Productivity during a normal workday and Telecommuting as a Solution

John Wesley writes (Why the 9 to 5 Office Worker Will Become a Thing of the Past, found via War-N) about how the traditional work day (”9-5″) is very inefficient for many of today’s workers, and ends up with less productive, less satisfied employees.

A continuous 8 hour work day is a relic of the past. It makes sense for physical labor and manufacturing work, but with information workers it doesn’t account for the mental energy cycle…In the case of the modern information worker, nearly all tasks involve creative or strategic thinking…

I can’t speak for all workers, but I’ve observed that productivity levels generally peak twice a day — first thing in the morning and shortly after lunch. The most productive period is the beginning of the day. People are capable of creative tasks like writing and solving complex technical problems. After a couple hours of intense work, energy levels drop and workers downgrade to less demanding tasks like responding to email and tinkering with existing creations. Towards the end of the cycle, the mind is so cluttered and drained that workers resort to “work related activities” that appear productive but don’t contribute to the bottom line. The afternoon cycle is similar but the productivity peak isn’t as high. For different people the peaks and valleys will vary, but overall I’d estimate only 3-4 hours a day could be classified as highly productive. This number isn’t caused by slacking. You can’t force an information worker to be highly productive when the energy isn’t there.

While the 9-5 work day is a relic of manufacturing labor, it does also make sense if there is a need for people to all be present at one location at one time. (Though I do remember a partial solution  at a company where I once interviewed: Everyone had to work 8 hours a day, and everyone had to be present on-site between the hours of 11am and 2pm. Thus there is a time when everyone can have meetings, and there are also accommodations in place for those who are early or late risers.)

Wesley suggests as a solution that the work day should be planned around times when the worker’s mental energies are at their peaks. This means that the 8 hours may not be consecutive, and will most probably be scattered in bursts throughout the day.

The solution that makes the most sense is a remote work arrangement because it reduces employer costs and allows employees to adjust their work schedule to their mental energy cycle. When a worker becomes mentally fatigued, they can go off the clock and engage in recharge activities that are personally productive like exercise or relaxation. When energy returns, the worker can start working again at a high level, effectively cutting out the low productivity period of the cycle. Employers don’t pay for unproductive time and employees get to work in a more natural pattern that adjusts to their personal lives.

A good point is made at the end of the article that the biggest barrier to larger scale adoption to telecommuting is inertia and office politics. I would contend though that there will always be certain industries that are better suited towards telecommuting (and outsourcing), such as computer programming, and certain industries that will never fully transition to this (hospitals, psychologists, universities and schools, power plants, manufacturing, etc).

(Cross-posted on The Telecommuterer)