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Is the rigid nine-to-five workday finally dead?

People now prefer to intersperse work with chores, workouts and leisure time, creating an elastic workday with multiple peaks of productivity

Non-linear schedules adapted to accommodate workload, personal tasks, self-care and leisure time is a pandemic-influenced pattern 
Non-linear schedules adapted to accommodate workload, personal tasks, self-care and leisure time is a pandemic-influenced pattern  (iStockphoto)

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Before the pandemic, Neha had fairly regimented weekdays, rising early, exercising, commuting to the office, a solid day of work, and home in time for dinner. This would be followed by watching TV or reading and retiring early to repeat the routine the next day. Personal chores and leisure time were relegated to the weekends. But the pandemic-induced remote working softened the rigidity of her workday schedule. “My days are less regimented now. Some days I start early, and some I end late. Some days I mix work with personal chores, and on some, I purposely end meetings early so I can see friends or family in the evening. Each day has got its own personality,” says Bengaluru-based Neha, chief marketing officer at a restaurant company.

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Blocks of time

This non-linear schedule adapted to accommodate workload, personal tasks, self-care and leisure time is a pandemic-influenced pattern noticeable in several working professionals working remotely. While the nine-to-five workday has long been a bit of a myth, with elastic work schedules that stretched into long workdays, there has traditionally been a broad demarcation into a two-peak workday, with productivity phases before and after lunch. But remote working altered this with work interspersed between cooking, putting the kids to bed, working out, helping with homework or having dinner with the family.

Microsoft researchers observed this pattern emerging early in the pandemic, when Microsoft Teams chats occurred outside typical work hours, usually between 6 PM to 8 PM, calling it the “triple peak day.” Many professionals preferred working in blocks of time when they had some quiet time away from household and family responsibilities, which allowed for better productivity than traditional work hours. While not everyone’s work schedules fall neatly into three peaks, the pandemic has influenced a multi- or flexible-peak workday with schedules adjusted to productive peaks versus working rigidly within a specific time frame.

Pre-pandemic, Samrata Salwan-Diwan, founder of publishing company Family Fables Co., had four uninterrupted hours for work while her daughter was at school, along with a few hours at night after putting her to bed. “But with the pandemic, the main block of morning time disappeared. I had to supervise my daughter’s online school and manage my toddler son. There was no definitive time frame,” says Salwan-Diwan in Delhi. But the initial confusion gradually settled into a comfortable schedule, and her day adjusted to spend more time with her children and get work done. “I worked before school began, taking a break during online classes, scheduled a few calls in the afternoon or evenings, did afternoon activities and dinner with the kids and another few hours of work between 7 to 10 PM after they went to bed.”

A flexible pattern

Many enjoy this flexibility, which allows for multi-tasking and time for family and self-care. “Pre-pandemic, I travelled each week to the US from the UK to my client’s site. Work was hectic, between 16 and 24 hours a day. It would be a two-peak day, averaging 16 hours with a break for dinner. One part of the day was focused more on people engagement; and post-dinner on solo work,” explains London-based Nikhil, an independent strategy consultant to the technology and pharmaceutical sectors. While his travel has resumed, it is less frequent than earlier, with 75 per cent of time spent working remotely. “There is the conceptual three-peak day, but I would term it a flexible-peak day. I work the times I want, scheduling more flexibly, so I’m not on 6 to 7 hours of Zoom calls back-to-back.” Workdays for him can now include enjoying a sunny day in the park while taking a call or writing a few emails on his phone and returning to his laptop at home after a meal or walking outside.

Fitting in time on weekdays for leisure, exercise, and her daughter was earlier difficult for Ayesha Fernandez, sales development director at a global technology company in Bengaluru. Now morning walks, having lunch with her daughter, being around for her bath and playtime, and catching up with friends on a weeknight are all possible because of this flexibility. “It’s allowed me to work and watch my child grow. The benefit has been phenomenal; I would never have got so much time with her,” she says.

Why planning is critical

Working when most productive and taking breaks in between are other benefits of a multiple-peak workday. But there can be drawbacks like an unclear demarcation of work hours; problems in collaborating with others on different schedules; and demands from colleagues who feel you are accessible throughout the day. But for advocates of this flexibility, proper scheduling and communication of boundaries are essential to not becoming overwhelmed.

“I enjoy being able to mix my days up. But it’s made planning critical,” says Neha. “I live by my calendar, scheduling meetings and personal time. Without proper planning, it can get stressful sometimes.” Fernandez agrees, explaining how everything is scheduled in calendars. “When possible, I multitask—taking a call during my evening walk or while sitting in a cab. I even listened to a training on my earphones while getting my dental treatment done,” she says. “Work is not about where you are or when you do it. What you do is more important.”

“The issue arises when folks expect instant responses. But this is better solved by being communicative and setting boundaries that are mutually agreed,” says Nikhil, who does not reply to emails after a certain time on weekdays. “I might still be working at the time but won’t be reachable.”

Finding a middle ground and being sensitive to personal preferences is important, according to Neha, who manages a thirteen-member team with varied schedules. “I am an early riser and go to bed early. My team knows to give me a heads up if anything critical needs to be approved that will only come in late at night.” Salwan-Diwan’s entire team attends a morning call to set the daily agenda, everyone then continuing their workday according to individual preferences. “Some still work in a 9-to-5 schedule, while others prefer different blocks of time interspersed with their personal responsibilities.”

A triple- or multiple-peak workday is difficult if working full-time in the office and in certain roles or industries. But for many working remotely or in a hybrid model, this flexible-peak pattern has persisted. “I see this as an opportunity, especially in India, where typically travel is a time and energy sapper. Fathers rarely had time with their children; women hesitated to return to their careers due to the sharp work and personal life divide,” says Neha. “This has allowed for younger people to go back to their home towns and enjoy a better quality of life and family time.”

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