Employees have changed how they’re working — as wise employers race to catch up. Here’s what’s new:
Workday dead zone
Managers and employees once viewed 4 p.m. as an ideal staff meeting time. Once, managers could catch everyone in the office at 4, before the workday ended but after peak productivity hours. Employees knew the meeting wouldn’t drag on past 5 p.m. — and that their managers might grant them a guilt-free early workday exit if the meeting ended early.
Now, managers, particularly those supervising hybrid employees, find it difficult to locate employees after 4. They’re already gone — to collect kids from school, or because their brain is “done” and they want to take off, or to lessen commuting time by heading home before those working forced traditional 8-to-5 schedules hit the roads.
Some of the employees who drift away before 5 return in the evening hours. Microsoft researchers recently documented that employee keyboard activity spikes three times daily: morning, afternoon and late evening. According to the Microsoft Work Trend Index, 30% of employees show an evening spike in keyboard usage, and the average Teams user sends 42% more chats per person after hours.
In many ways, this triple-peak phenomenon isn’t new. Autonomous workers such as consultants, freelancers and small-business owners have long set their own hours to harness their best productivity. What’s new is the increasing sectors of the workforce that step away from their desks at 4 p.m. to handle personal responsibilities and return afterward to finish the workday.
The demand for flexibility
Meanwhile, employees accustomed to autonomy during the pandemic demand it — insisting their employers allow them to set their own schedules so they can balance personal lives and work. Employers that accommodate them and don’t insist on an 8-to-5 butt-in-seat presence find it easier to recruit and retain top talent. Chief Executive Mercedes Ayciena credits providing scheduling flexibility to the 100 employees she supervises with reducing turnover from 50% to 15% over the last year.
The key question: How to make this work
Employee flexibility doesn’t need to be a challenge if managers focus on what employees produce rather than when. While some employees abuse flexibility, insisting that every employee work the same 8-to-5 schedule punishes top-performing employees.
Instead, tighten your company’s recruiting processes to ensure you hire self-disciplined, accountable employees. You’ll find tools for doing this in “Screen for Accountability,” Chapter 3 of “Managing for Accountability.”
As an example, ask job candidates questions that directly focus on accountability and a candidate’s sense of responsibility, such as “Please describe your work ethic” and “What would you consider your responsibility if a co-worker becomes suddenly ill?” You can easily develop other accountability-focused questions by reflecting on what you’d want one of your employees to do when faced with a difficult situation.
As a secondary benefit, by allowing employees to handle personal responsibilities — as long as they meet productivity standards — you’ll reduce both employee stress and managerial monitoring headaches. When you discover employees who don’t “make up the time” or otherwise meet standards, bless them out the door.
The meeting solution
Allowing employees this flexibility admittedly makes it difficult to call a last-minute huddle or attain a meeting quorum, particularly for employers with employees spread across multiple time zones. You can meet this challenge by using asynchronous communication tools such as status updates in a Microsoft Teams channel as replacements for video conferences.
Additionally, as some employees, especially managers, send emails during the evening hours, train everyone to use Outlook scheduling options that allow after-hours messages to hit recipients’ inboxes during others’ working hours and to use “critical/respond ASAP” in the subject lines for employees who need to respond promptly.
Employees have changed how they’re working. The 4-6 p.m. hours have become workplace dead zones, while increasing numbers of employees now have triple-peak workdays. The best employees demand scheduling flexibility. If you’re an employer or manager, will you meet that demand?