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Opinion | True Work Flexibility Is About When, Not Just Where, You Work

Dr. Pang suggested that employers should think less about time spent working and more about quality. He has identified about 130 employers, including Kickstarter and the government of Iceland, that have adopted a four-day, reduced-hour week without cutting salaries or sacrificing productivity. “The most impressive, most professional person is not the one who needs 80 hours a week to finish the job,” he said. “It’s the person who can finish it in 30 hours.”

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What will work and life look like after the pandemic?

With time flexibility, workers could devote their most energetic hours — typically mornings for early risers and afternoons or evenings for night people — to their most intellectually demanding tasks. People could attend their children’s sporting events or prepare lunch for an infirm parent. Workers with a chronic illness could absent themselves for an hour or two to manage a mild flare-up without having to take a sick day.

Dawna Ballard, a professor at the University of Texas, Austin, who focuses on time and work, has a story she likes to tell to illustrate the importance of letting people work on their own schedules. Several years ago, her family got hooked on the delicious eggs with bright orange yolks laid by pasture-raised chickens from a local market. One week, there were no eggs because, she was told, the chickens were molting.

Chickens periodically drop their feathers and regrow them, a process so physiologically demanding that many stop laying until it’s over. Industrial farms accelerate molting through starvation, but here was evidence that seemed to suggest that when left to follow their natural cycle, chickens can produce superlative eggs.

Dr. Ballard immediately saw an analogy to people. Though often forced into rigid, standardized routines, we are biological beings whose productivity ebbs and flows not only over the course of a single day but also when weeks of intense labor create the need to recharge.

A few simple tweaks to work culture would make a big difference, Dr. Ballard and others say. Scrap all but the most essential meetings. Don’t expect remote workers to be always available or use invasive software to keep them on task. Focus on results and normalize later start times. To foster collaboration among workers who are on different schedules, companies could set limited core hours.

“The chickens, they had the pace that they’d like to go at. We all actually have that,” Dr. Ballard said. She added, “Every day, every minute can’t be the same.”

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