- Alex Christian
- BBC Worklife
Decades ago, the workday often meant that employees arrived at the office at 9 am, had lunch at noon, and left at 5 or 6 pm—period.
Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has changed that timeline. Not only have professionals been working remotely for more than two years, the specific way they do the work has also changed.
This reorganization also spawned new work patterns of all kinds, including the “non-linear workday.” Here, professionals can do their work outside the traditional rigid schedule, from nine to five (or six), often at the times that work best for them.
Even working asynchronously — without all colleagues keeping the same schedule — employees can complete tasks with concentration in flexible blocks spread throughout the day. The idea is that employees can establish work schedules based on their personal life, not the other way around.
In past decades, non-linear working hours were not common. But now, the mass adoption of hybrid and remote work standards, with increasingly flexible schedules, has made non-linear workdays more viable for most workers.
In some cases, professionals are already practicing this system to some extent without realizing it, preferring to perform tasks that require greater concentration late at night or moving forward on projects early in the morning.
Of course, not all companies will grant this degree of freedom to workers. But in the new professional world, non-linear working hours are yet to play a more important role in some jobs and industries.
Experts indicate that asynchronous work brings numerous benefits, as long as certain measures are adopted.
Control how you spend time
Nonlinear working hours appear to be the latest product of the reorganization of the work environment caused by the pandemic, but they are not a new concept.
In fact, they are a throwback to the way people used to work in the pre-industrial era, when a typical workday would last from dawn to dusk, peppered with regular breaks, meals and naps.
But with the industrialization of society, came the rigid workweek, 40 hours in five days, in industrial environments, according to Aaron De Smet, a partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, based in New Jersey, in the United States. .
This eight-hour workday model was transferred to the office—and even with the advent of technology, conventional thinking and social norms meant that the fixed nine-to-five office work structure remained unchanged.
But De Smet says the pandemic has broken with that traditional thinking, as professionals have remained productive even while taking breaks, spending time with family and working flexible hours.
Non-linear workdays can manifest in many ways. A professional who lives with others may prefer to focus on tasks that require concentration before others wake up, focusing on a set of tasks from six to eight in the morning and reducing the workload in the afternoon.
Or maybe a parent leaves work for two hours in the afternoon to pick up their child from school and eat with them, ending the work period after the child goes to sleep. The variations are endless and very personal.
Laura Giurge, a professor of behavioral sciences at the London School of Economics and Political Science, says the growing popularity of non-linear working hours has come about because professionals have become accustomed to flexible work routines during the pandemic.
“Asynchronous work allows people to save time on commuting, do administrative tasks during off-peak hours, have more time to exercise, and save money on home-cooked meals,” she says.
And greater flexibility often brings greater productivity as well. As opposed to being logged in for eight hours at a time at a fixed time, employees can divide their shifts into blocks more suited to the natural rhythms of work.
“An important benefit of non-linear workdays is having control over how you spend your time, doing your work when you are most productive,” says Giurge.
Non-linear workdays help shift work focus away from activity and focus on results. “It’s not about when or where you work, it’s about getting the job done. Managers are responsible for setting the goals and vision for employees, but not telling them how to get there,” she adds.
De Smet argues that the nonlinear model aligns with the nature of knowledge work—one that primarily requires training, information, and intelligence from workers. It allows employees to do their work when they are most creative and productive.
“It’s no longer about effort and time elapsed, but about creating the best results,” he says. “Just as the nature of work has changed, the way professionals want to optimize how they do their work has also changed.”
But for the nonlinear model to succeed, De Smet believes that some general framework needs to be established, with guidelines to ensure employees don’t stray too far from a functional schedule. This structure can take the form of core hours of collaborative work, when live synchronous work can be carried out, such as meetings or brainstorms.
De Smet believes these necessary mechanisms add a layer of complexity to non-linear workdays, making it difficult for some employees to adopt them.
“There’s still a lot of knowledge work that needs to be done collaboratively,” he adds. “You can’t let everyone set their schedules for themselves, otherwise you’ll end up in a free-for-all, without any synchronous work getting done.”
long term view
Even before the pandemic, many employees were already working non-linearly, at least in part — performing tasks or sending emails outside of contracted hours or the workplace. But this was actually unpaid overtime, put in due to delayed transportation and office work schedules from 9 am to 5 pm.
The hope is that if companies can introduce non-linear working hours policies in a more formal way, this will correct the balance between asynchronous work and overwork. And De Smet says this can help prevent burnout.
“It’s about finding the perfect match in the new professional world, where restrictions on when, where and how we do our work have been relaxed — in part by technology and in part by new norms arising from the pandemic,” he says.
Currently, non-linear working hours are mainly practiced in the technology industry.
start-ups that were already relatively flexible, with teams spread across multiple time zones, are able to adopt asynchronous schedules more easily than larger traditional corporations with a history of working in the office, for example.
But non-linear journeys may become more common due to the demand of the labor market itself. The fact is that more professionals are seeking greater flexibility and autonomy.
In a McKinsey survey of 13,382 workers from around the world in July 2022, 40% of them said that flexibility in the workplace was a top motivator for whether or not to stay with a company.
“Employees now have diverse work practices and preferences,” says Giurge. “Failure to recognize and appreciate these differences will cause companies to lose their talent in the long run.”
For De Smet, the benefits of non-linear working hours are reciprocal.
“For employees, huge workloads no longer mean staying in the office until after 7pm and missing their kids’ soccer game,” he says.
“Now they can have more of their personal lives and complete their work. And for companies, the work being done is often creative, innovative and emotional — best done in optimized and flexible environments.”
In the new professional world, non-linear workdays can also seamlessly fit into hybrid and remote working patterns.
“We’re seeing that the world of work in the future is somehow increasingly non-linear,” adds De Smet. “We need to find new rhythms that support productivity, efficiency, well-being and creativity.”