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Don’t schedule meetings after 4 pm

People are redefining the 9-to-5 and that’s a good thing.

An illustration on a peach-colored background of three women, all yawning in different contexts — one is on the phone, another is holding a cup, while the third is just waking up. Getty Images/iStockphoto
Rani Molla is a senior correspondent at Vox and has been focusing her reporting on the future of work. She has covered business and technology for more than a decade — often in charts — including at Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.

Hybrid work is the new millennials. It’s being blamed for destroying everything.

Most recently, hybrid work is apparently making it really hard to schedule meetings from 4 to 6 pm, since workers are ducking out slightly early to pick up their kids or get a workout in, according to the Wall Street Journal. Some workers make up for the time missed by logging on again in the evening. (Personally, I never got the memo that the 9-to-5 now ends at 6.) In other words, people are trying to find a compromise between their work lives and the rest of their lives.

Still, some managers are lamenting that these absences make it difficult for their teams to be productive because getting things done at work apparently requires everyone to be present at the same time, right before dinner. But perhaps 4 to 6 pm — the final hours of a long work day when many aren’t at their most clear-headed — was never a good time to schedule a meeting.

“People tend by that time of day to not be as productive as they were in the morning,” said Caitlin Duffy, a director in Gartner’s HR practice. Plus, there are better ways to encourage productivity, like scheduling meetings when people are alert and available.

“Even though there’s a sense that you might not be able to predict as well when people are going to be available or people might not be available at the same time, that doesn’t have to mean it’s harder to get things done,” Duffy said. “It just means that you’re not optimizing your approach to hybrid work for your team.”

Duffy recommends that teams be transparent about their availability so that managers can use that information to set norms around when people are expected to be available for meetings and other collaborative activities.

It’s also important for bosses to consider whether something actually needs to be a meeting in the first place, since meetings in general are often not the best way to accomplish tasks.

“I really hope that we aren’t defining productivity by the number of meetings that we’re in,” Christina Janzer, SVP of research and analytics at Slack, told Vox. “The first thing I’d challenge is that the number of meetings equals productivity.”

Her research has found that people are in too many meetings as it is, and that more than 40 percent of them could be deleted without any real consequences. Many meetings could be an email or a Slack conversation instead.

“Spending less time in meetings shouldn’t hurt productivity,” Janzer said.

One important thing to note in this discussion is that productivity in the amorphous world of white-collar work is incredibly difficult to measure. Many managers have struggled to find new ways to gauge productivity, since the shift to remote work during the pandemic meant they could no longer rely on the time-worn proxy of counting butts in seats. Often, they now look to inputs, like keystrokes or emails sent, rather than outputs, because those are easier to measure. Of course, those measurements can incentivize looking productive rather than being productive.

What we do know is that about half of employees — it’s higher for women and parents — say they’re more likely to put family, personal life, health, and well-being over work than they were before the pandemic, according to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index. And that’s maybe a good thing, both for individuals and for their work.

The 9-to-5 (or 9-to-6, apparently) never lined up for parents or other caregivers, who were forced to figure out what to do with their children after school, which typically ends earlier than the work day. This incongruity was a huge source of stress for working parents, one that remote and hybrid work has helped alleviate. By making the demands of their lives outside of work more manageable, remote and flexible work has actually been a boon for all employees. And the benefits can also be seen at work. In general, employees equate work flexibility with a whole number of positive outcomes, from higher productivity to less burnout and turnover.

By shoehorning employees into late-in-the-day meetings, managers are running the risk of lost productivity, not gained. And their companies can become unattractive places to work. Data from hybrid software firm Scoop Technologies recently showed that companies offering remote or hybrid work are growing headcount much more quickly than those with strict in-office requirements.

Making remote or hybrid work work for everyone is going to require some effort, but it’s better than reverting back to the way things used to be. That means managers need to get input from their employees to decide the best times for collaborative or focused work, and then set up norms for people to follow.

“It may be the mornings are really the magic time with their kids, getting everyone off to school, and it could be that the afternoon is good,” Boston Consulting Group managing director and senior partner Debbie Lovich said.

“The point is that managers should orchestrate conversations with their teams about when, where, and how work gets done,” she added. “That’s not a muscle managers had needed before.”

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