Skip to main content Skip to footer

The office taboo: working in shifts

A quick breakfast, dropping the kids at school, sitting in a traffic jam, and then fighting for a good desk. The all-too-recognizable daily routine for many people in office jobs. But why do we still mainly work nine to five when we now live in a 24-hour economy? Why do office environments look the same every day, while the activities in them vary on a daily basis? And why do we all work on the busiest days of the week? It is high time to start thinking differently about office work. Something quite normal in healthcare and industry seems to remain an absolute taboo for office staff: working in shifts.

Peak pressure everywhere

Because of the way we have organized working life, we are all making use of the same scarce facilities at the same time, in particular, transportation options and workstations. Despite new mobility solutions, congestion on the roads is expected to increase even further in the coming years. Between now and 2023, the amount of time lost to traffic delays will increase by a third. During the same period, the number of rail passengers is set to rise by about 14 percent.

At the office, the concentration of activity between nine and five, Monday through Friday, is actually increasing. The typical Dutch office sees its peak staffing on Tuesdays and Thursdays and its lowest occupancy on Wednesdays and Fridays. These fluctuations are due in part to the fact that the Dutch are world champions in part-time work. According to the Statistics Bureau Netherlands, almost half of the working population is in part-time employment. That is far more than the European average of 19.9 percent. And we have no desire to up our workload. Only 3.3 percent of part-time workers say they want to increase their hours, compared to 21.4 percent in the rest of Europe.

So we work less, but for the most part, we do all that work on the same days. On the one hand, we like our long weekends (hence all those Fridays off), while on the other we are constrained by school timetables (ditto Wednesdays).

Breaking the taboo

The only real solution to eliminate these activity peaks and troughs is to spread the hours and days on which we work. Laying down which days part-time employees come in to ensure even staffing levels throughout the working week remains anathema within most office organizations. That has to change. But while simply imposing a roster does solve the problem of peaks and troughs at a stroke, it obviously does nothing to ease congestion on the roads or to empty packed trains.

To achieve that, we have to go a step further in dynamic rostering. By not only agreeing who is free when over the course of the week, but actually introducing shiftwork into the office. Something that is already totally normal in healthcare and industry. By negotiation, employees would thus choose to  work, say, a 7 am to 3 pm block or a 12 noon to 8 pm block. In the early afternoon there would be an overlap for team consultation and joint meetings.

Economically speaking, this solution effectively doubles office capacity. With a huge impact on an organization’s space requirements, and hence its ecological footprint. For employees, fighting for a desk becomes a thing of the past. Even more importantly though, this system helps society by relieving road congestion and improving work-life balance. By choosing whether you take time out in the morning or the afternoon for yourself, your children, or other tasks, you suffer less stress at the wheel and have a more restful working day.

Trying out dynamic rostering can break us out of our daily slog and so provides a structural solution to structural problems. It would even be enough to work in shifts just two days a week: Tuesdays and Thursdays, the busiest times on the roads and in the office. The result: a faster commute and less stress at work.