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Summary:

Are defined hours of work an anachronism that’s holding us back from becoming more efficient? Or is the freedom to work whenever we want something still reserved for a select few, and/or a trap that causes us to work more rather than less?

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By now, most people who work in the developed world have gotten used to the idea that the old nine-to-five routine is gradually becoming a thing of the past; plenty of people have shifts that start and end at different times, or they use job-sharing and other forms of flex-time. Some don’t even have traditional jobs at all any more, thanks to the evolution of the “gig economy” and the increase in freelancing. All of which raises a question that seems even more appropriate with Labor Day around the corner: Are defined hours of work an anachronism that’s holding us back? Or is the freedom to work whenever we want something still reserved for a select few, and/or a trap that causes us to work more rather than less?

Flexible work is something that seems increasingly popular with programmers and other online workers, for reasons that Zach Holman of the software repository GitHub described in a recent post on the GitHub blog, entitled “Hours Are Bull****.” Holman said that for most of the staff who work on the service, there are no defined working hours whatsoever — everyone is on their own schedule and they work whenever they need to in order to solve the problems that need to be solved. As he puts it:

Hours are great ways to determine productivity in many industries, but not ours. Working in a startup is a much different experience than working in a factory. You can’t throw more time at a problem and expect it to get solved. Code is a creative endeavor… We want employees to be in the zone as often as possible. Mandating specific times they need to be in the office hurts the chances of that.

Unstructured work is not for everyone

That kind of approach, which management consultants like to call a “results-oriented workplace,” might be fine for a creative endeavor like programming or design, or even for businesses (like GigaOM’s) that involve brain-powered work such as writing. But does it make any sense for other companies and industries? When Holman’s article got passed around in our office, my colleague Stacey said that this view of unstructured work only works for certain people — people without children, for example (who often have fairly rigid schedules governed by school, etc.) or other obligations that require them to work on something closer to a nine-to-five schedule.

Others argued that a less-structured schedule actually makes these things easier to handle rather than harder, since workers can leave whenever is necessary rather than waiting for the whistle to blow at 5.

Although there is plenty of research that shows both workers and companies benefit when hours are more flexible, not everyone — regardless of what business they work in — is going to want to work a totally unstructured schedule. And for some people, a specific routine isn’t just something that they need for external reasons: A job without defined parameters might actually increase the stress they feel, and therefore make them less productive or efficient. (A friend I know used to put on a suit and then walk down the hall to his office at home, just to simulate working in a regular workplace, because he needed the discipline.)

There’s another risk Holman’s description of the new unstructured workplace brings up, something we’ve written about a lot at GigaOM, and that is the impact that this can have on the “work-life balance” of employees. Says Holman:

By allowing for a more flexible work schedule, you create an atmosphere where employees can be excited about their work. Ultimately it should lead to more hours of work, with those hours being even more productive. Working weekends blur into working nights into working weekdays, since none of the work feels like work.

If you can work any time, you can work all the time

But if it doesn’t feel like work and you can do it any time, how do you ensure you’re not working all the time? This is an issue that has been exacerbated by our increasingly always-on, always-connected, mobile-device-carrying culture. Knowledge workers of all kinds find themselves answering emails or responding to text messages at all hours of the day and night, working on weekends, and so on. And the increasing globalization of many industries has just accelerated this phenomenon, since some staffers or contract workers may be in completely different time zones.

In some ways, this requires more discipline on the part of the worker themselves: to set boundaries and say that he or she won’t be available at certain times, or to turn off devices during meals and on weekends. It’s something I and others at GigaOM have written about in the past, and something that remains an ongoing struggle. If your work is also something you enjoy doing, then your work can expand to fill virtually every available moment if you let it. But in the long run, that’s not good for employees or companies.

One thing is clear, however: This phenomenon isn’t going away; if anything, it is increasing, as more work becomes knowledge work, and as more companies try to adapt to a cloud-based and global world (flexible hours and an increase in freelance or contract work also has real benefits for companies in terms of lower costs, some of which are pushed down to the individual worker, such as the cost of health benefits).

When work is anywhere, companies need to change too

Companies like VMWare are trying to help figure out how the nature of work changes when it occurs in “the cloud” and the workforce moves toward what CEO Paul Maritz calls the “post-document era.” Instead of sitting at desks moving paper around, more people are working in ways that are difficult to define, that involve streams of information that don’t start or stop at specific times. And companies like Rypple are trying to re-engineer the human-resources requirements in that kind of workplace, so that measuring performance isn’t done once a year or every six months, but in something close to real time, using social tools that make more sense for such an environment.

Some companies have taken the unstructured work idea to its logical conclusion when it comes to traditional institutions such as vacation: Netflix has what it calls an “unlimited vacation” policy, which allows workers to take time whenever they need it, provided they arrange to have their work completed when necessary. Social Media Group, a Toronto-based consulting firm, is another that has taken this approach — one that CEO Maggie Fox described in a recent blog post.

The death of the nine-to-five workplace may not suit everyone, and a completely unstructured work schedule may not become the norm for all industries any time soon, but there’s no question that it is increasingly common. And adapting to it is going to require different skills — not just from employees, but from the companies that employ them.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Seattle Municipal Archives and John Lambert Pearson

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  1. Jason Thibeault Friday, September 2, 2011

    Great post Matt. Definitely apropos to any discussion about the “always on” lifestyle to which we are rapidly moving. But this doesn’t really apply to those positions (i.e., gardner, for example) that don’t have any necessity to be always connected. Some jobs have clear ties to the clock (hard to mow the lawn in the dark) but others have a more implied tie (i.e., financial analysts have to be awake when foreign markets open). Regardless, I think there are definite benefits to a flexible “results-oriented” work environment. The “ass-in-seat” model doesn’t work, especially when employers expect both (so I’m ass-in-seat from 8-5 but expected to answer emails and be results-oriented when i’m not at work). Clearly this will continue to evolve over the coming years.

    http://blog.jasonthibeault.com/index.php/2011/08/14/are-you-always-on/

    @jnthibeault

    1. Well there’s the other side of the coin too. There’s the thoroughly modern, young code writer who doesn’t ever seem to be “ass-in-seat” but doesn’t seem to be working from home either. And as the employer, we have signed up to an old-school delivery “schedule”.

  2. The problem is employers want the cake while eating it. I worked at a company that expected 8 hours at the office. Then all documentation and email responses should be completed at night.

    Flex hours are great until someone abuses them, either employee or employer. Don’t allow anyone to use you.

    1. Ketharaman Swaminathan Johnny Saturday, September 3, 2011

      Agreed! Whenever employees of a company I used to work for demanded flextime, the company’s CEO used to say, “We follow flextime already: Come to work at 9AM, leave anytime after 8PM”. He meant it as a joke, but the very fact that he chose to use this angle to joke about says something about the potential for abuse of flextime by employers.

  3. Flex time only works if it means, come to office. Go when done your day’s work. If u prolong the working hours by cutting in and out of work, then you are just shortening your tuned out time. Which actually causes a negative effect.

  4. No finite work schedule works for folks who’s only focus in life is themselves. That is people from 21 to what, mid 30’s?

    And for the folks that blame “the man” for their horrific work schedules need to become “the man” to see what it’s like.

  5. Wondering if this would lead to a massive increase in outsourcing, if the location and time of work doesnt matter anymore. Contingent on the right availability of talent in the outsourced location of course!

  6. As much as I enjoy the benefits of flex-time and a more fluid work-style, I am still an advocate for real human communal presence in a common work location. Sometimes you just need to meet in person, see each others face and experience the emotionality that comes with body language, facial expressions and human gesture. There’s really nothing like it — you’re not gonna get it from Skyping into a meeting or hitting up Join.Me or the preceding barrage of online meeting software solutions. In fact, sometimes if you haven’t met the folks you’re meeting with online at some previous point in time in-person, you’re screwed. Everyone seems less real. And people don’t feel connected enough to just treat each other as human beings, see the real people behind the voice in the web conference.

    Like with most of the progress we experience as of late due to the amazing evolution of technology and our rapidly changing nuances in digitally-mediated interpersonal interactions — we also drastically lose a sense of time, and the real value of that time, as well as where to impose well-deserved and needed professional boundaries { if, for nothing else, to protect your professional worth }.

    In the end you need to really love what you do and you need to value, respect and love the people you work with for it to really be worthwhile. I think reserving the ritual of a particular place and some generally accepted specified rules around time help preserve the human quality of life, the real experience we all deserve to just be human at times.

  7. Flexibility in working hour is great. this may be the employer/employee centric. But this ought not to be at the cost of an effective discipline lest the long term endurance is at its peril.

  8. Finally a site like Gigaom adresses this problem. we don’t need to wake up so early for work either. with your help maybe I could be proved wrong and we will cross something of this list
    http://theregjoe.blogspot.com/2010/12/alternative-top-10-list-10-things-that.html

  9. michaeljperrone Friday, September 2, 2011

    I personally love the idea of flex-time. I have family, church and community commitments and while trying to juggle everything, sometimes it is best to do my work before the “work-day” or after it. While coming into an office or physically meeting with the people I work with is important, I think that generally whether you do your work at 2am or 2pm, it doesn’t really matter.

  10. Working at 3AM is the most fun thing for me… I guess that’s when my mind wakes up… then the journey from my bed to my desk just drains every bit of inspiration from my veins… and I end up having to jumpstart myself with cake at 10AM

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