What Is Chronoworking and Could It Be the End of the Traditional 9 to 5?

Fed up with the rush hour commute? Want to work on your own time? Chronoworking could be the key.

Getting into the office three hours early so that you can leave halfway through the afternoon? You just might be a chronoworker.

“Chronoworking” refers to the practice of letting employees set their own hours in order to ensure they do their best work. The alternative, a one-size-fits-all nine-to-five, was the best that American labor unions could get in the 1800s, but in 2024, it may well be out of date.

Sure, the term “Chronoworking” itself might be another example of a workplace buzzword, like coffee badging, resenteeism, or the ever-popular quiet quitting. But there’s no denying that it highlights a growing interest among the general workforce: No matter whether it’s remote and hybrid work, four-day work weeks, or chronoworking, today’s overstressed employees are increasingly focused on finding a workflow that’s unique to their needs.

Okay, So What Is Chronoworking?

British journalist Ellen Scott coined the term “chronoworking” in an issue of her Working on Purpose newsletter. Here’s how she explains it:

“In 2023, there was the beginning of the dismantling of our Monday to Friday working culture. In 2024, I think the 9-5 will be in the firing line. We’ll be looking more deeply into how our body clocks and natural dips and rises in energy should define our working day, a trend that I’m calling chronoworking. “

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Some people are simply natural early risers, the theory goes, while others need to sleep in past nine in order to stay healthy and well-regulated. Those who start work at six in the morning can be done by three in the afternoon, giving them time at the end of the day to relax or tackle household errands. They’ll still get the same work done as those who start late and work into the evening, but everyone has a schedule that works for their body.

It’s a science-backed concept: Circadian rhythms drive alertness within humans, and those rhythms don’t flick on for everyone at exactly nine a.m.

Studies already support the idea of outgrowing the standard work week: Four-day work weeks have been found to keep employees happier without lowering productivity. It makes sense that an even more customized work schedule could do the same.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this isn’t an entirely new idea: Most cultures around the world have a more relaxed approach towards timekeeping when compared to the US. Plus, concepts like the four-day work week have been gaining popularity for years.

Chronoworking Subverts Traditional Workplace Order

The nine-to-five, eight-hour workplace standard has long been accepted as the cost of existing as an office worker. It’s seen as a necessary evil, like taxes and homeowner’s insurance. We’ve even immortalized the concept in popular culture with references to the typical work week in everything from the hit 1980 Dolly Parton song to Garfield’s hatred of Mondays.

But the urge to standardize everyone’s activity is driven by a mechanical approach. In today’s world, the human approach is more popular, and it starts with assuming that everyone is different, with different needs. Adapting to individuals will create the best performances, which ultimately help the business just as much as the individuals who work there.

The cracks in traditional workplace policies have already started showing in other ways: Remote work has arguably paved the way for chronoworking to flourish.

How the Chronoworking Push Emerged From Remote Work Policies

Much like the nine-to-five, many of us have long accepted the unpaid commute to a physical office at the start and end of every work day as an acceptable cost of working. But that changed suddenly in March 2020, when the Covid pandemic forced all but the most essential in-person workers back to their homes to work remotely.

When the world economy didn’t (exactly) collapse, it became clear that remote work was a net benefit to today’s highly online and globalized workforce. Asynchronous work arrived, too. Remote work can certainly fit a nine-to-five, but it has fewer built-in guardrails forcing workers into the standard hours. Many remote workers instead follow an asynchronous schedule.

Remote and hybrid work flexibility has been shown to boost productivity, increase workers’ life spans, lower our collective carbon footprint, and increase business profitability. Check out our guide on How to Ask to Work From Home Remotely for more on how you can get in on it.

44.9% of Companies Are Adding Staggered or Flexible Work Schedules

The direct impact of Covid on the workforce can’t be understated. The biggest two changes were a reduction in non-essential travel and a sharp increase in remote work options. However, as a recent New World of Work survey concluded, the third most common change that businesses reported making to their operations specifically because of Covid was to introduce staggered work hours.

A full 44.9% of companies surveyed said that they will implement staggered or flexible work schedules due to Covid. With more remote workers, staggered work hours simply make sense as a way to keep a business operating at an optimal capacity.

A graph indicating 44 percent of businesses are adapting staggered work hours.

Image source: New World of Work survey

The asynchronous chronoworking routine also makes sense for businesses that operate across international timezones. Many of my own coworkers work in London, while I’m on the west coast of the US: Their “five” is my “nine.” This type of business model is the center of the Venn diagram that merges chronoworking and remote work.

Gen Z Might Embrace a Chronoworking Future

One more reason why chronoworking could be the wave of the future? The generation currently entering the workforce might love it. Gen Z – the term for those born between the mid-90s and the late aughts – are set to account for 27% of the workforce by 2025.

We already know that Gen Zers self-report benefiting from remote work options far more than the previous generation. One study we covered last year has the numbers:

“Research from the National Broadband Ireland study showed that over 55% of 18-24 year-olds polled felt remote and hybrid work had a positive impact on their career, as opposed to only 23% of 45-54 year-olds.”

Plus, Gen Z are natural asynchronous communicators. They love texting and messaging, but hate actual phone calls. But the strongest evidence that Gen Z will embrace chronoworking comes from one 2022 survey that found 53% of Gen Z employees say they “don’t have a clear start or finish time to their working day,” up from just 37% of the general workforce that said the same.

If any generation is going to overturn the staid, traditional way of conducting an office, it’ll be the youngest one. Businesses that want to reel in the next generation will likely offer perks like flex hours or remote options.

The Limits of Chronoworking: It’s Not for Everyone

Chronoworking will never take off across every industry. Plenty of jobs need to be accomplished on a set schedule, from garbage pickups to customer support teams. Graveyard shifts will stay the same, and every bakery will still need workers to clock in at 3 a.m. in order to get fresh crullers for the day.

Chronoworking will come with some challenges as well. Just as with any form of asynchronous collaboration, managers will need to set clear expectations and work with employees in order to ensure everyone stays on the same page especially because they aren’t working the same hours.

In the end, chronoworking’s current value to businesses lies in treating it as a perk to lure in the best and brightest workers. But as long as workers keep voicing their interest in greater work-hour flexibility, the corporate world will keep grudgingly improving. We have nothing to lose but our rush hours.

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Written by:
Adam is a writer at Tech.co and has worked as a tech writer, blogger and copy editor for more than a decade. He was a Forbes Contributor on the publishing industry, for which he was named a Digital Book World 2018 award finalist. His work has appeared in publications including Popular Mechanics and IDG Connect, and his art history book on 1970s sci-fi, 'Worlds Beyond Time,' is out from Abrams Books in July 2023. In the meantime, he's hunting down the latest news on VPNs, POS systems, and the future of tech.
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