Why 9-to-5 Has to Die (and How to Build Smarter Work Hours)

Let’s start with a bottom line – routines are good. Doing certain things at specific times helps maintain control over one’s life. Our bodies too, were built to like habits. But while habits themselves are natural, there is no universally applicable routine that suits all people. So why do we still insist on 9-to-5 work?

To stay productive and maintain a routine, I make a point to wake up at the same time every day. Until recently – and for the same reason – I also made a point to get to the office at 9 AM sharp (well, more or less). At one point, during one of our weekly meetings, our leadgen manager brought it up, saying “You know we’re not the kind of company that expects people to fill in office hours, right?” I said I was indeed aware of it (no surprises there, the Toggl offices are inhabited almost exclusively by millennials). Yet I kept insisting that clocking in at the same time every day was important for personal productivity.

And then I realised, that it wasn’t.

I discovered I was getting up at 7 to get to work in time for 9 for no discernible reason. I must’ve reckoned this helped me stay organised – instead I found I was compromising focus on important thoughts in favour of beating the clock. And beating the clock is not what my job is about (and important thoughts are).

So here is the gist:

The objective of work is not to be at work – it’s to get work done.

Sounds simple, but it’s the simple things we often forget about. You can’t have a routine for the sake of having one. Most definitely, you cannot conform to an externally enforced routine, and expect to be the best you can be. Sitting in the office at specific times does not equal productivity – following a smart routine does.

For example – I tend to nail down most of my ideas and plans early in the morning, right after getting out of bed, spending the rest of the day catching up with secondary, low-cognitive tasks. I have no objective reason for stopping a good work flow just to get myself onto a crowded bus to get to the office by some arbitrarily fixed hour.

Yes, certain jobs and tasks require physical presence in a specific place at a specific time. But the need for sit-in office hours should always be rationally justified. By reviewing your policy on physical presence you can determine which people in your organisation might benefit from a fluid workspace leading to an increase in productivity (Harvard Business Review has a compelling interview on the subject matter here).

I’m using the term fluid workspace here to differentiate from the “flextime” concept – the idea that physical presence during certain portions of work time outside a fixed core office time can be negotiated for increased efficiency. A lot of our experience comes from working with a small to medium size organisation. Flextime, on the other hand, tends to be more suited to larger organisations and is, for that reason, somewhat more strictly regulated in its applications.

How to build a fluid workspace?

Once you recognise that it is goals that drive work, and not time spent in a space, you can start putting things into perspective. A fundamental foundation and guiding idea of that perspective is this – different people require different routines.

Another fundamental to consider before you begin to think about experimenting with fluidity in your workspace is your organisational culture. If everybody’s happy and motivated, flexibility will work wonders for productivity. If there is brooding and unhappiness, the organisation might need a few fixes and patches before giving everyone a free pass regarding office hours.

Once you’re willing to commit and mix things up a little, here’s a few things to keep in mind:

1. Know what you want

Every new thing begins (or at least, really should) with a plan. You need a clear idea of what you expect to gain from the more flexible work arrangements and you need to make sure your team is on the same page. Barging in and shouting “you don’t have to be here anymore!” is just confusing. Everybody needs to understand what the change towards more fluid working arrangements means.

On a related note…

2. Know what your team wants

The beauty of working with smaller organisations is that it’s easier to communicate ideas between people. Talk to people to see what they think of implementing a fluid workspace and if they have any ideas on how to make it work with the needs of the particular team. Also, be sure to discuss potential problems with working from home, and how to deal with changes in work arrangements.

Teamwork cannot suffer after changing your workplace philosophy, so it’s important to have the team be involved since the planning stage.

3. Figure out who and when do you absolutely need to be in the office

Start with laying out a clear overview of people that need to be posted at the office, and people that do not. It’s also good to have everybody understand when the team needs to have face-time. Some face-to-face is needed in a fluid attendance culture, because…

4. Fluid attendance culture is not the same as remote work

Abandoning rigid working hours doesn’t mean that everybody can just work from home all the time. Face to face communication is still important. These days, working from home is gaining popularity, particularly in the tech sector. The pro’s and con’s of remote work are still subject to debate, but maintaining at least some physical, human contact can help catch some ideas or problems that might otherwise slip by undetected.

5. Keep your communication lines open

It should go without saying that communication is crucial, especially if you’re cutting back on face-to-face interaction. Make sure you’ve got a solid system for keeping everybody talking to one another. At Toggl, we use Slack to make sure everybody knows what everybody else is doing – in addition to Toggl (obviously) to track our work tasks.

6. Don’t forget to measure your results

Metrics matter. There are many factors that can either make or break an attempt to build a fluid workspace. To see whether your team can benefit from a relaxed attendance culture, you need to have a clear idea of how to measure success. You’ll need to be able to measure quickly wether the quality of work in your organisation is going up or down, and if people are being smart with their time. Again, a time tracking app is useful for this.

Switching to a fluid workspace is largely about experimenting to find your fit. Some people, for better or for worse, need external discipline to stay on task. Others might flourish in the late evening, but won’t, because they’re tired from spending the day at the office, and another half on commuting during the rush hours. Some teams are in desperate need of going free-range, others rely on strict discipline to get the job done.

The only thing that is certain about all this, is the subjectivity of the human experience. Accommodating the differences that arise thereof, is the trick.

This idea of fluid workspaces is “open source” – do you have any thoughts on what else might help make it work? Might it be replaced by rearranging the office space instead? Post your ideas in the comments below, or share this post on Twitter!

Want to know about our experiences with remote working? Get the insights on Teamweek’s blog!

By On January 13, 2015

  1. A “fluid workspace” is essential for any company that has an international workforce or ‘follows the sun.’ That said, communication is key. All teams need to be clear and consistent in their communication in order for this to work effectively.

    Sam Allen
    Morningside Translations

  2. @Jon – agree with the problem of companies eating into private time (guess this is why Germany is seeking to ban after office work e-mails).

    But I also think that’s something that would not fall into that “fluid workspace” category – if you cut deep into somebody’s private hours, it hints at a problem with time management (or yes, management in general). The idea here is definitely not to work longer, but to have flexibility in how you use your time in a way that helps you perform better.

    That being said, I can see some people using “fluid workspace” as a pretext to eat into their employee’s private time. But I think such cases would rather highlight a problem with the management. Also – ultimately – that would hurt the management too, cause as you said, health will suffer, as will productivity.

  3. What a great article! It should be required reading for managers. I work in telecommunications and have been working remotely, either full time or part time, for most of the last 15 years. I have to work with customers around the globe and work night maintenance windows, so a traditional schedule has never worked well for me. When I’ve been managing remote workers, I’ve found that setting expectations for attendance, communication, and project results has been the key. Most people in technical industries want to be productive. Treating them as mature professionals and giving them the room to develop their own fluid workspace has worked very well for me in the past.

  4. I am all for doing what needs to get done when if comes to your job, so if something emergent crops up at 11pm on a Tuesday night- it should definitely be dealt with as soon as possible. That said, the notion of a ‘fluid workspace’ and the removal of work boundaries is grooming a culture of a 24/7 work schedule. By making it increasingly convenient to work on the go with collaboration services from your cell phones etc. then employees are being forced to be constantly ‘on call’. This is neither healthy nor productive as employees need to switch off (at least for the most part) both when they come home after a days work and at the weekend… Managers may not agree with me but this is just my 10cents

    Jon Mannick

  5. No worries – I would’t set this “fluid workspace” idea up as a dogma anyways. And while I’m not in the start-and-finish-together camp, community does matter. I do believe that a team that plays together, is the team that gets the best results. Hence the point about getting “face-time” 🙂

  6. Good article. I think the key is “how you think about work”. If we all just think differently about work, then working hours, spaces, routines won’t effect the work we do. So, I’m not criticizing or dishing your thoughts you’ve shared.

    But, I on the flip-side believe in everyone beginning (and ending) together. Yes, sounds old school, but hear me out. Firstly, it creates a sense of unity, “we’re all in it together”. I’ve come to see that unity in companies is a key for productivity and happiness. Secondly, when people are on the same page, a community can be developed, which today is very needed. (Example, some people only engage in human contact at work and ultimately can feel less alone.) In other words, time is a tool to bring everyone together. Thirdly, when a healthy community is created, peoples character and bad habits can be addressed. Which makes the focus of a company not only about ‘getting the work done’, but also creating an environment where people with deep emotional or character issues can be seen, so that the issue(s) can be addressed. With the good intention to actually help this person too. (Example, a guy that spends all his nights playing online games. Then looking/smelling bad, being unfocused and always late).

    In conclusion, I think time is a tool for accountability and unity – for everyone actually wants to be equal and belong somewhere. And even though “flexi-time” is a very cool concept, it will take more wisdom, energy and ‘culture change’ than just sticking to the normal working hours.

  7. I agree, I think it would make sense to expand on some of these things. It’s a pretty broad topic and it’s hard to get everything in without going too long.

    Another topic for example I I’d like to take on is the home environment as a working space – and the home environment can be treacherous, as far as productivity is concerned. Plenty potential distractions there.

  8. Good article, Mart. I am working in a super flexi mode now, and I guess the term “fluid workspace” makes near-perfect sense. The tips are helpful. I believe the most important: Metrics & Communication. Do write deeper into these two sometime.