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Are defined work hours still relevant?

Are 'regular' hours of work an anachronism that’s holding us back? Or is the freedom to work whenever we want something still reserved for a select few – and/or a trap that causes us to work more rather than less? GigaOm's Mathew Ingram ponders the evolving workplace.

By now, most people who work in the developed world have gotten used to the idea that the old nine-to-five routine is gradually becoming a thing of the past; plenty of people have shifts that start and end at different times, or they use job-sharing and other forms of flex-time. Some don’t even have traditional jobs at all any more, thanks to the evolution of the “gig economy” and the increase in freelancing.

All of which raises a question that seems even more appropriate with Labour Day around the corner: Are defined hours of work an anachronism that’s holding us back? Or is the freedom to work whenever we want something still reserved for a select few, and/or a trap that causes us to work more rather than less?

Flexible work is something that seems increasingly popular with programmers and other online workers, for reasons that Zach Holman of the software repository GitHub described in a recent post on the GitHub blog, entitled “Hours Are Bull****.” Holman said that for most of the staff who work on the service, there are no defined working hours whatsoever — everyone is on their own schedule and they work whenever they need to in order to solve the problems that need to be solved.

What management consultants like to call a “results-oriented workplace,” might be fine for a creative endeavour like programming or design, or even for businesses that involve brain-powered work such as writing. But does it make any sense for other companies and industries? When Holman’s article got passed around in our office, my colleague Stacey said that this view of unstructured work only works for certain people — people without children, for example (who often have fairly rigid schedules governed by school, etc.) or other obligations that require them to work on something closer to a nine-to-five schedule.

Others argued that a less-structured schedule actually makes these things easier to handle rather than harder, since workers can leave whenever is necessary rather than waiting for the whistle to blow at 5.

Although there is plenty of research that shows both workers and companies benefit when hours are more flexible, not everyone — regardless of what business they work in — is going to want to work a totally unstructured schedule. And for some people, a specific routine isn’t just something that they need for external reasons: A job without defined parameters might actually increase the stress they feel, and therefore make them less productive or efficient. (A friend I know used to put on a suit and then walk down the hall to his office at home, just to simulate working in a regular workplace, because he needed the discipline.)

There’s another risk Holman’s description of the new unstructured workplace brings up – and that is the impact that this can have on the “work-life balance” of employees.

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