Accidentally ‘chronoworkers’

Is working culture changing to allow people to work when they are the most engaged? Covid-19 shook up where people worked and broke down some of the barriers between work and home life. For those who have the privilege of working digitally, could chronoworking be the next change? The Opencast People Leadership Team share their views.

When was the last time you thought about where the concept of the ‘8 hour day’ (which is more like 8.5 or 9 for lots of us) came from? It’s got everything to do with Fordism and the workers’ movement gaining traction in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and not a lot to do with how humans actually function. It was baked into legislation back then and has remained the standard since.

Over time, legislation has sought to increase the flexibility of this standard to accommodate the progressive codification of human rights. This has helped carve out pockets of flexibility so that everyone, no matter their identities or life circumstances, is able (at least in theory) to access decent work and fair pay.

At Opencast, we work in a high-growth industry and our work is mostly us with laptops or collaborating with colleagues and clients. We also have a hybrid working model and a flexible working policy which gives us quite a lot of choice around where, when, and how we work under the general legal standard. We recognise that this represents a kind of privilege in that our work is stable, we don’t need to work shifts or unsociable hours and we don’t do hard physical work. This is not the reality for the majority of people in the UK or the world and it’s important to recognise that.

How work has been changing

Having said that, us and the rest of the world experienced profound changes during the covid-19 pandemic. And part of what happened was that we realised that our world of work didn’t need to grind to a halt if we didn’t go into the office every day. It didn’t end if we didn’t start our workday exactly at 9am and finished it exactly at 5:30pm. We were all stuck at home and juggling all our responsibilities all at once with basically zero control over our schedules and therefore no ability to enforce the erstwhile iron-clad rule of work.

Since then, there’s been a quiet revolution happening which only came to light recently on our team chat. On any given day on this chat, you may find serious business things, cat photos, work-related memes and articles we’ve read and found interesting. It was Sheena, our Head of Culture, who shared this article about ‘chronoworking’ on our chat after having learnt about it from Janet, our Director of Transformation. The concept is radical in its simplicity / obviousness: to do you your best work, work during your natural, peak energy hours.

It turns out all of us have over the span of our careers developed tactics to embrace our natural energy flows and rhythms so that we can do our best at work - we just didn’t know it. We thought it was a wonderful moment of serendipity, so we decided to share our experience with you in the hopes that it will encourage more organisations and more people to re-imagine the 9 to 5.

Top things we learnt

  1. Not a single one of us is a 9-to-5 robot.
  2. All of us value working outside of those hours *a lot* because it’s free from disruption from instant messages, calls, and meetings. We feel like this probably says quite a lot about the usefulness of said things, but we digress.
  3. All of us fit our working pattern around our life circumstances because it helps us do better work; not because we’re trying to do less work. Which is a common phantom fear when the wider world discusses flexible working patterns. And honestly, we’ve got the performance scores to back this up.
  4. Some of us like the extra early mornings, some of us like late evenings but none of us finds mid-afternoons to be peak focus/energy hours. Shocking, isn’t it?
  5. We all value flexibility and autonomy in setting our working pattern so much, it has a strong and direct correlation with the job and career choices we’ve made and will continue to make.

Personal reflections on chronoworking by our people team

As we all have different experiences, we thought it might be interesting to share when our peak hours are and how we use this knowledge to balance our lives.

Sheena Widdowfield, Head of Culture

“I can often be found being my most productive self post-8pm and in some workplaces it can be frowned upon to "work late". However for me, early afternoons are less energy filled and I get less done. I think it links to the children being asleep and no one else being online after 8pm, so I'm able to narrow my focus more purposefully.

“Stepping even further, as we evolve our policies and guidance on flexible working, what’s on my mind is the possibility of providing clarity around flexibility in line with "chronoworking" so people can feel good about owning their working day. I recognise that part of the challenge in doing something like this will be the intricacies of aligning what works for us and our people with client needs and structures.

“On a personal level, I’ve found that keeping a time and energy tracker for a few weeks was a game changer for me to stop beating myself up about having no focus in the afternoons as I discovered where my natural spaces of maximum energy and focus were during the day.” 

Sheena Widdowfield portrait

Lauren O'Connor, People Operations Business Partner

“I love a morning workout, so I tend to get up quite early and get that done first. As I'm doing a condensed week, I find I can get quite a lot done between 7-9am before other people get online. I also quite like having a break for dinner in the evening and coming back online for an hour or so as that has given me a bit of time to reflect and process info and next steps.”

Lauren O'Connor headshot in circle frame.

Lindsey Steinberg, Head of People Operations

“I really enjoy working on Friday afternoons as they're usually quieter and I can get my head into focused work and I find I’m often more thoughtful and creative during this window. This is usually the same towards the end of the day where I’d prefer to work a little longer without the pings of messages and calls for meetings. I will often stay online to work a little longer rather than log off and come back on a little later. There’s something about mentally switching off at the end of the day that I value.

“Similar to this there’s also a desk space at my son’s taekwondo club where I dash to straight from work on a Monday evening. Whilst he’s perfecting his kicks, I can find some space and time to pick up some bits so that when we get home I can fully disconnect from work.

“Of course, if there is something that’s urgent that crops up in the evening or on a day off, I will pop on to help out, but I might be a bit grumpy. It’s usually easily resolved with bribes of chocolate.”

Lindsey Steinberg, head of people operations

Cameron Smith, Head of People Experience

“When I have something big to do I work during the evenings - there's no one online and can be more focused. I know I've been guilty in the past (more in previous workplaces with different cultures) of perhaps 'judging' those who are online late or sending messages late at night. I feel like since being at Opencast I've understood the concept of people having more productive times to work.

“I've recently started using the 'send later' functionality on our messaging app so I can send messages out of normal hours but they won't deliver to the person until the next morning (especially with my direct reports so they don't think I'm expecting them to reply straight away).”

Cameron Smith - head of people experience

Cate Kalson, Chief People Officer

“I don't think I've ever really worked a traditional 9-5, I have been questioning this paradigm since I first started working. It's something I've always actively looked for in the organisations that I've chosen to work in.

“I'm a real night owl. I have a lot more energy in the evening, so I will often work once the kids are in bed or go and play tennis/ swim in the evening. I definitely experience a productivity slump in the afternoon, so if I can fit a gym / swim session in the early afternoon that's also good for me. I'm really excited that my gym is creating a "business zone" for working from there as part of an upcoming refit as I quite often take calls from the gym cafe at the moment.  

“I have at times felt judged for working late, with the sense that I am perceived as not having good work-life balance or boundaries. Whereas in fact, I feel that I am trying to role model how to be highly productive, get a lot of work done, have two young kids and maintain my wellbeing. In my experience it's do-able but requires flexibility and openness to different ways of doing that from others. And also, a big part of practicing self-compassion is not berating yourself for struggling with things that others find natural / easy – I am simply not able to jump out of bed at 5am and have a productive early morning, regardless of how many early birds evangelise the benefits to me!”

Cate Kalson - chief people officer

Stef Monaco, Head of Social Impact

“I’m an immigrant so you could say my life works on a ‘distributed’ basis. I’ve got family and loved ones across continents, so flexibility is not a bonus; it’s a necessity for me. Working flexibly requires resourcefulness but the world of work is highly focused on outputs and outcomes (the giving of ourselves to our work) but I think it’s equally important to set aside time to focus on inputs to focus on nourishing my mind and my spirit so that I can continue to show up at work as the best version of me.

“As I’ve grown older, my patterns and needs have changed. I’ve also got to know myself more and recognised and embraced my neurodiversity. I’m most productive early in the morning so I tend to start work at around 7am or even a bit earlier if I’ve had a good night’s sleep. I also like finishing the workday earlier than 5.30pm, especially during the winter, so that I can spend time outside and be in sunlight as that’s really important for my mental health.

“I find meetings extremely tiring as I’m quite an introverted person so I tend to stack them to mid-morning or early afternoon and I have a ‘no meetings Friday’ policy which I try to really enforce unless there’s an emergency. Mid-afternoons are a real struggle, it’s almost impossible to focus - especially since I had covid for the first time in 2020 - so I tend to go for a walk, learn something new, listen to a podcast, and go to the gym. This is peak ‘nourishment’ time for me. And then after dinner, I do an hour or two extra work because I like taking time to prepare for the next day. Fridays are the exception, I take my weekends as seriously as I take my work so no Friday evening work or weekend work unless it’s something I’m really excited about and want to work on or if it’s a matter of life-or-death.”

Stef Monaco - head of social impact

Lorna Madden, Director of Talent and Workforce Planning

“For me, working patterns have become a real priority. I reflect on past work life balance encounters or traditional working patterns and don’t like the person I was when the balance wasn’t right… I used to run from once place to another with very little time for me or my family. I’ve been doing a lot of self-discovery alongside coaching and this has given me a real insight into when I perform well against certain tasks.

“Although I remain undiagnosed, I suspect that I have ADHD so working patterns are important to ensure I perform my best. I find first thing in the morning an ideal time to get my head down: no distractions, no pinging on Teams. My household are asleep – it feels peaceful and as a result I can concentrate. Early afternoon is a real issue. I tend to try and get outside, walk the dog, head to the gym for a bit, anything to give me the boost I need for the afternoon ahead.

“I do find an hour or so after dinner and bedtime is done to be a really helpful space to complete some more work. I know it’s not for everyone, but it suits me as long as I have an hour or so before I sleep to watch something on TV or catch up on some reading - otherwise I end up dreaming about work!” 

Lorna Madden - director of talent and workforce planning

Victoria Reilly, Director of People Development

“I’m a morning person for sure. I'm most productive between 6am-2pm and like Lorna, I find the pre 8.30am is bliss - the pinging is so distracting and I get clear thinking done between 7-10am. I find the afternoon tricky and reserve it for low energy work like admin, prep or anything slow. I'll find it difficult to make decisions and you may find I defer until the morning.

"I come back to life between 4-7pm. I am strict on not working past 7pm unless it's critical because I find I need physical and mental space from work to be able to have a good chance to sleep well. Sleep is critical for me and I've learned it determines how I'm feeling / performing in life. My next step is to take better ownership of the 2-4pm window and find something which lifts my energy and feel less guilt about doing something for myself in that time, if I need to.”

Victoria Reilly - director of people development

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