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Circadian rhythms as a competitive advantage

Companies can become more productive and healthy by accommodating and making visible the different circadian rhythms of their employees.

In knowledge-based society, it is common sense on both the human and economic levels to allow people’s work hours to match their circadian rhythms. We need a paradigm shift away from the classical 8 to 5 work interval in favour of allowing individuals to influence their work hours. This would result in higher productivity, healthier employees, and a reduction of health expenses.

The world population is growing, and the growing work force is becoming younger, older, and more urban. Generation Y, those born after 1980, will make up 75 percent of the global work force in 2025. This work force has grown up with technology, and places new demands on the determination of work hours relative to previous generations.

Globalization and technological developments make it possible and necessary for people to have greater freedom to choose their work times and work locations. However, we have some traditional conceptions about work that impede the creation of flexible workplaces that accommodate A-persons (early risers) as well as B-persons (late risers). The traditional conceptions are:

  • Work takes place within a well-defined window of time, preferably eight hours a day from Monday to Friday.
  • If you are not at your workplace, you are not working.
  • Most managers are most comfortable if they are able to see their employees. If employees are not present, they may not be working.
  • When you work from home, you have a sense that your colleagues are keeping an extra close eye with what you are doing. You are out of sight, not out of mind.
  • It is taboo to meet after 9 – a productive person meets early.
  • The more hours you work, the higher your productivity is – regardless of the time of day.

Let us do away with the idea that work only takes place in the office between the hours of 8 and 5. Some workplaces have a strong culture dictating that everyone must work in the same way, at the same time, and in the same space. Work is judged based on when and how long you are physically present at your office.

A daily ritual of pole-sitting is taking place and being viewed as symbolic of productivity. This way of keeping tabs on attendance leads to strong social control among colleagues, and that is not something that is revealed on company websites or in the personnel policy. It must be sensed or felt in the culture. Often, the signs of twentieth century work practices are revealed in the way colleagues address each other or talk about each other. Any employees who are not in the office at the proper times will doubtless receive a sarcastic comment along the way in order to inspire guilt or shame, and to teach them to conform to the collective work rhythm. Is the tone at your workplace sarcastic?

In my Life Navigation courses, I often hear comments along the lines of, ”You decided to join us!” aimed at anyone who meets after 8 A.M. or, “I did not know you started working part time,” if someone leaves work at 2:30 P.M. I have also witnessed several workplaces where B-persons feel guilty to meet as the last person at 9:10 A.M., and feel the need to explain away their arrival time with the fact that they work part time.

The sarcastic comments hit home in an already guilty conscience, and as a result job satisfaction and Work-Life Balance satisfaction fall noticeably. But who feels the need to judge when people are coming to the office and leaving the office? These workplaces include people who are so busy noting colleagues’ movements that they themselves forget to work. Their thoughts are, “If I work eight hours, so should you, and the only way I can keep track of your work hours is if you are at the office the same time as me. I see you, ergo you are working.” But sitting in the office does not necessarily mean that you are working. We are trapped in industrial time norms about when to come and go.

It is therefore not enough for us to let go of our own industrial work norms. We must also have the courage to release the judgements placed upon each other.

Knowledge-based society can become more productive and healthy by altering work hours to match the employee, simply because A-persons and B-persons are different, and thus will tend to perform best during different times of the day. The first step towards a more productive work life is to accept each other’s different needs and wishes concerning work times.

We need to make it possible for A-persons to work early in the morning, and allow B-persons to work after 10. If A-persons and B-persons both arrive at 8, it may result in B-persons wasting their own time, as well as disrupting A-person-colleagues during their most productive hours of the day. Every time a colleague’s deep concentration is interrupted, it takes 20 to 45 minutes to regain the concentration level (Spira and Feintuch 2005). The workplace could therefore benefit by offering A-persons an uninterrupted period of time during the morning to solve complex assignments. After this, there could be a shared period of time for meetings between 10 and 3, and in the afternoon or evening, B-persons could have an equivalent period of uninterrupted work time for complex tasks.

Companies can increase productivity by accommodating and making visible the different circadian rhythms of their employees. Do you know when your colleagues peak? Have you mapped out your department’s circadian rhythms and how you can actively use employees’ different rhythms to increase productivity in your company?

For instance, a team with whom I once worked discovered that they were active 22 of the 24 hours in the day. By making our work hours visible, we can create more efficient teams where we work together or individually when our energy levels peak. It does not make sense for A-persons to take phone meetings in the evening, and it is unproductive for B-persons to meet at 8 A.M.

Flexibility is among the keys to well-being, and management must have the courage to address the flexibility of their company’s work culture because culture determines whether employees have the courage to make use of flexibility. It is now true that flexibility is a highly significant competitive parameter for the twenty-first century.

(This article has been published on my LinkedIn profile May, 2016).

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