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Is the Traditional ‘Working Day’ an Outdated Concept?

As we learn to adapt to the ‘new normal’, alongside where and how we work, we should also consider when.


As a leader, employee wellbeing should be paramount and an organisation’s policy on work scheduling plays a huge part in this. Generally speaking, flexitime working has been proven to result in significant improvements in job satisfaction and therefore productivity. Flexible schedules are generally associated with reduced absenteeism and turnover and according to Gallup, 51% of U.S. employees said that they would switch to a job that offers flexible working. Working mothers were especially likely to seek out and benefit from such arrangements so this school of thought also promotes a more inclusive and supportive working future.

“We encourage managers, in partnership with their teams, to thoughtfully consider the schedules that are right for them as they return to their places of work.” – Harvard Business Review

The Science of WHEN

If we dive a little deeper to hour-by-hour, Daniel H Pink discusses ‘when’ in his book:

Evidence supporting the fact that our cognitive ability changes throughout the day is overwhelming. According to data, 20% of performance can be attributed to time of day.

“Timing isn’t everything, but it’s a big thing.” - Daniel H Pink

Researchers from New York University looked at the transcripts of 26,000 earnings calls. These are the quarterly calls that executives make with analysts to report on earnings and give guidance for future quarters. They put the transcripts into a piece of software that measures the emotional content of the words that were used and they discovered that calls in the afternoon were more negative and irritable than in the morning, regardless of what the fundamentals were of the numbers being reported, to the point where it affected the price of the stock temporarily.

Generally speaking, we all peak earlier in the day, hit a trough in the middle and recover later in the evening, but when this cycle begins can differ. Are you a night owl and struggle to get started before 9am and your morning coffee? Do you jump out of bed in the morning but hit a slump mid-afternoon? We all have an innate understanding of when we personally function best, and we should use this to inform our important scheduling decisions rather than just using availability as the key criteria. During our peak, we are better at analytic work that requires complete focus and attention to detail. Administrative tasks are best completed during the trough when concentration levels may be compromised, and creative tasks are best suited to the recovery phase when we are in a better mood and are generally less inhibited.

The key takeaway from this is that we must be intentional about our timings and each follow our own biological circadian rhythms.

If we take sport as another example, according to research, night owls performed very poorly in the early morning, on average about 26 percent worse than their peak level. A 26 percent difference is extreme. In a world-class 100-meter race, the variation between first and last place is often less than five percent.

The good news is, unless you are a top athlete perhaps, you can partly counteract the energy slump in the afternoon by simply taking breaks or going for a short walk. With many people working long hours and eating lunch at their desk, companies should encourage people to take breaks and work on reversing the negative connotations surrounding having down time.

Whilst it is unrealistic to assume it is always possible to meet every employee’s ideal schedule, one of the things this pandemic has shown us is that having an open mind and flexibility around working hours rather than a one size fits all approach may have significant benefits for everyone.


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