The changing cadence of work

Have you read about the “Dead Zone” yet? It’s that time between 4:00-6:00pm every day when remote work productivity takes a nosedive. A lot of remote workers log out of their screens to pick up their kids, make dinner, or just take a break. Company leaders are not happy with this development at ALL. They say that they can’t schedule meetings of any kind during that time, and so it’s a working “dead zone.”

But one of the things that’s also happening is that after that break (and after dinner when the kids are in bed), employees log back in for a last bit of work before they go to sleep. That gives them a “triple peak” day, with productivity spikes happening late morning, mid-afternoon, and later in the evening.

So what’s the right answer? Should remote employees stay at the keyboard until 6:00 so that everyone is working together at the same time? Should they get to work on a more flexible schedule that fits a more personal allocation of time? Or should employers throw out the idea of remote work entirely?


Workplace tensions

Some employers act like workers choose flexible work out of laziness, or seem to feel that they aren’t getting their money’s worth out of those workers who work from home. Tech companies in particular are making a lot of noise about bringing people back into the office—or forfeit their jobs.

Where do companies really go wrong? When they treat their employees like automatons…when the Walmarts of the world don’t pay enough to keep their employees off welfare, and the Amazons won’t even let their employees have enough time to attend to bodily functions. It’s no wonder that worker interest in unionizing has gone up.

The bigger tech companies are trying to force people back into the office to fight inefficiency (even though remote workers contributed to record productivity during the pandemic). Meanwhile they’re ignoring more likely causes of their problems, and losing great employees to smaller companies that offer flexibility.

None of this upheaval and pushback is because people don’t want to work. We do. Our self-worth is often tied to the work we do. We take pride in our skills and our accomplishments, whether we’re at the top of the payroll chart or at the bottom.

Work is about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread,
for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor;
in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.

— Studs Terkel

We have to recognize pace, we have to be accountable to ourselves, and find companies to work for that share those values of getting the job done and adding creativity to the job – it doesn’t mean you have to sit there all day.


Flexible, hybrid or fully remote jobs are valuable to employees

The adjustments we all made to work in the COVID pandemic have normalized the idea of working from home and ushered in more flexible work schedules. It proved that employees can still be accountable to get the work done but not have to do it on the exact same time schedule as everyone else. People became more productive working from home.

Flexibility is a huge bonus/attraction/benefit for employees. According to a McKinsey survey, when people have the chance for flexible work time, 87% of them take it. Eighty-seven percent. Why is that?

There are tons of reasons remote work is appealing to employees. On a small scale, it eliminates daily irritations—distractions from too-chatty co-workers, noisy cubicles, and tuna sandwich smells from inconsiderate co-workers. No more shivering in a sweater in July! On a more serious note, many of us have kids, pets, aging parents, or other circumstances and events in our lives that can’t be scheduled around a typical 9-to-5 (or 8-to-6) workday. Commute times just make those issues worse. It’s also expensive to go to work—gasoline, parking fees, downtown lunches, work wardrobes, and more. That adds up to a lot of stress—physical, mental, and financial.

Companies need to consider the overall well-being of workers. A therapist recently reminded me that if you don’t take care of your mental health, how can you possibly extend yourself to help others? In terms of productivity and benefit, the research backs that up. Many studies have found that happy workers are more productive.

Maybe what we should really be doing is coming up with better ways to collaborate, instead of worrying about where people are sitting.


A sea change in how work is done  

We’re not done with settling into how labor gets done. Questions remain and fighting continues. We’re seeing employer demands and employee pushback, worker strikes, and a push for increased unionization. Because retirements happening later and later, there are 5 generations in the current workforce. On top of all that, the AI revolution is changing work on an even more fundamental level. Huge shifts are happening right now.

Companies are actually in a great position to usher in change that will benefit everyone. According to the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer, companies are now way more trusted than other institutions—more than government, more than media.  Shouldn’t we value that?

It takes a long time to earn someone’s trust, but only a millisecond to break it. Once it’s broken, it’s very hard to re-establish. So I think it’s time to take in all the information and thoughtfully do the best we can with the utmost equity and fairness. We can do what works for the majority and for the outliers.

Even if workers really don’t want to physically report to the office every day, they really do want to connect with others at work and collaborate on amazing projects. And they also need time and flexibility to meet the demands of their lives while they get the work done. Maybe the answer is remote work. Maybe it’s hybrid work that ebbs and flows as needed. Maybe it’s a 4-day work week.

The truth is that business is all just one big experiment. The ways in which we work are also experiments. We have in our past made big changes to how we work, and we have continued to grow in our productivity and innovation.

Now is the time for companies to really look at how they can lead the way in changing how people work. The ones who put a stake in the ground and say, “this is the way it’s going to be because we say so,” aren’t going to be the ultimate winners. The companies who are going to win are the ones who recognize the huge shifts that are already happening, keep the needs of their employees in mind, communicate, and adapt.