Googlers may be back at the office this week and Goldman Sachs may be checking card swipes to ensure employees are obeying the new back-to-office rules, but try as they might, leaders are struggling to squeeze employees back into the confines of the traditional pre-pandemic workday.
Evidence of this fact is all around. From the continuing Great Resignation (chatter on the topic may be decreasing but quit rates so far aren't) and the musings of academics to more qualitative reports of employees rebelling when asked to return to the old in-person nine-to-five. A new Microsoft study adds to this pile of evidence that the workday isn't ever going back to quite what it was before the pandemic.
The "triple peak day" is here to stay.
Microsoft, as the maker of tools many of us use to get work done, has access to a treasure trove of data on how and when exactly people are logging in to these tools. For their latest study, the company examined when people were doing things like sending emails and meeting on Teams and noticed that a pattern they first observed earlier in the pandemic doesn't seem to be going away. The researchers have dubbed it the "triple peak day.'
"Traditionally, knowledge workers had two productivity peaks in their workday: before lunch and after lunch. But when the pandemic sent so many people into work-from-home mode, a third peak emerged for some in the hours before bedtime. Microsoft researchers have begun referring to this phenomenon as a 'triple peak day,' " Microsoft explains.
Not everyone is sneaking in a few emails or an hour of focused work at 9 or 10 p.m., but a substantial portion of workers are. The data shows about 30 percent of those studied were taking advantage of the hours before bed to get a bit more work done.
Is this a good or bad thing?
For a lot of you reading this, these findings probably aren't a huge surprise. Anyone with children or interruption-prone colleagues can appreciate the appeal of using the quiet lull before bed to actually focus uninterrupted. So does that mean this trend just amounts to workers taking advantage of flexible schedules to work when and how suits them best?
That's probably part of the explanation, according to the researchers, but alas, it's not all that's going on here. Separate data paints a less-than-flattering picture of post-pandemic work, showing that the blurring of work and life that happens when employees work remotely has also led to an absolute explosion in meetings and an overall lengthening of the workday by an hour or two (depending on the research you're citing). People aren't just working differently. On average they're working more, and often less efficiently.
Sometimes the triple peak day isn't a sign of optimized productivity but a symptom of eroding boundaries and suboptimal work practices.
So what should you do about it?
Both the Microsoft researchers and productivity and leadership experts have suggestions on how leaders should respond. The first is to deal with post-pandemic meeting creep, and for that, extreme steps may be necessary. Another recent study found productivity shot up 73 percent when companies banned meetings three days a week. That might be too many days for your office, but nearly every business would benefit from setting aside at least a day or two a week for meeting-free concentration.
A complementary but perhaps harder measure is to cut down the absolute number of meetings rather than just to corral them into set days. This can be difficult, as it often involves finding polite ways to tell people they've been wasting everyone's time. But a group rethink about when gathering is truly necessary is better than leaving meeting after meeting muttering, "That could have been an email" until retirement.
Also, bosses should simply talk to their employees about the potential pitfalls of the triple peak day. "A key to mitigating the 'always on' mentality is to have managers work with teams on explicit norms. It's also essential to check in with people who may feel like they need to work round the clock to keep up. Different workers have different needs and challenges, many of which go unseen. Empathy and communication are essential," Microsoft sensibly points out.
Finally, the researchers suggest that if you personally like to burn the midnight oil, consider setting your emails to actually send within work hours. This reduces the pressure on others to reply at all hours when action isn't actually urgent.
The triple peak day highlights the promise of remote work -- the flexibility to work whenever suits your schedule and energy levels. But that promise can only be realized if late night productivity is truly a choice. It's up to leaders to ensure the 9-10 p.m. return to the keyboard is really working for their team.