the option to work at times that best suit them.

While it’s generally not advisable that employees work until midnight every day, which could lead to poorer sleep quality and mental health, there are shifts in working patterns that allow workers to carry out their tasks at times of the day that are more in-line with their natural rhythm.

Focusing on work output over time input

Measuring productivity has long-been a challenge for organisations, with many electing to track how much time employees take to complete a task rather than measuring how many tasks are completed over time.

We have touched on the fact that humans’ attention span and concentration rises and falls throughout the day, so expecting consistent performance and attentiveness from employees can be seen as unrealistic.

Instead, focusing on deliverables, key performance indicators (KPIs), deadlines, recognition for going above and beyond, dynamic working spaces and employee engagement are the main aims of a productivity-centred working approach. This way, the quantity and quality of work can be taken into account.

Increasing autonomy

Naturally, giving employee more freedom over when they work through flexible hours increases the autonomy they have over completing their own work.

Autonomy can also be increased through other initiatives such as hybrid or remote working, job share roles, and team-managed shift planning.

By giving employees more ownership over when, how, where and with whom they carry out their work, organisations are able to boost vital aspects of an employee’s experience. Wellbeing, engagement, retention and trust are all likely to be improved by allowing employees to work in ways that suit their strengths, preferences, and personal commitments outside of work.

Encouraging employees to use their leave

A potential pitfall of doing away with the 9 to 5 model is that it blurs the lines between work and home life. With little visibility over how many hours workers are putting in, there is a risk that many will in fact work for longer.

Employees may feel they have to ‘prove’ they are working more to keep flexible privileges, potentially leading to presenteeism and burnout. Or they may be using their extra long lunch break for caring responsibilities, healthcare or other ‘life admin’ necessities, so aren’t in fact getting a proper rest in order to return to work refreshed in the afternoon.

That’s why ensuring that employees make use of their annual leave allowance is crucial. ‘Switching off’ from work from time to time does more for productivity in the long-run, rather than discouraging employees from stepping away for a few days because there’s always tasks waiting to be done.

With the right leave management processes and empowerment of people managers, approving and tracking employee leave needn’t be a burden and effective resource planning is made possible, to accommodate a healthy workplace culture surrounding leave.

Changes to the working week

Some of the most dramatic changes to the typical 9 to 5 routine can already be seen in many countries around Europe and the rest of the world. The 4 day week, and the 9 day fortnight, are two initiatives that aim to shift the work-life balance of employees whilst still maintaining, or even increasing, an organisation’s productivity.

The 4 day week – for example the recent trial that was conducted in the UK – aims to reduce the number of hours worked per week to 32 (with no loss of payment), whereas the 9 day fortnight aims to condense the total contracted hours of staff members into 9 working days, rather than 10.

In the countries where industries have either adopted or trialled the 4 day week, most have been declared a success with businesses reporting increases in productivity, employee engagement, and wellbeing. With growing support, the 4 day week and 9 day fortnight models looks to become more commonplace for millions more workers around the world.

Organisations can afford to be creative

There are many initiatives designed to increase flexibility at work – there certainly isn’t a “one size fits all” approach.

Business leaders and HR should consider what will work best for their day-to-day operations, company culture, industry and employee roles, in order to strike the right balance between flexibility and productivity. Companies can get creative with the types of initiatives they offer – even the smallest policy change or shift in attitude can make a big difference.

If you’d like to read more, download our free eBook Unbound: The Future of Workplace Flexibility


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Georgina at edays
October 17, 2023

Georgina Mackintosh is an accomplished copywriter and marketing professional with a background that spans several industries. Her writing focuses on HR topics such as employee wellbeing, engagement and experience - as well as absence management best practice, how-to guides and news from the HR sector.