Overcoming the three peaks challenge

By David Penney

If there has been one major change to our lives following the pandemic, then it is undoubtedly around the way that we work.

For the best part of a century there has been a general acceptance that the convention of working 9 to 5 has served both the needs of the employer as well as the employee (although admittedly Dolly Parton was a little more sceptical).

First established by the great American manufacturers of the early 20th century such as Henry Ford, the 9-5 working day was something of a revelation after the punishing working conditions during the earlier industrial revolution.

As welcome as this change was to those standing on the production lines of the Ford Motor Company, it was not a move completely driven by altruism – Ford’s motivation was the idea that “leisure is an indispensable ingredient in the growing consumer market”.

In other words, people need to have enough free time to find uses for the products that they were buying – including Henry Ford’s cars. For both employer and employee, it was seemingly a win win. 

However, fast forward to the latest industrial revolution of ubiquitous tech and seamless global communications at our fingertips and the working day as we know it is evolving into something very different. 

Driven by the pandemic and enabled by the incredible advances in technology over the past decade, we are currently experiencing a seismic shift in where, when and how people want to work.

At the height of the Covid crisis, around two thirds of the workforce were working from home and despite the easing of restrictions, around 25% of workers plan to work from home permanently, although almost all knowledge workers now want to set their own schedule according to research by Future Forum. 

There are numerous schools of thought about what this desire for more flexibility means for businesses in terms of issues such as communication and culture, but from a pure productivity perspective, study after study suggests that flexible workers are providing employers with more bang for their buck.  

In a world very different to the one inhabited by Henry Ford, where both parents are often working and trying their best to juggle the challenges of raising a family and managing the increasing cost of living, the opportunity to work at a time that suits would seem to have clear benefits for all.

Nevertheless, the ability to work more flexibly does not come without its own challenges, as highlighted by a recent study by Microsoft of the changing working habits of its 180,000-strong global workforce.

The study found that the traditional 9 to 5 structure of the working day had completely changed and that working activity outside of this timeframe had become the norm.

Whereas the company had previously seen two clear productivity peaks – one before lunch and then another in the hours after lunch – there was now a third peak in the hours before bedtime.

The company also found that workers were now logged on for an average of 46 minutes more over a 24-hour period, while the number of messages being sent using Teams outside the traditional working day had increased by 42%. 

Microsoft put this down in part to the ability of workers to communicate across timezones, but this new spike in activity also correlates with people working after they have finished their domestic responsibilities and put the children to bed.

For many there is no doubt that this new-found flexibility has been literally life-changing – enabling them to embrace a home life that was noticeably absent in years gone by.

But it would also be foolish to believe that this change in working practice is all good news, particularly for employees themselves.

To achieve good work life balance it is important to have time for self-care and that means ensuring that you are able to ‘unplug’ from the working environment – flexible workers may be more productive, but people can only run so fast for so long. 

Some businesses have attempted to counter this with a range of initiatives such as recharge weeks, meeting-free Fridays and even additional holidays, but this feels more like damage control rather than resolving potential issues below the surface. 

Being able to shoulder a greater share of the domestic duties during the working week has an undoubted appeal for a more balanced family life, but the quid pro quo is that the previous boundaries between work and home become increasingly blurred. 

Companies that encourage a more flexible approach for their employees may believe they are doing what is best for them, but without proper management, they are in danger of alleviating one problem and creating another.

A more balanced approach that sits somewhere between the 9 to 5 and a general free for all is probably the answer, but whatever the solution, reinforcing the importance of work-free weekends and uninterrupted holidays is an increasingly important responsibility of every employer. 

What is certain is that the 9 to 5 day as we knew it is probably a thing of the past and that a more irregular approach to working hours will increasingly become the new normal.

As the great Dolly Parton said, working 9 to 5 is enough to make you crazy – but only if you let it. 

The Partner Practice is an Appointed Representative of and represents only St. James's Place Wealth Management plc (which is authorised and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority) for the purpose of advising solely on the group's wealth management products and services, more details of which are set out on the group's website www.sjp.co.uk/products The 'St. James's Place Partnership' and the title 'Partner' are marketing terms used to describe St. James's Place representatives.

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