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.