Not working 9-5

Remember that old joke about going to a meeting that could have been an email?

Well, we’re still doing it.

Nine months after many of us went remote, although it might feel like we have adopted whole new ways of working, in many respects all we have really changed is where work is currently taking place.

The how – not so much.

All those unnecessary meetings are still happening, it’s just that they are now on Zoom or Teams. 

Progress meeting, project meetings, status updates, actions and minutes and agendas and apologies. The office bureaucracy remains.

Although the last nine months have often been referred to as a great homeworking experiment, we are not experimenting as much as we should. We have introduced location flexibility because we were forced to, but adaption and experimentation hasn’t gone far enough.

From training courses to the Christmas party, since March 2020 we have embraced the virtual. What we haven’t yet embraced, is asynchronous working.

Some work has to be done at a specific place. Some work has to be done at a specific time. Prior to Covid-19 many organisations would have told you that lots of the work of their employees had to be done in the office – but they have had that particular bias unconfirmed. Now we turn to the next one; that to work effectively we must do so at the same time.

Sometimes, conversation matters. Sometimes, to collaborate and create we need to come together, discuss, engage and share. But sometimes, we can just get on with stuff when we want. We don’t have to work 9-5. It is a tradition, a hangover from the days when we all needed to all turn up at the factory gate at the same time because that widget we were making, we made together. Instead, we can, if we want to, work around not only our other commitments and responsibilities but our own personal rhythms, timezones and patterns.

My own research has demonstrated to me just how freeing working from home has been for some people. I’ve had people tell me how they have realised that they work better in short bursts and with small breaks rather than the office standard 3.5 hours followed by an hour lunchbreak. Others have discovered their preferences for a very early start or how their productivity and creativity comes to life late at night.  We are each of us different in our styles and preferences but the 9-5 assumes that one size fits all. It doesn’t. But despite this, the plethora of articles about employers undertaking remote surveillance to make sure people are working at an any given moment tells us we are still wedded to the arbitrary idea of the working day. 

Just like with location flexibility, the technology that can enable us to work asynchronously is available and has been for a long time. Similarly, it isn’t usually availability that is a barrier to use, but will and skill. If we have all figured out how to have a remote meeting, we can also figure out how to collaborate and share at different times as well as in different places.

There is a course a note of caution. In a society that so often glorifies busy and in which the immediate response is the expectation, working at different times to others may risk elongating the working day. Working asynchronously should not mean more work, but instead smarter work, more tailored to the employee work, and ideally, fewer just for the point of it meetings. In a culture that truly understands working anywhen, employees know that there isn’t an expectation that they respond or work when others are working but only when they are. In asynchronous cultures working outside of the 9-5 does not mean work extensification but freedom and autonomy.

There has been much talk in recent months of organisations adopting more flexible futures post Covid-19. Long term success of flexible working must include an element of both time and schedule flexibility as well as location. Otherwise, that so-called flexible future that everyone desires will just amount to a full day spent on Zoom from home instead of the office.

So back to that online meeting. Instead, could it be a MS Teams chat, a Slack update, a podcast, a blog post, a shared document or a social media update? 

Or you know….. an email after all?

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