The Next Shoe to Drop: The Death of Normal Business Hours

A lot has been written over the past two months about the new work from home paradigm. The realization that much of the work we do can be done from anywhere has major ramifications for both office space demand and corporate culture.  This may only be the tip of the iceberg, however. Now that we have acknowledged that work can be done from anywhere, the next logical leap will be the recognition that work can also be done at any time.  The terms “normal business hours” or “five-day work week” will become anachronisms.

In the days before electricity, the workday was primarily driven by daylight hours.  As soon as natural light faded in the evening hours, we lost the ability to be productive. Thanks to Thomas Edison, in the late 19th century, artificial light enabled employers to extend the workday and, in certain cases, this led to the exploitation of workers.  In the United States, the 9 to 5 workday and the five-day work week (or what we now accept as “normal business hours”) was a concession gained by the unions fighting against sweatshops in the late 1920s.  While the 40-hour work week has certainly expanded for many professions over the years and many people work 60 hours or more per week and more than five days, if you take public transportation or commute during “rush hour”, it’s clear that a large portion of the work population still functions materially within the 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday work paradigm.  That is going to change.

If employers are now accepting that you don’t need to be in the office to get your work done, why should they care what days or time of day the work is performed?  Certainly, if a job requires interfacing with clients or colleagues or supporting certain constituents, the individual will need to conform his or her schedule accordingly. The same will apply to individuals whose job is tied to a particular service that has set operating hours such as stock traders on a public exchange or people in the hospitality or entertainment industries.  However, many jobs and tasks can be performed independent of other people or services.  For them, why do they need to be in the office at 9 a.m. and gone by 6 p.m. when the building’s HVAC system shuts off?  If they can complete their assigned work in three days by putting in 13 hours per day, why insist that they work more, shorter days?

For years, companies have operated their factories and call centers with multiple shifts to get more than eight or 10 hours of production from their real estate.  Office space will soon follow suit.  This transition may be imposed on many workers in the coming months as we start to gradually re-enter the workplace prior to a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19.  One way to de-densify the workplace will be to extend the workday into multiple shifts separated by vigorous cleaning in between.  It’s not a reach to see businesses breaking the day up into a 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift and then a 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. shift.  This arrangement would have the added benefit of enabling two income families to share childcare duties during the day so each spouse could get some meaningful time in the office. 

As we start to contemplate a more flexible work schedule, the concept of a normal work week will change.  It won’t matter where you work, what days you work or what hours you work.  From an employer’s perspective, the ultimate questions will be “Were you productive and did we get our money’s worth?”  If the answers are “yes”, employees will be given more freedom to set their own schedules.

What does this mean for the future of commercial real estate? 

  1. Companies may need less space if multiple people are using the same desk or work area.  It’s really an extrapolation of hoteling.  With hoteling, a company provides fewer seats in the office than they have employees with the understanding that, on any given day, not everyone will be in the office.  With the expanded workday and multiple work shifts, however, it’s possible that multiple people will be using the same seat on any given day.
  2. Office buildings will need to expand their basic services.  Most office buildings agree to provide basic services including HVAC during “normal business hours”.  Normal business hours are typically defined as 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays (or something similar).  If you want “after hours” HVAC, it costs more. The same applies for cleaning and other services.  That has proved to be sufficient for most businesses until now.  That is going to change as 9 p.m. will become the new 5 p.m. for some workers and the presumption that people don’t work on weekends may change.
  3. Under-parked suburban office buildings will get relief and so will commuters. Many office parks developed prior to 2000 were planned for parking ratios of 3 or 4 spots per 1,000sf of office space.  While this made sense based on the generous workplace densities of that time, today, densities are much greater and, as a result, many suburban office parks can’t compete for tenants.  If we spread out the workday and reduce the number of days that everyone is coming into the office (plus take account of telecommuting), we will lesson the demand on parking throughout the day thereby enabling older parks to compete for tenants.  In addition, the driving commute should ease as the traditional “rush hour” will be spread more widely throughout the day. This may help office parks in secondary and tertiary markets as the commute times will decrease.
  4. Companies will need to work harder to create and maintain their corporate culture.  Just as remote working will make it harder to establish a cohesive work environment and corporate culture, if the workday is expanded so employees are not overlapping in the office as much, it will put added pressure on companies to find ways to bind everyone together. The construct of a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday in the office created shared routines and rhythms that defined what it meant to be an employee of Company X.  As we start to untether ourselves from the office and move away from standardized work hours, we will lose a lot of the commonality that bound us together as coworkers and defined our corporate culture.       

Conclusion

The way we define the work experience is changing at lightning speed.  Over the past few months, we have expanded the definition of the acceptable workplace.  We are no longer constrained by physical walls or buildings as we recognize that work can be done from anywhere.  The next logical phase in this evolution is casting aside the arcane construct of normal business hours or workweeks.  If we can work from anywhere, we can certainly work at any time.

This article was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on June 17, 2020.

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