With millions of people forced to work from home under COVID-19 isolation orders around the world, Erin Westover wonders if it could be the welcome end of the 9-5 work week for many businesses.

I decided pretty early on that the 9-5 schedule wasn’t for me, though it might not have been the schedule per se, but the sitting-all-day.

It wasn’t until I worked as a writer for a startup that I learned it wasn’t necessarily the sitting-all-day but the type of work I was doing. You see, I could sit for long periods if I was doing creative work.

In short, I don’t like being put into a box.

I had a friend years ago who told me she refused to work any time before noon. To her, mornings were precious, not unlike the “millionaire morning routines” that are of interest to people these days. The only difference was my friend didn’t want to wake up early.

After I finished grad school and had my mornings back, I realised the same thing: that the way we structure our days is fundamental. It sets the tone. It’s how we perform at our best. Yet, how this ‘structure’ looks varies from person to person.

We are, in fact, all different.

One size never fits all, and yet we need each other. To perform at our best, so we can be what others need, requires this kind of flexibility.

One of the benefits of self-isolation in this COVID-19 Era is the focus inwards. In times of chaos, we reach for stability. Routine generally helps with this. But does routine need to put us in a box? With our new autonomy and more flexible schedules, what will we learn about ourselves and the way we work?

From Factories to Office Spaces

The 9-5 schedule is only the norm because American unions fought hard to protect workers with the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. The 8-hour day and 40-hour week were adopted. It also guaranteed a minimum wage, overtime, and ended child labour.

Looking away from factories and into office spaces, we arrive at an 8-hour day spent at desks. Nearly three of those hours are spent responding to emails. Yes, what they’ve found studying productivity is that we tend to only be productive for a fraction of the day. It makes you wonder if our contribution is linked exclusively to hours at all.

A global survey of 3,000 workers found that we are only productive for about five hours a day. Another study from the UK found that employees were only productive for three.

Sure, there are a lot of things distracting us, but it begs the question: when are we at our most productive?

A well-known McKinsey study may shed a little light on this. Their findings showed that top executives were 5x more productive when they were in ‘flow’, a mental state where one “fully employs their core capabilities to meet a goal or challenge”.

A powerful way to work, right? Employing core capabilities sounds like it would benefit all workers, not just executives. Even so, these studies help to paint a picture of a typical work environment.

Creating Value

As a freelancer, I have been told the importance of charging per project (as opposed to by the hour), and yet it took me a bit of time to understand why. As a business, productisation makes sense – it’s efficient. More than efficiency, it’s about recognizing the overall value of one’s contribution. The project cost is only a percentage of what revenue a company could potentially bring in from it, for example.

Individual contribution as it relates to overall revenue brings us to a keyword in the future of work: value.

Once we regain our footing and find stability in this new way of working, I wonder what will happen when people start to create again. When people begin to sift through what exists, explore possibility, and identify new areas of opportunity. What further value will people create, and how?

Will self-isolation show us exactly how we get into ‘flow’ now that we are unrestricted by an outdated model for work? What will happen when employees lean into the autonomy that comes with this new landscape? A landscape where we can choose how to approach goals and solve problems in our own way?

Working Outside of the ‘Box’

One thing that tends to fall by the wayside in traditional work culture is the time to think.

I had a professor once who told me that a problem with our programme was that it didn’t give us enough time to think. Without this kind of time, how were we expected to understand deeply? So that we can create something new or add to the existing questions of a particular academic field?

In business, how do we create further value without the time to think?

I don’t know many businesses who carve out this kind of time. I mean, when would you schedule ‘thinking’ into a typical schedule? And does thinking even work that way?

This is why flexibility continues to be an increasing topic of interest in the future of work. Once again, everyone is different, and you need your team to be that way. We all play a part. But what is it that individuals need to be productive and creative?

When the answer is not one-size-fits-all, how can a team continue to meet challenges creatively and their goals consistently?

I would argue its flexibility.

In our increasingly evolving digital age, flexibility is easier than ever to implement. Coronavirus is making it absolutely essential. With this crisis, we see that there are really no barriers. We see that there is always another way.

The possibilities are endless.

Erin Westover is PR Manager at NZ Entrepreneur Magazine

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