Since the advent of industrial society, the ticking of the clock has governed the world of work. We set an alarm to wake up, we clock in, we clock out, we adhere to standard business hours or specified shifts, we’re beholden to time zones, deadlines and schedules, and our meetings are typically squeezed into fixed hour-long blocks of the day.
But as businesses collectively reimagine the world post-pandemic and embrace hybrid models of working and more flexible scheduling, time no longer feels like the same constraint.
Experts agree that the past 18 months have scrambled our sense of time. But what might this mean for how businesses operate? And how can technology help us be less beholden to the ticking clock?
Let’s do the time warp
Humans do not all experience time in the same way. “We don’t have a physical organ for time, the way that we do for other senses,” says Dr Aysha Motala, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Western Ontario’s Brain and Mind Institute. “That means that time is just super, super elastic. And that’s also why the pandemic has warped our sense of time.”
According to Motala, many people have experienced this, whether it is the sensation of the days feeling agonisingly long, or the weeks speeding by. “People are reporting their sense of time has become distorted or warped in some way,” she says. But people appear divided on whether time has sped up or slowed down during the pandemic, and according to Motala, it depends on a range of factors such as stress levels, how busy you are, and how much social interaction you are experiencing.
“It also comes down to us not having the cues that we would ordinarily have to mark the passing of time, and in some cases, these cues have disappeared entirely,” Motala says, highlighting how many of us no longer have the daily commute as the punctuation marks that delineate our days.
Remote and hybrid working has altered time constraints in other ways – collapsing geographic time zones for some teams and liberating many workers from the traditional nine to five. Likewise, meetings held via video call can be more easily wrapped up if the discussion is done in less than the allotted hour. And, perhaps more profoundly, many of us have experienced a new sense of mastery over both time and space thanks to our ability to flip between meetings in different parts of the city without having to sit in a traffic jam or navigate public transport delays.
The impact of these changes on businesses go beyond efficiency and flexibility. For instance, virtual work and asynchronous scheduling have allowed businesses to dramatically widen the potential talent pool, with teams drawn from across time zones and geographies.
Of course, a more malleable approach to business hours can have a negative impact on people’s work-life balance and boundaries if it isn’t properly managed. But, when safeguards are in place to protect people’s wellbeing, the new fluidity of time can also be empowering for employees – helping them to stay more in tune with human nature.
Hybrid working practices have also helped many find rhythm in their workday that feels more natural to them. Take napping, for example. In a world of hybrid working, there’s no need to feel guilty about putting your feet up and getting a bit of shuteye in the middle of the day. In fact, it could be exactly what your body needs. “Broadly speaking, a short 20-minute nap is fine. It can enhance your ability to process information and be functional during the second half of the working day,” says Prof Russell Foster, director of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute, Oxford. “[Any] longer than 20 minutes, you tend to go down into deeper sleep. And recovery from that deeper sleep can leave you foggy for quite some time.”
Foster notes that our internal biological clocks vary from person to person. “It’s like shoe size – one size does not fit all,” he says. “I think the key thing is that we need to be sensitive to our own needs and organise our life where possible accordingly.”
Working through it
So how should managers and employees leverage all these new societal shifts and our natural biological rhythms to make the most of our working days – and without neglecting the work that needs to get done?
“Splitting up your day into segments of time can help establish some sense of routine,” says Motala. This could mean, for example, telling yourself not that you need to file those TPS reports today, but that you need to finish writing it by lunchtime.
Tools that manage your workflow have also become increasingly useful, bringing logic and organisation to what might otherwise be fairly unstructured ways of working. Workflow platforms can help businesses better manage the way a particular task or job is completed by breaking down each stage of the process. Businesses can thereby unbundle certain processes, putting the constituent tasks into a kind of team pool and allowing managers to reapportion tasks in a way that lets people work more as they wish.
This also increases the scope for automation, as machines can much more effectively manage tasks when all the data and input required is in one place. That’s particularly impactful when it comes to the kind of rote, mind-numbing tasks that eat up time but provide minimal satisfaction. The end result is more fulfilling and empowering work. And, of course, these tools can be especially helpful when teams are working across time zones.
Software can also assign tasks to people in a way that allows companies to operate more flexibly and effectively. This can help managers resolve potential conflicts caused by newly flexible working arrangements, such as the tendency of staff to opt to come into the workplace mid-week and work remotely on Mondays and Fridays. Digital workflows such as those provided by ServiceNow can help HR departments manage these so-called “midweek mountains” by sending people notifications when members of a team come into the office.
So as scrambled as we might feel by our newly shifting notions of time, perhaps we should also be optimistic about the new rhythm of the working day. Flexible schedules, combined with new tools to manage our work, mean that we can live more in tune with our bodies – and even get better results at work too.
Empower people with digital workflows and wherever work goes, make it flow. Find out more at servicenow.com/uk