Flexitime good for the home life but bad for promotions

Flexitime may solve an employee's work-life balance but starting work earlier or later than your colleagues may not always aid your future career prospects.

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The end of 9 to 5 is nigh. As workplaces in the Middle East adopt flexitime, office workers will find themselves better able to plan their own schedules, make time for dinner with the family and heed the dictates of their circadian rhythms.

But an article published in the Harvard Business Review claims that this will not be good for everyone.

The report authors — Christopher Barnes, Kai Chi Yam and Ryan Fehr, three academics at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business — find that managers discriminate against workers who take advantage of flexitime arrangements to start and end their working days later.

When managers were asked to rate a sample of candidates with identical performance profiles, but were told that one group — the larks — worked from 7am to 3pm, while another group — the night owls — worked from 11am to 7pm, the larks were given consistently higher scores than the owls despite there being no difference in their productivity.

Larks favour larks, and owls owls. When the owls were evaluated by early risers, the owls fared worse. But owls recognise their own — if your boss gets in after you, he or she is less likely to discriminate against you.

The upshot, said the authors, was that “organisations may be inadvertently punishing the employees who use flexitime to start and finish working later in the day”. Over the long term, this can result in fewer promotions and worse job prospects.

I am a night owl. Always have been. You can see me sitting at the corner of the bar in Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, nursing a double espresso, contemplating my mortality as the waiter fixes a couple across the way another cup of joe.

I am also painfully aware that offices are fantastic devices for diminishing the productivity of their inhabitants.

Open-plan offices activate our fight-or-flight instincts, causing us to look wildly around when someone enters our peripheral vision. This behavioural tic made sense when trespassers in our visual field were likely to have been hungry leopards. It makes less sense when I react to someone entering the corner of my eye, only to realise that it’s a tech support guy filling the printer with more toner.

More than privacy, I value sleep. I need a lot of coffee, and a lot of rest, to be able to concentrate on the exotic worlds of finance and capital during the day.

So my employer’s flexitime arrangements help me to work when I’m best able to.

Whether you have disturbed sleeping patterns, noisy children, late-night study groups, regular doctor’s appointments or some combination thereof, flexitime can help you make the most of this.

Of course, flexitime does not work for all jobs. If coordination and control of a group of peers is part of your job, you probably need to be in the office when they are. Or if the aluminium smelter turns on at 7am, it’s probably important that you arrive in time to flick the switch.

But in professions suited to flexible working, flexitime can be fairer. It helps working women with families, who may need to balance large numbers of conflicting commitments. If managers dislike workers who take advantage of flexible hours, but working women work unorthodox schedules more often, it’s easier to see how this could affect promotion prospects.

We know that women in the region are promoted less frequently than men — and it is possible that this is part of the explanation.

Managers should realise that they cannot rely on prejudices about an individual’s productivity based on the time they get into the office. Measuring how much work someone is doing is always better than guessing. It’s more professional, too.

Adam Bouyamourn is a business reporter for The National. Follow him on Twitter at @adambouyamourn

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