Are “Core Hours” the Future of the Workday—and Key to Reopening?

Scheduling onboarding tasks

by Rachel Lake

According to The Wall Street Journal, an estimated 50% of employees in the U.S. work remotely because of COVID-19. As social distancing orders are gradually lifted, businesses must decide how they can protect workers while maintaining operations.

Many companies seem to be adapting a combination of remote and on-site work, structured around a schedule of “core hours,” which can be department- or office-wide. A few notable organizations even offer flexible scheduling to empower employees to manage their time independently.

Here’s what you should know about creating an attendance policy that fosters growth and keeps workers safe after the lockdown.

Should Companies Keep Remote Work Policies in Place?

Corporations seem divided on the issue of remote work. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says at least half of all employees will switch to remote work permanently after the COVID-19 shut down, although he admits the transition will probably occur gradually. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, waged war against government officials to reopen factories during the stay-at-home order.

We’ve also seen some surprising developments in the past few years when it comes to remote work. In 2017, for example, International Business Machines Corp. (IBM)—a loud proponent of remote labor—reversed their decades-old policy and mandated in-person office hours. At the time, IBM leaders said they expected the change to improve productivity and collaboration, according to a statement in The Wall Street Journal, but IBM lost thousands of employees as a result.

Remote and on-site work both have potential downsides that complicate the issue, making it impossible to apply broad recommendations across businesses and industries.

For example, when employees access company data off-site, it raises concerns about cybersecurity and user privacy. Businesses might also face challenges when it comes to security compliance and data breaches. Supervisors complain it’s difficult to monitor remote employees, enforce policies, and create team cohesion.

To relieve the pressure points caused by remote working, companies can issue core hours.

What Are “Core Hours?”

Standup meeting hosted during a department's core hoursDuring core hours, employees must be available. These periods can vary by department or be office-wide, depending on your business’s needs.

For example, a product development department might host stand-up meetings on Thursdays, during which time the team reports to the office in person. As a result, the department’s core hours would reoccur every Thursday, and, outside this prearranged schedule, staff can work remotely.

This type of department-specific on-site scheduling can help employers reopen offices and manage the associated risks of infection. By reducing the number of employees in an office at any given time, person-to-person interactions will be limited. If you need your team to report on-site, introducing core hours for small groups of people is the safest way to launch a “soft” opening.

As an alternative to department-specific scheduling, employers can also implement office-wide core hours, which means employees from every department report on-site at the same time. This policy can help facilitate inter-department communication and collaboration, but it still helps protect workers by limiting their exposure to only a few hours a week.

What Is “Flexible Scheduling?”

Some businesses adopt a more liberal policy of flexible scheduling, which allows staff to decide how to structure their time. With this philosophy, employees have more autonomy, though most businesses impose some limitations. Microsoft, for example, lets employees start their shift between 9-11AM.

Since most companies want their employees to communicate and work together, it makes sense to establish core hours if flexible scheduling is permitted. This ensures that even team members with different schedules still have opportunities to interact in real-time.

Flexible scheduling might seem novel, but it’s an effective recruitment tool, especially for Millennial workers. About 80% of employees said they would be more likely to stay with an employer who offers flexible work options, according to a 2019 study the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reported on.

How Can Businesses Adapt Attendance Policies to the “New Normal?”

1. Optimize how your team spends “core hours.”

Try to only schedule activities that specifically require collaboration during predefined “core hours.” If employees do work independently during core hours, the decision to enforce these restrictions may seem arbitrary.

If employees have to travel or put themselves at risk with face-to-face interaction, this can breed resentment. Mandatory time on-location can also feel diminutive if employees think they’re not trusted to be productive at home. Core hours are meant to facilitate teamwork—so try not to stand over anyone’s shoulder.

2. Define success metrics.

There’s no doubt COVID-19 will change how businesses operate, and employers are using the disruption to test different strategies.

Organize a task force to investigate your business’s options for remote work and monitor a few key performance metrics:

  • The associated cost of remote work (including equipment and software purchases).
  • Savings that can be attributed to a fully or partially remote workforce.
  • Overall productivity.
  • Participation in elective flexible scheduling and/or remote work programs.
  • Employee attendance.
  • Self-reported employee satisfaction.

It’s also important to assess the cultural shifts that might occur with fewer in-person interactions. According to an employee survey in March and April, more than 50% of respondents said they felt “less connected to their organizations as remote workers,” (The Wall Street Journal).

Company culture affects employee morale, retention, productivity, and recruitment—it could have far-reaching implications for your business overall.

3. Decide if flexible scheduling is right for your business.

Depending on the degree of interdependence between workers, flexible work scheduling could motivate workers—or create unnecessary delays. As you revise your company’s attendance policies, consider the following:

  • How many hours you expect employees to work? Does this vary by position or demand?
  • Will you count employees’ hours, or will managers evaluate staff using performance milestones?
  • Can employees shorten their workweek by working longer shifts?
  • Can employees work on weekends?
  • How should employees track and report their hours? If they use a timesheet, will employees have editing privileges?
  • Will you have sufficient personnel coverage if you offer flexible scheduling?
  • Will this schedule be consistent or change routinely?
  • Do employees need to coordinate their schedules with a manager in advance? How should they communicate changes?

4. Discuss remote work policies with your legal team.

If an employee is injured while working remotely, will your worker’s compensation policy cover them? Work with your benefits coordinator and legal team to determine your business’s liability if an injury should occur.

You can also consider if there are additional ways to ensure employee safety in an environment you can’t control—for example, by offering desks and equipment to employees who work from home.

An employee works remotely during core hours5. Establish internal communication guidelines.

Set clear expectations for responding to emails, instant messages, and phone calls in a timely manner.

It’s a good idea to announce all your policies in writing and define which communication channels should be used to address time-sensitive or urgent inquiries. Even when employees use a flexible schedule, the business must be able to resolve problems quickly.

6. Streamline decision-making.

Decentralize decision-making to avoid productivity bottlenecks. Zapier, a web app integration company, uses a DACI decision-making framework:

Every project has a designated driver, approver, consultant, and informed party. According to Mike Walsh, author of The Algorithmic Leader: How to Be Smart When Machines Are Smarter Than You, this system allows for greater documentation transparency and redistributes decision-making power among workers.

Ultimately, he argues, it makes the business more agile, encourages diversity of thought, and reinforces individual autonomy and accountability.

7. Set consistent standards.

Apply the same policies across a position, department, or company-wide instead of evaluating scheduling requests according to an employee’s performance or motivation. This will help you avoid biased decision-making and simplifies implementation.

Putting It All Together: Core Hours and an Extended Telecommuting Policy

The reopening will likely be a long and sometimes painful process for workers across the country. To minimize disease spread and protect your business, leaders must create new strategies that reinforce social distancing.

By adopting a schedule focused around core hours and de-centralizing on-site office work, executives can significantly improve the lives of their employees. Whether you decide to adopt new work schedules or transition to a more digitized workforce, these policy changes give workers greater agency when it comes to their health.


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