During the dust-up over Yahoo ending work-from-home arrangements a few years ago, people on both sides had plenty of research to point to. Working face-to-face does often produce more innovative solutions. On the other hand, remote workers are generally more productive. So what’s an organization that needs innovation and productivity to do?
Fortunately, there’s a way to get both: Create core hours.
Core hours are times when everyone commits to being in the office. Then you log the rest of your hours wherever and whenever.
As a matter of fact, such programs are reasonably common. The U.S. Department of Labor, for instance, advertises its core-hours policy to job seekers.
"If a company operates between both worlds, being partially in-office and partially virtual, core hours can be a great way of allowing people the flexibility to work from home, while also maintaining the in-office magic," Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a job service that specializes in flexible and telecommuting positions, tells me. "The key is communication about the hours, the expectations, and the goals. No matter what flexible work program a company devises, there needs to be structure behind it for it to succeed."
If you’d like to establish core hours in your organization, first figure out which hours would work best. The middle of the day (10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) is usually good, as these hours allow early birds to log their time beforehand and night owls to start later. Your employees may also be able to avoid rush-hour commutes.
Second, avoid the temptation to either offer too many core hours per day or create too many "core days." Many organizations require employees to be present just a few days of the week; FSB Associates, for instance, has Monday and Wednesday as core days. "We are a digital PR firm, so there's lots of work that our team members can do independently," FSB Associates president Fauzia Burke explained in an interview. "However, having core hours allows us to be available for brainstorming and collaborating. Many times we need to run an idea or a pitch or a response by another person. We work very fast in real time on hundreds of emails a day. It’s nice to be able to bounce an idea by someone or run an email with, ‘Does this sound okay?’ quickly."
Having two core days, she says, is "the best of both worlds."
While limiting core hours goes against the typical mindset (where the default is in-the-office unless otherwise negotiated), "Managers need to remember that the ultimate goal of having workers be remote or work flexible schedules is to help them be as productive as possible," says Sutton Fell. "Setting too many core hours each day may work against that goal."
Office environments sometimes spur innovation as people bump into each other serendipitously, but they can also be incredibly distracting. A FlexJobs survey of 1,500 people found that many would avoid the office during normal business hours if they had important work to do. More than half (54%) said their home, not the office, was their location of choice to get important things done, and 18% said they’d choose the office, but only outside standard hours. Unless you want your employees doing all work that requires serious concentration at 5 a.m., 9 p.m., or on weekends (a recipe for burnout), core hours shouldn’t comprise the bulk of a 40-hour workweek.
Finally, recognize that the point of core hours is not to ensure that people are around and still doing their jobs. It’s to get the benefits of both collaboration and solo time. So "don’t set core hours to be arbitrary," Sutton Fell advises. "Rather, make sure that you’re setting meetings or focusing on projects that can benefit from being collaborated on during these times." Schedule the brainstorming sessions, the coaching and feedback sessions, and yes, lunch. People work better with those they trust and like, so setting core hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. gives your team a built-in chance to socialize and get to know each other better.
Indeed, if you’re designating non-core hours for buckle-down-and-focus time, you can actually embrace the sort of chitchat that gets a bad rep for being unproductive. "In the Monday morning meeting, I make it a point not to discuss work," says Burke. Instead, "All of us get a chance to talk about our weekends and families and movies and our lives in general."
It seems to be working. Burke adds, "I have never experienced the level of trust and harmony we have as a team."