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Is Chronoworking the Future of Flexible Work?

Exploring all the facts behind the latest business buzzword

Published on

April 29, 2024


Have you ever noticed how some of your coworkers are buzzing with energy first thing in the morning, while others really get into the zone after lunch? Or why that one guy in accounting is always firing off detailed emails and completed spreadsheets at 6 a.m., but is hard to reach in the afternoon?  

That’s not just the morning coffee talking! The real answer may lie in our circadian rhythms and individual chronotypes — different types of people who are most alert, energetic and focused during certain hours of the day. Chronotypes have been getting a little more attention online lately - you may have even come across new-age memes or blogs referencing morning bears, lions and wolves.  

So, why are we talking chronotypes? Because the science behind the hype has created a little buzz about how this knowledge could be leveraged by a small subset of well-suited organizations. With the rapid rise of remote/hybrid work models over the last four years, colleagues today are often working in different time zones – and sometimes with different work schedules entirely. This had led some industry thinkers to question the status-quo of typical office hours. In a world where the lines between home and work are increasingly blurred, new strategies could be the key to fostering an adaptable, happy and productive workforce.

Enter British journalist Ellen Scott, who coined the term ‘chronoworking’ after observing a developing trend among organizations, which are shifting away from the rigid Monday to Friday work culture in favour of more flexible work environments geared to an employee’s individual peak productivity hours.  

Her chronoworking concept is simple: if you’re an early morning person, why waste your peak pre-dawn hours waiting for 9 a.m. to start your day? Or, if you’re someone who feels more creative and focused at night, why force yourself to accomplish tasks when you’re least productive? Essentially, chronoworking means working according to the time of day you perform best. But is this concept realistic for many businesses, or do the risks to established efficiency outweigh any potential benefits?

The business case for chronoworking

It might all sound a bit out there – but there’s a ton of science to back it up! Numerous studies, like those conducted by the US National Institutes of Health, offer proof that traditional work hours don’t always coincide with every employee's most productive periods. Instead, working outside our natural circadian rhythms can lead to inefficiency, wasted potential, missed work due to illness, and lower morale. For example: natural night owls may struggle with concentration and fatigue during the first few hours of a typical workday. Allowing these people to start later, when they are naturally more alert, can boost their productivity and performance, reduce stress, and improve their overall job satisfaction.

In niche professional areas where this novel setup is feasible, chronoworking hours have also been shown to improve employee mental health, create more effective work periods, and reduce burnout – which all translates into lower absenteeism and reduced turnover.  

Flexible work hours are also an increasingly popular benefit for younger generations. Millennials and Gen Z in particular place a high value on their work-life balance and personal well-being. Organizations that offer true chronoworking flexibility could potentially be way more attractive to this new wave of workers.

The challenges of chronoworking

While the benefits are clear, implementing chronoworking can be challenging, and simply won’t work for every industry or role. Those in client-facing roles, production and assembly, service and hospitality, or in positions where real-time response and coordination are required are likely unsuited to chronoworking. The same goes for industries like transportation and logistics, event coordination, manufacturing, and law - where detailed scheduling and rapid decision-making are essential. If chronoworking isn't a realistic option for your team, there are still ways you can harness their optimum work hours to boost productivity. For example, if you find that one of your teams completes more work in the afternoons, try shifting their most routine tasks to the morning, and leave more complex work for the hours when you see the best results.  

You can also explore different lighting solutions. With programmable LEDs more affordable than ever, this can be a simple solution that can benefit your team’s health while boosting their productivity. For example, instead of adjusting employee hours, Google redesigned its workspaces with natural light patterns that are customizable to each employee’s individual circadian rhythms, enabling them to feel more awake and responsive in their off-peak periods.

However, if your industry is suited to chronoworking and you’re looking to explore the benefits, getting started doesn't have to be a massive overhaul. It can begin with something as simple as evaluating which of your teams could benefit most, and shifting work hours a bit to align with when the individual members feel they can give their best even if it’s just by an hour or two.

It might take some tweaking — like figuring out how to effectively measure KPIs, track projects and schedule meetings when everyone’s hours overlap, but some companies find the benefits are worth it. For example, Microsoft has adopted flexible work hours to align with employees' natural energy highs and lows, with a reported 20% boost in productivity.  

While it’s possible that chronoworking is just the latest in a series of corporate buzzwords, there’s some real science behind all the noise.  By creating work environments where employees can get the most out of their peak performance hours, companies can boost satisfaction, maximize efficiency and create a healthier, more balanced workplace. As organizations recognize the benefits, aspects of chronoworking could become key features of our modern work culture, leading to more dynamic and adaptable businesses.

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