Why resisting the 9 till 5 still works – for everyone

Tanya Alden-Zeter

This week, as I made my way home after visiting a client in Ladbroke Grove, sitting in a rush hour tube carriage really took me back. Not to a warm, nostalgic place; but to the grind of 2019 and the endless stop, start, heave, hustle, clamour and fuss of my ex-daily commute.

Squeezed into the smallest space possible (it’s courtesy, right?) I changed from the Circle to the Victoria line, duly following a strict walk-one-way policy, noticing the return of what I call the signature “tube trudge”. Whilst one wouldn’t expect fellow passengers to exude pure  joy during their journey from A to B, there was more than one face that looked genuinely miserable; angry, even.

I couldn’t help but think: Didn’t we learn anything from 2020? Why is everyone travelling to and from their workplace at the same hour, to spend only the dregs of their evening with friends, partners and families? Let’s face it, we barely get a couple of hours before it’s time to prepare for yet another full day away from them.

Choice + freedom = sustainable productivity

Yes, many want to be in full time work. And yes, many also want a place called an office (it provides separation from home life, interaction with colleagues, a buzz, a reason to leave the house…the reasons are unquestionably valid). But whilst this is the case, not a single person I speak to wants either their working hours or their office days dictated.

The great ‘return to the office’ sees some firms insisting on workers being in-office 5 days a week (I’m looking at you, Goldman Sachs). This is amid a flurry of recent claims that employee happiness and productivity levels are higher amongst those present within the face-to-face office environment. 

Frankly, we should be wary of such claims. Sure, there are clear advantages to spending quality time with those we work with. But why restrict this time to set hours, and fixed locations? 

If you are, as David Solomon (Goldman Sachs’ CEO) claims, an organisation built upon a culture of collaboration, innovation and apprenticeship, then co-working and community spaces – as well as flexible hours – afford employees the choice to come to the office when it’s appropriate and helpful. Collaboration and innovation happen amongst happy people. Choice makes people happy, and it’s this that translates into genuine, sustainable productivity. Not daily 9 till 5 facetime with the rest of the company.

The truth is, there’s far more to the working world than a dichotomy of full-time vs. part-time employment, office-based vs. “working from home”. And surely we’re too resourceful and intelligent to limit ourselves and our workforce to such limited options? We have the technology, the experience (thanks, COVID) and the power to shift our working habits to work for us. That means maximising our energy levels, fulfilling our other duties and passions, and even alleviating the incredible rush-hour strains on our public services.

Still need convincing? Between 2022 and 2023, an estimated 4 million UK workers changed not just their role, but their careers, due to a lack of flexibility at work. 

Mad skills don’t wait for 9am

You could be full-time but flexible, running a work-from-anywhere gig, part of a job share, or enjoying compressed hours. 

Call it what you will, but when businesses manage to become truly flexible, resisting labels and relinquishing control proves beneficial not only for the working population, but reaps enormous rewards for the companies themselves. Why? Because it means retaining and nurturing the invaluable skill sets of: 

👪 Parents- primarily, mothers. According to 2023’s Careers After Babies report, 98% of mothers want to work, and 52% of these want to work at least 4 days a week. That’s a whopping percentage of the UK’s total workforce who have invaluable skills to offer our economy, but for whom a traditional Monday-to-Friday simply doesn’t suit. 

We spoke to Jess Heagren, the Careers After Babies founder, whose mission it is to make the world a better place for working parents. Previously the Director of Strategy and Distribution for an insurance giant, her expertise is in helping organisations with transformational change; the social enterprise now provides accreditation for companies who are committed to understanding the challenges faced by working parents, and to keeping these employees within their business. 

The number of businesses signed up grows every week and given the stats, this is no surprise. And whilst flexibility is a key pillar of the accreditation, for Jess and her team of experts, the big picture is actually much wider. From policy, to support, and making true behavioural change, she explains; “Being able to be a good employer to working parents is nuanced – it’s not one big thing that you change and it fixes everything. It’s actually about looking closely at the many little things you can do to make people’s lives easier.”

Jess Heagren, Careers After Babies founder

📂 Those building a portfolio career – not everyone can or wants to stick with one industry or discipline within their working life. At Contented we embrace team members who mix entrepreneurship with design prowess, personal training clients with freelance writing, and even reflexology with project management. These minds often buzz most creatively pre-9am, or long after most have hit the hay. For Cynta Bonuke, this type of freedom is important: 

 “I stumbled upon The Contented Agency in my quest for meaningful work that aligns with my values, strengths, and passions. What drew me to Contented is the commitment to authenticity and the modern approach to work. The diverse team, free from the constraints of traditional office hours and fixed locations, embodies true flexibility and creativity. This allows for a dynamic work environment where ideas can flow freely, unrestricted by physical boundaries.” 

Cynta Bonuke, The Contented Agency

🦉 The most experienced pros – with over 24% of the UK’s population now over 60, can we afford not to benefit from the wealth of knowledge and experience the retired / semi-retired workers have to offer? Undoubtedly, the answer is no. The number of 50 to 64-year-olds who are economically inactive fell by an estimated 129,000 between 2022-23. Despite these stats, balancing the demands of caring for elderly relatives and grandchildren poses a very real demand on this generation’s time. Plus, keeping well is more of a challenge. 

Jane Lichtenstein helped set up the Climate Crisis Advisory Group several years after leaving her role as a senior litigation lawyer at a leading firm aged 50.  

Her weekly activities, between training for a half marathon, being a grandmother and overseeing the CCAG activity are impressively energetic. She told us that whilst she feels it’s all great fun and very freeing, that, compared to earlier life stages,  “the aggregate number of hours I have to do it now are markedly fewer. The importance to me, now, of flexibility in my work is that I have to timetable things like running, Pilates etc – I can’t just squeeze them in around a full day, like I could when younger. And yet these things are more important than ever.”

Jane Lichtenstein, CCAG

Yes, for the most privileged, time, and importantly, money, may be further down the ‘worry’ list than at earlier life stages. But there is still a need to empower people in their 50s, 60s and 70s to pursue fulfilling roles – and to be paid for it. Whilst the voluntary sector is an obvious place to look for regular and meaningful work at any age, business and industry needs to do more to provide options too. 

🧠 Neurodivergent individuals – flexible working arrangements for the neurodiverse community help ensure that unique, individual needs can be catered to. This can be effective in reducing stress and anxiety levels, whilst demonstrating a commitment to creating an inclusive culture, where people feel both valued and supported. 

Zurich’s head of HR, Steve Collinson, says the company has a policy of advertising every role as potentially being part-time or a job share. Imagine the opportunities available if every business stepped up in this way.

So there it is; an argument for why and how a working life outside of traditional hours works for everyone. Everyone, that is, who wants to see themselves, their families, and their employees thrive – and thrive on their own terms.

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