The End of the 9-to-5 Workday

As managers debate the future of remote work, the model of the 9-to-5 work day needs to adapt, too, and in some cases be eliminated.

a man turned away from the camera, walking towards a white building. The man is in a suit and holding a bike

As corporate offices increasingly reopen, many managers are focused on finding the right mix of work from home and work in the office, and that's certainly important. But another key topic has been flying under the radar and deserves more attention: the fact that the model of the 9-to-5 work day needs to adapt, too, and in some cases be eliminated.

While many jobs don't lend themselves either to remote work or to variable work hours -- think of construction workers, restaurant employees, most doctors and nurses and so on -- many jobs in insurance afford a great deal of flexibility, and we'd do well to take advantage of what we've learned in the two years of working from home during the pandemic. Employers could see a boost in productivity, while employees could live healthier, better-adjusted lives. 

When many of us started working from home, we not only gained the time that our commutes used to eat up but found that we could structure our days however we liked. Sure, we had Zoom calls -- lots and lots of Zoom calls -- and we might be expected to respond fairly quickly to a boss or coworker during the meat of the day. But whatever output we were supposed to produce -- analysis for a claim, underwriting, whatever -- could then be slotted in whenever we wanted. 

Some of us work better in the morning and tackled projects when we were fresh. Others work better in the evening or even late at night (count me in that group) and increasingly pushed the work that demanded the most attention into those times of day when we thought most clearly and, perhaps, had the fewest interruptions.

Many of us learned the value of naps, something that would never have even occurred to me before COVID. In the past, if I felt tired, I'd have kept banging my head against a writing project because I felt locked into a work schedule -- but would have gotten nowhere. Now, I close my eyes for an hour and, when I return to the project, am clear-headed enough to feel some creativity and generate some flow. I'm more productive even if you count the naptime as work time. (I don't, of course.)

There still needs to be some coordination, of course. If a morning person is working with a night person on a project, simple communication could make a project take many days if they just keep passing drafts and questions back and forth, while having them both focused on a project for an hours-long stretch could allow completion in a single day. But, to the extent that individual, remote work is possible, breaking the 9-to-5 paradigm can deliver big productivity gains.

Employees may benefit even more. If they just owe a chunk of hours per week or a certain amount of output to the employer, they can sleep in when they're tired, can make that trip to the gym when they're most motivated, go shopping when there won't be much traffic and so on. Parents with small kids may benefit the most, especially if both work, because they can cover for each other. Work fits into life, rather than the other way around.

The biggest obstacle I see to greater variability in hours is that employers just aren't accustomed to measuring employee performance that flexibly. If an employee is in the office, the employer feels reassured. With remote workers, seeing that green signal of Teams shows that they're at their computer. Surely, some sort of work is going on. 

Employers will have to find new ways to evaluate employee performance, based on some combination of volume of work and quality. And, yes, some employees will game the system once constraints on hours are removed, so HR departments will have to stay on their toes. 

A recent New York Times op-ed on flexible hours says that "a few simple tweaks to work culture would make a big difference.... Scrap all but the most essential meetings. Don’t expect remote workers to be always available or use invasive software to keep them on task. Focus on results and normalize later start times. To foster collaboration among workers who are on different schedules, companies could set limited core hours."

I've actually lived that flexible future for more than 35 years. Even when I showed up at a Wall Street Journal office in suit and tie every day, the life of a reporter lets you do pretty much whatever you want. You show up early, you show up late, you leave early, you leave late, you work in the office, you work at home -- all that matters is what shows up in the paper, and that's there for everybody to see. (Once or twice, when I went a couple of weeks without my name in the paper, my father called and said he just wanted to be sure I was still employed there.)

When I became a partner in a consulting firm, I had to commute to headquarters in Chicago two or three times a month from the Bay Area, which was no fun, especially with little kids, but when I was home, I was home, and had lots of flexibility. If my daughters wanted me to jump in the pool with them in the middle of the afternoon, I could just about always indulge them (and myself). 

And the sorts of writing projects, mostly books, that I've done for the past 20 years, leading up to my work with ITL, have certainly allowed for flexibility, including probably the best decision I made as a parent. My younger daughter was a nationally ranked distance runner in high school, and I felt bad that she would have to head out in the heat in the summer to do a hard 10- or 12-mile run, so I made a standing offer that I'd go with her any time she asked (on a bike, of course; I couldn't possibly have kept up with her on foot). She'd pick a history topic and ask me to tell her about it for the hour or so she'd be breathing hard, which indulged my fondness for telling stories and would let me make some use of all the histories I've read over the years. Those run/rides were some of the best bonding time imaginable -- and she later earned a history degree from Yale, on her way to a law degree and a job in Washington, DC. 

Flexible hours don't work for many jobs, just as remote work doesn't, but, if flexibility is possible, I highly recommend it. And it's possible for a lot of insurance jobs.