Not working 9-5: Can a non-linear model improve the way we work?
The idea of what constitutes a working day is up for renegotiation post Covid
Hand in hand with a non-linear day goes asynchronous communication. Photograph: iStock
When economist and labour market commentator Daniel Susskind published his book A World without Work early last year, he could not have imagined that people’s working lives would be changed so dramatically within months by a pandemic.
Susskind had written his book to flag what he believes is one of the greatest economic challenges facing the world – the growing possibility of there not being enough well-paid work to go around. At the time of writing, Susskind thought this was still some way off. However, the highly destructive impact of coronavirus has brought the prospect that much closer, he believes.
Susskind estimates that the UK lost the equivalent of almost 18 years of growth in a few months while the US economy has taken its biggest hit in output since the second World War. Many jobs have gone. Many more have changed, as have where and how people work.
Susskind’s book has recently come out in paperback, and he has rewritten the preface to reflect the impact of Covid-19.
He notes how quickly public opinion can change, pointing out that, before Covid, the idea of the state providing a basic income was an outlier whereas now there are numerous examples of governments around the world supporting the incomes of those hardest hit by the crisis.
“Work was already precarious in many parts of the world before the pandemic began, marked by stagnating wages, rising insecurity, pockets of unemployment and declining participation. Covid-19 pushed it off a cliff,” he says.
“The pandemic has also given us a frightening preview of what this future might look like and an insight into the immensity of the challenges that we will have to face when it arrives.”
Part of this future is likely to include the continuation of remote working and the adoption of hybrid labour models that allow employees to mix office time with working from home. That’s a big step for organisations wedded to traditional ways of working.
For others it doesn’t go far enough, and they are diving deeper into the reshaping process and reassessing how the working day itself can be made more fit for purpose in the post-pandemic era.
One of the phrases being used to describe the remodelling is the non-linear working day. The concept has been around for a while, but Covid-19 has pushed it up the agenda. In broad terms a non-linear day means ditching the 9-5 routine and letting employees plan their working day, within reason, to suit themselves.
Hand in hand with a non-linear day goes asynchronous communication. This means people send mails, documents and messages when they want and the recipient does not have to be there to receive them.
Mastering asynchronous workflows will be essential in this brave new world if things are not to grind to a halt, and it is not as haphazard as it sounds. Like any process involving multiple stakeholders, it requires definition and an agreed methodology to operate successfully – for example, the creation of core hours, typically four or more hours a day, when everyone is “on” and their calendars are open.
It also requires clear lines of sight when it comes to accountability, responsibility and keeping everyone in the loop.
Freedom to tailor
Laura Ryan is director for international human resources at Dropbox, which builds tools for distributed teams and uses them itself. The company is just over a month into implementing a non-linear day strategy based on core collaboration hours that reflect the time zones its employees work within.
“For our people working in EMEA [Europe, the Middle East and Africa], a typical day could look like taking meetings between 10am and 12pm and then again between 4pm and 6pm to allow for time zones, and teams have the freedom to tailor these as required,” she says. “Time outside of this is reserved for independent, focused work that does not have to be done during the typical working day.”
“With this initiative, we’re challenging the 9-5 norm by allowing our employees to step away from the traditional view of what a working week should look like. Instead, employees can structure their diaries based on their own preferred work patterns, be they early birds or night owls, or parents that want to pick up and drop off their children at school.
“Embracing this new style of working requires an evolution in culture and we have now shifted to an ‘asynchronous by default’ mindset that required a radical rethink on how, when and why we communicate with our colleagues.”
Dropbox began planning for non-linear working in October, and Ryan says a great deal of the preparation was around changing how people thought about their working day. Individual teams were asked to figure out what the new structure might need to look like for them to do their jobs effectively.
Ryan says that rather than slowing things down, the new system has helped to highlight priorities and improve efficiency.
“You have time for collaboration but you also have quiet time to think and get things done,” she says. “The changeover really made me think about my own habits and, as a result, I no longer spend my day stuck in back-to-back meetings. It challenged me to reconsider if every call needs to be done on screen or could I have exactly the same conversation on the phone while I’m out for a walk? When you get into the mindset, it’s very empowering and it’s available to everyone within our organisation regardless of their level.”