A time and a place for work

For an Inclusive Culture, Try Working Less is currently doing the rounds. It makes the argument that having a rigid 8:30-5:00 working day creates a more diverse environment by including people who a so called “more flexible” set of working hours would not.

I think he’s probably right. Certainly I’ve seen a lot of implicit judgement towards people who had leave early to e.g. pick up the kids from school (or just because they wanted to have an evening to themselves), even when they arrived at work early (which was of course invisible to the people who rocked in at 11).

But at the same time I will never work at a company which enforces those hours. It’s simply not going to happen, even though I fully support the right of other people to work those hours if that’s what works best for them.

I have a low grade sleeping disorder. Many people have far worse experiences than me, but mine are still bad enough that I’m going to take a hard line that if you’re going to make my sleeping experience worse then I’m not going to work for you. Forcing me to conform to your schedule in the mornings definitely counts as making my sleeping experience worse.

What’s interesting here is that I don’t think I’m unusual in this.

I’ve been noticing for a while that tech seems to have a disproportionately high number of people with sleeping disorders in it – I definitely know people with sleep apnea at a higher rate than the background rate would suggest likely, and it often seems like most of the people I know in tech have some sort of problem with sleep.

Some of this is probably caused by tech – high caffeine consumption, sitting all day, lots of blue light, and a cultural encouragement for obsession are all things that can cause sleep problems. But enough of it (including mine) has a physical root cause that it’s definitely not all caused by tech.

My working theory is simply that flexible hours mean that a job works a lot better for people with sleeping disorders, so people with sleeping disorders will tend to gravitate towards jobs with flexible hours. For better or for worse, that currently includes tech.

I don’t have data to prove that sleep disorders are atypically common in tech. It sure looks like they are, but that could just be selection bias at work.

But regardless of whether it’s more common than usual, it’s certainly common enough that I and a lot of people I know are in this situation, and any work environment which demands we turn up to work at 8:30 is going to be throwing us under a bus.

It’s not just people with sleeping disorders either, there’s a broader ableism issue. Have you ever tried taking a wheelchair on public transport in rush hour? I haven’t, but I’ve helped take someone on the London underground not at rush hour and even that wasn’t much fun. Demanding people all arrive at the same time is a great way to seriously disadvantage people who need a wheelchair (I imagine it’s not great for people with any other sort of mobility issue either).

Sure, you could make exceptions for all of us who have sufficiently convincing reasons. That would be better, but it means we now need to be singled out as special cases, which inevitably makes other people annoyed about our special treatment – I have seen a huge amount of ill will towards developers from coworkers whose jobs require them to be in the office during a particular time range, and I can only imagine it would be worse from people you work more closely with.

And what about those for whom it doesn’t really stretch as far as a disorder or a disability, but is merely a really strong preference? e.g. even if I didn’t have sleep problems (here’s hoping for that future) I really hate crowds and as a result I would very strongly prefer not to travel during rush hour even if I’m awake. I’m not saying I can’t take a rush hour tube, but I’m still going to preferentially select for companies that give me the ability to come in an hour later, and I’m going to really unhappy if I don’t have that option.

People like me in this regard are sufficiently common in tech now that it’s really unlikely that you’ll ever get a situation where an early start is the norm – we’ll just avoid those companies in preference for ones that don’t require us to do something really unpleasant and harmful to our mental and physical well-being, and the result will be a tech industry divided into two distinct groups of companies with a relatively small intersection moving between them. That’s not a great situation.

Fundamentally the problem is that there is no one-size fits all solution. No single set of office hours is going to work for everyone, so what we need is a diversity of options where people can work whichever hours they want or need.

But that’s what we have now and it doesn’t actually work.  Everything I’ve seen suggests that flexible working hours doesn’t really mean flexible, you just converge on a new cultural norm of working later – people tend to gradually conform to a later (and longer) schedule, because when you leave work too early you feel subtly or not-so-subtly judged by your coworkers (whether or not you are being judged, but you usually are), which creates a strong pressure to conform or leave.

Even if the original article about the diversity implications is wrong (I do not think it is, but would like to see data before I believe it wholeheartedly) and this isn’t excluding women, it still means we’re creating an environment that is just as bad for early birds as an 8:30 start would be for night owls and others with sleep problems.

So what’s the solution?

Well, I think it’s probably remote work. By separating out the need to physically be there, and allowing a lot of work to be asynchronous, you remove a lot of the implied social pressure to conform to a particular set of hours.

And as a bonus, by opening yourself up to remote work you potentially open up a whole bunch of other opportunities for diversity – even without rush hour, commuting in a wheel chair is hard, and for other disabilities (e.g. people who are immunocompromised) it might not be safe for them to come into the office at all, but they might still be perfectly able to work.

A lot of diversity problems (I’d guess most diversity problems that don’t stem from up front flat out bigotry? I don’t know) come from trying to pretend we can fit everyone into a single mould, and thus silently excluding all the people who can’t fit into that mould. Rigid working hours don’t fix that, they just choose a different shaped mould. I’d rather break that mould altogether instead.

Of course, remote work is itself another mould to try to fit everyone into. It doesn’t work for everyone (though some people who think it doesn’t work for them can learn to love it – I did), but you can fix that to a large extent by e.g. renting them desks in a co-working space or having an office people can come into if they want. You can also probably get a lot of the benefits by allowing partial remote work – e.g. I personally would be mostly happy if I could do a couple of hours of work in the morning and then come in. Other peoples’ needs will differ, and that definitely won’t be enough for everyone, but even small accommodations help to include more people.

So it’s not perfect, and it certainly won’t fix everything, but nothing is and nothing will. I still suspect that starting from the principle that presence isn’t required and then fixing the problems that causes is going to be a much easier path to diversity than trying to force everyone to be in the same place at the same time and then trying to fix all the problems that causes.

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2 thoughts on “A time and a place for work

  1. Tim

    I work in a tech office with 10-4 core hours. It seems just as many people leave at 4 as arrive at 10, it certainly doesn’t feel like there’s any sort of expectation to work longer or any bias against the early crowd. (I appreciate that this is just one data point)

    1. david Post author

      It probably varies a lot from company to company, yeah, but I’ve definitely seen problems at both a variety of small companies and “a certain large company I worked for”.

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