The end of the 9 to 5?

We are lucky to be living through the most exciting period of change in human history. In the last 20 years we have emerged from the Industrial Age into the Information Age with the introduction of affordable technology that has revolutionised the way we live.

We can now choose when we take our entertainment and are no longer tied to the TV broadcast schedules. We can shop online at times to suit ourselves, check our bank balances from our phones and follow our friends through Twitter. We now communicate electronically and can pick up our email whilst travelling the world. We can access our documents any time, day or night from wherever we are. So why do we still get into cars or jump on public transport and struggle to get to work at the busiest time of day? And when we’re at work we email our colleagues sitting right beside us. The way we are behaving doesn’t make sense. Why are we sticking to outdated patterns of work that belong to a previous era?

It’s not as if we have worked this way forever. Before the Industrial Revolution people worked the hours dictated by nature. The weather, the seasons and the hours of daylight controlled working patterns. Then between 1750 and 1850 we introduced a whole new way of life built around cotton mills, steam power and factory work. By the beginning of the 20th Century we were perfecting the production line by dividing work into simple routine tasks and using people as cogs in the industrial machine. A hundred years later, we are still implementing ‘9 to 5’ work routines. Isn’t it about time we had a new model of work?

Agile working

The revolution is starting to happen. Unilever, for example, has a company-wide ‘Agile Working’ or ‘flexible working’ scheme which aims to have 30% of roles ‘location-free’ by 2015 and gives employees the option to work anytime and anywhere as long as business needs are fully met. They achieve this by managing performance by results, not by time and attendance, and they expect senior leaders to set the example. The company says that agility should help it reach its goal of doubling the size of the business without increasing its carbon footprint and attract and retain talent, notably the younger generation.

Unilever is not alone. IBM, Cisco, Vodafone and a number of other technology companies are leading the way in becoming ‘agile’, as might be expected. Some smaller businesses, without the legacy of a ‘9 to 5’ routine, are also employing people on a flexible basis and seeing the business benefits. Take Word Association as an example. This award winning PR agency has all its employees working from home at hours to suit their personal lives. They believe this has contributed to doubling the size of the business over the last ten years with high levels of staff satisfaction and low absenteeism.

Facebook generation

Flexible working has been on the increase for a number of years, but in many cases it is just tinkering at the edges of the fixed routine. To truly get away from 9 to 5, work needs to be based on results not on hours. People need to be trusted to get on with the job and allowed to choose when and where they get the work done. This involves a level of maturity from an organisation and its managers, which, sadly, is often missing. It’s easier to manage by presenteeism than to genuinely empower employees and treat them like adults. But as the ‘Facebook Generation’ enters the workforce and questions the outdated way we work, managers will have to rethink their traditional approach.

Some sectors have caught up with the changing world. Retailers have had to adapt to customers who expect everything at their fingertips when they want it. For you to have your groceries delivered up to 11pm and go to the bank at the weekend, people have to be working what would have once been deemed as odd hours. Businesses today have to take new approaches to work to attract the brightest young people, and flexible working could be one of them. Even parts of the public sector have acknowledged that ‘9 to 5’ is dying. But we still submit millions of people every day to an outdated work routine that is ready to be binned.

Is your employer embracing the fact that we are in the 21st Century, or are you still stuck with a ‘9 to 5’ job, which is long overdue for change?

*Peter Thomson is co-author of ‘Future Work: how businesses can adapt and thrive in the new world of work’. This article was originally published on

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