May 9, 2010

Flex Time Standards Act for Information Workers

Sarah Calandro
Design Seminar II

I am living in Los Angeles, CA working for an architecture firm. I'm supposed to be in my desk chair at 8:30 am (sometimes, I am about eight minutes late). I check my gmail, then my office email, and then I open powerCADD to begin a day of click-clicking on my mouse. Around 10 a.m. I refill my coffee mug in the kitchen, have a two-minute conversation with a co-worker, and then I return to my desk. I have a set of reflected ceiling plans that need a lighting fixture placed in the center of every room and two feet offset from all four corners. The building I am working on is 65,000 square feet so this is going to be my activity for the next three days. Andrew Bird and his delightful sounds keep me efficiently clicking on my mouse for the next two and a half hours. After a productive morning, it's time to stand up, stretch, and go find lunch. I walk across the street with a co-worker for a turkey sandwich from Vons supermarket. One hour Iater I return to my desk, spend five minutes checking my gmail, then my office email, and I return to my lighting fixture activity. About thirty minutes in, my focus begins to deteriorate. I think about the jog I plan to take after work and how this would be the perfect time to take it. But I am confined to the office, so instead, I take four separate trips to the bathroom to keep my blood circulating through my body. An hour later, the tryptophan from my turkey starts to set in so I go to the office kitchen, make cup of coffee number three of the day, grab a chocolate chip cookie, and then return to my desk. I've been saving my new This American Life episode for just this moment. I put on my headphones for sixty minutes of stories about people who fear sleeping. Yes, it takes my attention away from my task at work, but it also keeps me from nodding off to a half-lucid dream about lighting fixtures.

In 1938 when the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed, the term 9 to 5 was coined and the full time 40 hour work week was set in place. It was originally created to prevent industrial workers from working too many hours, getting tired on the job, and getting underpaid for their work.(1) This benchmark has sustained itself for 70 years and has become widespread across office cultures of all kinds. For a workplace that is about physical work, this standard is efficient. The employee constantly produces, but because she doesn't have to be thinking creatively or analytically for eight hours straight, she can maintain productivity. I have a friend who works in a printing press. He spends his days pulling paper, sorting paper, keeping the printers moving, labeling envelopes, etc. etc. Yes, his job gets monotonous, but his efficiency in production doesn't go down because he's bored; he keeps things moving nonetheless. He likes his schedule. Get in, get it done, and get out in eight hours (and if it takes longer than eight hours, get time and a half pay). The Fair Labor Standards Act flows quite nicely with this work system.

As society shifts from the Industrial Revolution to what is now being called the Information Revolution (2), this 9 to 5 benchmark is becoming less and less suitable for both our work environments, for our mental productivity, and for our overall life balance. We are entering an economy where information jobs are outnumbering the physical labor jobs from the ages of manufacturing. Productivity is dependent on mental clarity; workers are required to use their brains all day and the rest of their body is static. Technology is also advancing in such a way that national and international collaboration is possible. Google Wave, Skype, and even more fancy technologies allow for "in-person" meetings across large distances. And, obesity and non-communicable disease is on the rise with physical inactivity being one of the primary causes. (3) Sitting in an office chair all day only makes this problem worse. So, now I will pose the question: Why has the 9 to 5 benchmark for full-time seeped into information-related careers and why hasn't what I like to call a 'Flex Time Standards Act' been passed?

When I started my first full-time job, I was told to be at work at 8:30 am every day and that I would be able to leave at 5:30 on most days. I would also have a one-hour break during the day for lunch and I could take it at any time so long as it didn't interfere with office meetings. I realized very quickly how many hours a day I spent dazed out not paying attention to what I was doing. I probably averaged four to six productive hours of work a day. But even then, I still managed to complete the work required of me on time and with high quality. So, why did I have to sit there clicking on my mouse, (all the while building up blood clots in my legs and overdosing on caffeine to stay awake) if I wasn't being productive for the other two to four hours?

Many companies will argue that it is important for collaborative projects to be done in the same space at the same time in order for the outcome to be its best. It is also important that clients and contractors can contact a specific person during standard office hours. When all parties are on the 9 to 5 schedule, all parties can collaborate between the hours of 9 to 5. Coordination for setting up meetings is much smoother when employees are already planning to be at work during the office work day. Alternative methods for collaboration (i.e. the use of Skype Video meetings) is a decent substitution, but the effectiveness of a meeting is never as good online as in person. Also, employers want to know that their employees are working when they say they are. When they see them in the office clicking in front of a computer screen, they must be productive. Right?

Through talking with people and working with people, I have found that when it comes to productivity, every individual is different. Every brain has mental clarity peaks at different times throughout the day and it isn't necessarily even consistent daily for each individual. Mental clarity and productivity can change based on a number of different factors be it diet, number of hours of sleep, life situations outside of work, the work that is being done, etc. Some days engagement in higher level strategic thinking for eight hours straight is possible. Some days, only three or four hours is possible. I'm not saying that individuals don't get routined in their natural working style; they definitely do. I'm just saying that every day can be different and if work schedules followed the ebb and flow of the human body, productivity could dramatically increase.

In the past decade or so, many large scale companies are picking up on the importance of a flexible working style and are giving employees more freedom with their schedules. They realize a happier employee is a more productive one. They also realize that more and better work gets done when each individual works at their own pace and on their own set schedule and style. At Sun Microsystems, Inc. an "Open Work" program is in place. Employees work when and where they want. Thus far, the employees enrolled in the program have averaged a 34% gain in productivity. Best Buy Co, Inc. offers a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) where employees don't work a set number of hours; rather, they work to achieve certain goals with an expected level of quality. They work as much time is needed and are paid for the quality of the work they do, not the time they spend doing it. Employees again work when, where, and how they want to. PNC Financial Services Group, Inc. also has a flextime option available for their workers; 25,000 of their employees are enrolled to work flex hours, job-share (share responsibilites with co-workers), and/or telecommute (work from home). "A 2005 study by the non-profit organization Corporate Voices for Working Families found that a compressed work week pilot program at PNC resulted in: work that had previously taken two days being done in one day; absenteeism dropping from 60 days to nine days; improved customer service; and the company saving over $100,000 in turnover costs." (4) Is this not enough to convince those companies that are still mandating the 9 to 5? Well, not yet...

Many employers of information workers will argue–and they have a point–that not all companies get the best of the best workers–you know, those workers that are loyal and dedicated to their work (the ones who work at Sun Microsystems, Best Buy, and PNC). Employers think that if they offer open scheduling for their employees, they'll be taken advantage of. And it is probably true–many employees probably would take advantage of this. There are many work environments where a more free style of working just wouldn't do the company enough good to outweigh the bad. But, I think in many cases there are ways around this. Employers don't have to offer this to everyone and they can offer it based on merit–which may even benefit them. Employees can earn flex time and in order to keep flex time, their work must not suffer. It must get better. There must be a motivational system intact. Of course, an individual will take advantage of flex time if they aren't dedicated to the company and have nothing to lose. Though, I firmly believe that when a good leader is in place, generally speaking, employees will be motivated, loyal, and proud of the work they do. They won't take advantage of freedoms given to them. They will simply work harder to keep those freedoms.

I would say the benefits of a flexible working style for those professions within the Information Revolution far outweigh the 9 to 5 standard. I propose the Flex Time Standards Act for Information Workers. Routine is good. But a fixed routine without consideration for an individual's needs is not good. If I could choose my working schedule, I would get a lot more done during working hours and my work would be of much higher quality. I would wake up at 6 am every day, work for 4 hours, engage in an outdoor physical activity, eat lunch, relax, and then I would return to work around 1 or 2 pm for four or five more hours. I would definitely not choose 9 to 5 with a one hour break in the middle. If you were given the freedom to choose, what would be your working style?

1 "Federal Employees and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)." US Office of Personnel Management. Web. 23 Apr. 2010. .

2 Brent, Edward. "The Information Revolution." Mizzou - University of Missouri. Web. 23 Apr. 2010. .

3 "Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health." World Health Organization (2004): 2-4. Web. 16 Apr. 2010.

4 "5 Flextime-Friendly Companies." Jobs - The Largest Job Search, Employment & Careers Site. Web. 23 Apr. 2010.


  1. Great post Sarah. I'm a telework researcher and author and found your insights very interesting.

    Kate Lister

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  4. Your blog must be getting popular Sarah, you've got spam! I'm not sure how I'd structure my work day if I were given the choice, but I definitely don't like to 8:00 to 4:30 I'm working now. At NASA we had the option to work 80 hours in 9 days and therefore take every other Friday off. While this is not a dramatic change, it was fantastic having those Fridays and I hardly noticed the 9 hours a day. Then again, I loved my job!

  5. Hey Sarah, I really enjoyed this post, am a champion of anything innovative that poses the why not question. Was just dropping in to see how CMU was treating you :)