Does Flextime Penalize Night Owls?
Though many studies and surveys show that flextime is among the most popular workplace flexibility programs -- and one that appears to drive productivity -- a new look at when an employee chooses to work reveals a potential bias toward early birds.
By Kecia Bal
A new paper published in the Harvard Business Review blog highlights the connection between starting work early and the perception of conscientiousness.
In three studies, academic researchers found a workplace stereotype: Compared to people who choose earlier hours, people who choose to work later in the day generally are assumed to be less conscientious and less effective, says Kai Chi Yam, first author of the paper and an organizational behavior doctoral student at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business. The effects were strongest for employees who had supervisors who were early birds and disappeared for employees who had supervisors who were night owls.
"We weren't surprised very much," Yam says. "We started this project hypothesizing that a morning bias would exist. If you think about the American culture, people still seem to believe that early birds are better employees."
In an initial test of 120 participants, researchers found that people make a greater natural implicit association between morning and conscientiousness. In another study, across 149 employee-supervisor groups and even after statistically controlling for total work hours, employees who started work earlier in the day were rated by their supervisors as more conscientious -- and received higher performance ratings. In a group of 141 participants who were asked to play the role of supervisor to fictional employees, researchers discovered that the participants gave higher ratings of conscientiousness and performance to 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. employees than to those who were said to work 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., even though everything else about the employees' performance profiles was identical.
The research will be published later this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology.
Yam says HR leaders should be aware of the potential bias and take steps to ensure that supervisors do not allow this stereotype to affect employee evaluations.
"Some employees are more likely to work best in the afternoon/evening," he says. "People have different chronotypes, and if you are an evening person, research shows that you work best in the evening than in the morning. Managers must recognize this individual difference in order to have the most productive work force. Chronotype mismatches [e.g., forcing night owls to work early in the day] can be costly in terms of job performance."
Carol Sladek, a Chicago-based partner and work-life consulting lead at Aon Hewitt, says affecting change should start with managers. Aon Hewitt has looked at the issue of flexible work arrangements in its annual survey of benefit practices for more than 15 years.
"HR can help avoid this issue up front with training and communication targeted directly to managers and supervisors -- helping them to understand the benefits of flextime, the potential biases, and what's in it for them and for their employees," she says. "Following up with employees and supervisors after the program is implemented is another way to determine whether any bias exists and whether managers are effectively managing the program. We often suggest employee and manager focus groups or manager roundtables to discuss whether flextime is effective and valuable to the organization and to employees."
Especially in light of flextime's popularity, ensuring that employees are not negatively impacted by the hours they choose is critical, says Ilene Siscovick, a partner in Mercer's talent business. According to Mercer's Spotlight on Benefits report, approximately 60 percent of organizations now offer flextime.
"It's important for HR leaders to think about flextime as an enabler, and focus on business outcomes and results rather than 'face time' during traditional business hours," she says. "They should make sure the workgroup and customers [internal and external] are aware of the flextime schedule. It is important that the 'customer' experience not be compromised and negatively impacted by the flexible arrangement -- the work, product and service provided by the employee must meet the requirements of the role. Also, the supervisor must be engaged in the process of confirming the flextime arrangements as well as be an advocate for the employee. The supervisor should highlight the work outcomes and benefits of flextime, such as higher employee engagement, retention and results."
Supervisors also should be prepared to answer concerns about special treatment, customer service and perceived equity among peers, she says.
Though WorldatWork's most recent survey on workplace flexibility shows that flextime is the most popular flexibility program among participating companies, the potential workplace bias could negatively impact what is otherwise a program that promotes productivity, says WorldatWork practice leader Rose Stanley. In a WorldatWork survey released last October, only 3 percent of employers said the use of flexibility could have a negative impact on career progression or development opportunities.
"It seems likely that some employees are experiencing a decrement in their performance ratings that is not based on anything having to do with their actual performance," Stanley says. "This is unfortunate."
She says manager concerns and biases about flexible-work arrangements can be alleviated by training, and not on just the technicalities of the flexible-work arrangements, but the business reason and strategies behind why their organization has decided to implement workplace flexibility.
"Managers need to learn that they should focus their managerial skills and time on business results," Stanley says. "This can level the playing field and puts all employees on the same page as to their work schedules. When a manager's focus is on the employee's results and not the reason for the requested flex schedule or whether the employee is an early bird or night owl, then when and where the work is done is irrelevant."
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