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The surprising benefit of flexible working arrangements

Many workplaces now offer flexible work arrangements for employees.  There are a raft of benefits for both employees and employers, from increased productivity and creativity, improved retention rates, reduced absenteeism, better talent attraction and enhanced staff wellbeing. However, there’s an overlooked benefit for both employees and employers and that is the ability for employees to work to their chronotype.

What’s a chronotype?

A chronotype is your biological disposition to be a morning person, an evening person, or somewhere in between. Put simply, it’s your personalised biological rhythm. It’s your natural inclination throughout the day to be awake and sleep and also determines when your energy levels are at their optimum. It orchestrates the peaks and troughs of energy you’ll typically experience throughout a day. Put simply, your chronotype is mother nature’s way of signaling when you’d prefer to fall asleep and when your energy is at its peak. For those of you more scientifically-inclined it’s determined by your PER3 gene.

For most people, there are usually two windows of circadian lows- for most middlebirds it occurs between 2am-6am, and usually around 12 hours later, in the mid-afternoon (this explains the 3pm energy slump and chocolate craving). There are also usually two high points, when energy and thinking are at their optimum. One usually occurs within an hour or two after waking (if you’ve woken naturally and not through an imposed alarm clock time) and the other one usually after the mid-afternoon dip.  These cycles are shifted earlier for ‘larks’ and later for ‘owls’.

There are different models that sleep experts use. From my personal and professional experience, using the owl, lark or middlebird model works best. This was developed by Roenneberg, T., & Merrow. There’s also the dolphin, lion, bear and wolf developed by Dr Micahel Breus that you may have heard of.

Source- Roenneberg, T., & Merrow, M. (2016). The circadian clock and human health. Current biology, 26(10), R432-R443.

Why it’s critical to sync your work schedule to your chronotype?

Not every employee is biologically-designed to work from 9am-5pm, yet these are the hours that many employees are expected to work. There is often a high degree of misalignment between employees’ chronotypes and their (often) prescribed work schedule. In fact, Céline Vetter, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the university’s circadian and sleep epidemiology lab estimated that 80% of employees have work schedules that clash with their chronotype.

It’s estimated that 80% of employees have work schedules that clash with their chronotype.”

Understanding your preferred biological rhythm and the ideal work schedules that correspond to your specific chronotype helps to maximise your health, wellbeing and productivity. I’ve worked with high-performing executives and have found that ensuring there’s congruence between their work commitments and energy peaks, yields substantial gains for both their productivity and wellbeing. 

It ensures that employees put guardrails up in their calendar to ensure that their peak energy periods are spent engaging in what Cal Newport calls ‘deep work’ (for example, writing client reports, conducting data analysis, structuring a presentation). It also involves proactively planning how to schedule the less-optimal energy periods throughout the day. For example, engaging in what Cla Newport refers to as ‘shallow work’ (for example, checking emails, returning phone calls, inserting images into a presentation).

Flexible work arrangements mean that employees are no longer bound by the regimented and widely adopted 9am-5pm office hours. Flexible work arrangements now allow employees to map their work activities and obligations to their peak times of energy and focus. Employees’ work schedules can better accommodate their chronotypes, by synching critical work tasks with their chronotype.

For an ‘owl’, checking your emails first thing when you turn up at work at 11am is the best use of your time, as your energy is not at its peak and checking emails, in most instances, is considered ‘light work’. Equally, completing data analysis at 5pm, when most ‘larks’ would be exhausted, is the best use of your time.

What chronotype are you?

There’s a simple and a scientific way to determine your chronotype. From my experience, most people have a hunch as to whether they’re a morning or an evening person, or somewhere in between. If you want to validate your chronotype, here are the two approaches:

(i) Simple- imagine you’re taking a two-week holiday. You have no work, or family commitments (aghhh, isn’t that nice). When would you naturally start to fall asleep and wake up? What natural rhythm would you fall into?

(ii) Scientific I’ve created a simple quiz, based on the formal Morningness-Eveningness Assessment Tool developed by Horne and Östberg. You can complete my quiz here.

How does your chronotype play a role in your productivity & wellbeing?

Organisations throughout the world are beginning to recognise the importance of chronobiology and are starting to encourage staff to craft their work schedules, where possible, around the times when they work best. For example, the steel factory ThyssenKrupp in Germany assigned the day shift to ‘larks’ and the late shift to ‘owls’. The results were impressive. Employees got 16% more sleep (which equated to about 1 full night’s sleepover a week).

Southwest Airlines allows pilots to select between morning and evening flight schedules, based on their chronotypes. The United States Navy replaced 18-hour submarine shift schedules for  24-hour schedules so they could better match sailors’ biological rhythms.

This is also why some schools are experimenting with delayed school start times, especially in the secondary years when students’ circadian rhythms shift and they start to fall asleep later (and want to wake up later).

Now, I’m aware that it’s not always possible to align work schedules with your chronotype. This isn’t an opportunity for excuses. You cannot say to your leader, “Sorry, I’m an owl so I can’t attend your 9am meeting.” There are some business activities that have to be performed at certain scheduled times.

However, when I work with corporate clients, I encourage them to look at the tasks that they have some autonomy over and time-block when it is best that they complete those activities. One of the biggest (and easiest) shifts that can have significant productivity gains, is being selective about when you check email. If you’re a lark, getting into the office early (as you love to do) and opening your inbox may not be the most productive use of your time. Instead, larks would be encouraged to do some of their more cognitively-taxing tasks first up and then perhaps check emails, later in the day, when their energy levels start to deteriorate. A screenshot of an activity from corporate workshops is below.

This is an activity I perform with corporate clients who want to map out heir ideal day, according to their chronotype.

Similarly, expecting employees that are owls to respond to critical decisions by 9am or attend 7:30am breakfast meetings isn’t going to garner the best results. Do you have team meetings where most employees are larks? If so, then a breakfast meeting might be best. A simple activity I offer when working with corporate workshops, is to map an ‘ideal’ day according to your chronotype. This isn’t to suggest that this is how every day will transpire- I know that’s unrealistic. However, it gives some great parameters to work towards and provides necessary forethought to consider what tasks we should be performing when. Even if we map our daily tasks out on our calendar so that we aim to complete the most complex or creative tasks first.

Knowing your chronotype also helps to maximise your sleep and general wellbeing. For example, if you know you’re a ‘lark’ then you know you’ll naturally wake up early which means you need to have an early bedtime to accommodate your early start. This has implications on when you engage in physical activity, when you eat, the time when you digitally-disconnect. Having an intimate knowledge of your chorotype empowers you to establish boundaries and routines in your day that optimise your performance.

How can you work to your chronotype?

Ideally, we need to design our work schedule to take advantage of our biological strengths and compensate for our weaknesses. Map out the times of a ‘typical’ day where your energy is at its peak and plan to do your most challenging or creative tasks then. For owls this is likely to be in the afternoon and/or night or for larks, this may be very early in the morning.

For employers this usually results in more productive, happy and healthy staff.  Organisations aren’t paying their staff to be non-productive- you could be paying someone to drink multiple coffees and attempt to write a client brief between 8-10am, when they would have been better off staying at home and coming in later in the day and starting this task at 3-5pm, when they’d typically be getting ready to go home. With flexible work arrangements and an understanding of chronotypes, employees are better able to mesh their personal and professional lives. They may be able to collect their children from school, attend sports practice (when their energy typically wanes) and then resume work later at night.

Not only do we need to help employees learn more about heir chronotypes and how to map their performance and rest to these biological preferences, but we also need to shift organisational thinking around ‘preferred’ or ‘impaired’ chronotypes. We need workplace leaders to acknowledge and respect that people work best at different times. We shouldn’t be frowning on people because they leave work at 3pm (having arrived at 6am), nor should be frowning on the owls who finish working at 11pm.

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