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Are flexible working early birds more productive?


The issue of flexible working often seems beset by perceptions and emotions rather than the cold, hard reality of the situation.  Despite a multitude of studies showing how flexible employees are both more productive and more engaged, the practice remains marginalized in the workplace.

A new study published via the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business emphasizes just how our perceptions on flexible workers can over-ride any kind of rational thought.  With flexible working removing employees from the rigid constraints of a 9-5 existence, the study wanted to focus on the perception managers have of those that choose to do their work early in the day vs those who are more productive later on.  The researchers believe they’re the first to explore this particular issue, so the results are certainly of interest.

“In three separate studies, we found evidence of a natural morning bias at work,” says coauthor Kai Chi (Sam) Yam of University of Washington’s Foster School of Business.

“Compared to people who choose to work earlier in the day, people who choose to work later in the day are implicitly assumed to be less conscientious and less effective in their jobs.”

Yam and his team first established that it was common for people to associate early birds with conscientiousness rather than those who prefer working later in the day/evening.  They then tested for bias in the workplace along these lines by asking supervisors to rate employees working flexibly.  They found that those doing their work early in the day were rated higher than their later starting peers.

A final laboratory experiment confirmed the bias. Participants acting the part of supervisors were asked to rate fictitious employees whose performance was identical—the only difference was their work schedule.

The acting managers perceived the employees who worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. to be more conscientious and higher performing than their counterparts who worked from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.  All of which makes performance appraisal seem a lot more subjective than most managers would like to believe.

Research from a few years ago lends weight to the argument that it should not matter when people work, as long as the work is done well.  It was conducted by the University of Liege, and it found that night owls are indeed better equipped to handle the rigours of the working day than early birds.  Not only that, they are also generally more intelligent than morning people.  As a self confessed morning person myself this is a bit of a worry.

The authors suggest that two things control our ability to function well during the day:

  1. The homeostatic process, or our desire to fall asleep, which increases as the day progresses.
  2. Our circadian rhythm, which regulates our levels of alertness.

They suggest that the balance between these two processes is the key to our ability to function well during the day.  Now perhaps not surprisingly, when measured, the early birds were found to do best in the mornings, with the night owls performing better as the day went on.

Now where things get interesting is that the research suggests that early risers suffer more from the desire to sleep than late risers.

“This suggests that “larks” (morning chronotypes) suffer more than “owls” (evening chronotypes) from the impact of the increased pressure to sleep as the day unfolds, pressure which prevents the optimal expression of the waking signal by the suprachiasmatic nucleus area and the locus coeruleus”

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