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Seizing Opportunity in the 24/7 Work Reality–Beyond the Old, “9-to-5, M-F” Mindset

The work+life topic in the media this week is the downside of the 24/7 work reality (WSJ- 3/25/06, New York Times-3/26/06, NBC Nightly News). Most of these stories focused on longer hours, specifically people getting to work earlier. While I can see where this might be a negative development for some people, my first reaction was, “This is great!” I love getting up early. My optimal work day would start at 6:30 a.m., and end around 4:00 p.m. In fact, most mornings I’m at the gym by 5:45 a.m. But by 8:00 p.m., I’m worthless (I am notorious for falling asleep in even the noisiest places if I’m out too late).

There are a lot of early birds out there—catch us at 6:00 a.m., we’re on fire. But after 5:00 p.m., prop us up in a corner so we’re out of the way. There are an equal number of people on the other end of the spectrum—the night owls. These folks don’t begin to function before noon, and are at their most creative after 9:00 p.m. And, of course, there are endless variations in between.

The media coverage this past week infers, however, that getting into work earlier is always negative, when for people like me, it’s helpful. The opportunity to craft a “fit” that accommodates your personal work style is actually a benefit of the 24/7 work reality. However, it requires a new way of thinking about and behaving toward work to manage successfully. And unfortunately, as last week’s media coverage accurately points out, we aren’t thinking or behaving differently. Thus, many of us are struggling with work+life conflict. Why? We may live in a new reality, but old, Industrial Age rules about work still guide our behavior. These outdated rules say we all have one standard start time and end time, and we must physically be in the office Monday-Friday. And, they consistently get in our way:

John adjusted his fit to arrive in the office by 7:00 a.m. because he’s better in the morning than at the end of the day. His manager was fine with his proposal, but John quickly ran into trouble because he felt weird leaving at 5:00 p.m. most nights as agreed. He found himself staying until 6:30 p.m., “when everyone else leaves,” even though he’d been in the office almost two extra hours than everyone else.

Joanne was happy participating in a conference call every Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. with her colleagues in Singapore (10:00 a.m. in Singapore) even though she got home after midnight. But, she still forced herself to get to work the next day by 9:00 a.m., because those are “our hours.” I asked if she’d ever presented a plan whereby on Wednesdays after the Tuesday call she would get in around noon, but be available by cell phone beforehand if she was needed. She looked at me bewildered, “I could do that?”

This mismatch between the 24/7 work reality and old 9-to-5 thinking causes unnecessarily long working hours that don’t support anyone’s work or personal life. I’ve seen it happen countless times: Some people come in early because that optimizes their “early bird” work style, then everyone thinks they also have to come in early to “get the work done.” Others stay late because that suits their “night owl” style, then everyone thinks they also need to stay late. Soon everyone is coming in early and staying late to “get work done” which leads to endless, often unproductive, 14 or 15 hour work days.

So, what’s the answer? It requires a change in thinking and behavior by both individuals and companies in order to find new, mutually-beneficial solutions. This was the focus of a terrific 60 Minutes segment the other night about the 24/7 work reality (especially loved the two male lawyers jobsharing at Timberland, and let’s hear it for Best Buy) . From my experience, what specifically do companies and individuals need to do?

Companies need to:

  • Prepare managers and employees to have constructive, strategic work+life fit conversations that create boundaries which make sense for the individual (eg. early bird, or night owl) and the reality of their particular business.
  • Adjust policies to reflect the 24/7 reality. For example, instead of a 9-to-5 workweek, establish a “core hours” policy where everyone in a particular group determines the core hours they all need to be available, then each individual chooses their start and end time.
  • Once and for all, implement an outcomes-based performance management system. Any organization that doesn’t eliminate “face time” will burn out its workforce in the 24/7 work reality.

Individuals need to:

  • Take initiative! Think of a week as a 24/7 canvas of opportunity. Look at what you need to do in your work life and in your personal life, and then create a “fit” using that entire canvas. Make sure it considers both your needs and the needs of your job (This step-by-step process is outlined in my book, Work+Life).
  • Clarify all expectations in the workplace. When is work done, what are the outcomes by which you are being evaluated? What assumptions dictate when you are expected to arrive at work, and leave for the day? How is technology affecting your workplace—what are the expectations related to email, and voicemail?
  • Establish communication strategies with your manager, team, and clients so that if everyone isn’t working the same hours, the work still gets done effectively.

The 24/7 work reality is here to stay, so let’s learn new strategies to leverage the opportunities it presents, such as creating a “fit” that optimizes your unique personal work style. See all of you happy early birds on the 6:06 a.m. train out of Madison, and the 5:39 p.m. out of Penn Station!

For More Insights into Managing Your “Fit” in the 24/7 Work Reality: Check out my article in the WorldWIT eNewsletter, Thinking Aloud..

Personal and Corporate Work+Life ‘Fit” Innovation –
How Barbara, the lead in-house lawyer at a national firm with a 24/7 work reality, found her “fit” and then helped the men and women who work for her do the same…..

I am an in-house lawyer for a national professional services firm who spends a good portion of my work day advising people all over the country either over the telephone or via email. After my first child was born in 1997, I returned to work full time. But spending five days a week in my Manhattan office, quickly became overwhelming, so I looked for alternatives. If my family moved from Manhattan to the suburbs, I could have a well-equipped home office. I knew that I could serve my internal clients just as well from a home office in the suburbs as from a mid-town Manhattan office building. Nine years, two additional children, and two promotions later, I still work the same schedule I negotiated then–three days in the office, and two days from home.

I’m using my experience to mentor other lawyers in my group of seven, and five of us now have alternative schedules that include some combination of reduced work weeks and work at home arrangements. Our department’s flexibility and respect for people’s work/life choices has engendered tremendous loyalty to the organization and job satisfaction for the individual attorneys.

Resource for a 24/7 Work+Life “Fit” Reality:

Tell Me Girlfriend – www.tellmegirlfriend.com – is a portal that screens and sorts shopping websites by category, and then allows site users to rate each site in order to determine which ones remain listed. Helpful for anyone (guy or gal) with a “fit” doesn’t allow time to search countless shopping websites on the internet, or to leisurely stroll through specialty boutiques.

Join me on April 11th for the next Work+Life “Fit” Blog!