Do you reward your employees who open the office at 7 a.m., and punish the ones who stroll in at 10? Before you hand down any discipline, you should compare the productivity levels of your early birds and night owls.

If you want a more productive office, take a look at the individual biological clocks of your staff. "Larks" have more energy in the morning, while "owls" are more energized during the evening. Managers should tailor employees' work hours accordingly, writes Christopher Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business, in Harvard Business Review.

"Humans have a well-defined internal clock that shapes our energy levels throughout the day," writes Barnes, who studied fatigue at the Air Force Research Laboratory.

As an ambitious, energized leader, you push your employees to be super-productive around the clock. But the fact of the matter is that sentiment is a losing battle. The desire to be productive at all times, Barnes says, is in direct conflict with human biology.

The ebb and flow of energy is different for each employee, he adds, but on average employees will hit their peak levels of alertness a few hours after they get into the office through the the period just after lunch. By 3 p.m., the average person usually suffers a lull in energy. After the decline, employees typically will be on their way back up and then peak again at 6 p.m. For the rest of the night, energy levels decline until the lowest point at 3:30 a.m.

But how is this useful? For one thing, you should know about how circadian rhythms could impact your employees' productivity if leveraged correctly.

"Managers who want to maximize their employees' performance should consider this circadian rhythm when setting assignments, deadlines, and expectations," Barnes says. "This requires taking a realistic view of human energy regulation, and appreciating the fact that the same employee will be more effective at some times of the day than others."

As a rule of thumb, Barnes says the most important tasks should be taken care of during peak alertness and energy levels--within an hour or two of noon and 6 p.m. Save the least important tasks for very early in the morning, around the 3 p.m. dip, and late at night.

"Unfortunately, we often get this wrong," he says. How many of your employees are writing and responding to emails through lunch? This means they miss the first peak and have to do some of the most important, cognition-heavy work during the 3 p.m. lull.

The challenge now is to match individual employees' circadian rhythms with their work schedule and assignments. "A lark working a late schedule or an owl working an early schedule is a chronotype mismatch that is difficult to deal with. Such employees suffer low alertness and energy, struggling to stay awake even if they really care about the task," the author writes.

Barnes says that working through lulls can have more grave effects than low productivity. He says "circadian mismatches" can increase the risk of "unethical behavior, simply because victims lack the energy to resist temptations."

Published on: Jan 29, 2015