- Remote workers have increasingly divided work schedules, with 29% of team members not online when everyone else is.
- Overlapping schedules are an important part of teamwork, but hybrid and remote workers can easily drift apart.
- Leaders have to create specific team overlap times to nurture collaboration.
Before we worked from home en masse, collaboration was pretty straightforward. With everyone in the same office at the same time—day in and day out—there were ample opportunities to see colleagues and work together.
You could book a meeting room for a planned session. If something came up on the fly, or you couldn’t find space in a colleague’s calendar, you could swing by their desk.
It’s a convenience many of us took for granted. And while working from home brought many positives—greater productivity, better work-life balance—work schedules took a hit.
Working apart, working together
Working from home doesn’t just mean freedom from commuting. In many cases, it also means freedom from routine 9 to 5 hours. These flexible schedules have made it easier to balance work and personal tasks. But they’ve also resulted in mismatched routines within teams and less scheduling alignment with colleagues than before.
In a study published in the Harvard Business Review, researchers looked at the work behaviors and schedules of individuals spread across 22 teams at six Fortune 500 companies that went remote during the pandemic. They found that for remote workers, the digital day is truly endless—at any given time of day, at least one member of a team is working.
They also found that remote teams rarely work all at the same time. Although 90% of workers still maintain traditional 9 to 5 hours to some degree, schedules are often staggered and individualized.
Researchers found no times when everyone was online at the same time. Scheduling overlap hits a high of 71% between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. (meaning 71% of teammates are online at that time). There’s also afternoon peak with 60% overlap that occurs between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. But at best, an average of 29% of team members aren’t online when everyone else is.
How irregular schedules impact productivity
What’s the impact of this lack of scheduling alignment? It’s mixed, actually.
According to the study, team overlap had no impact at all on some 33% of business processes. These would include solo tasks that can be carried out alone and don’t rely on team collaboration or input: writing a blog post or presentation, creating purchase orders or updating financial data, etc.
Then there’s the work that does depend on collaboration. Whether it’s answering a question, providing input, or some deeper form of cooperation, there are many aspects of work that require teamwork.
Researchers found that 41% of business processes benefited from team schedule overlap. This suggests that to optimize teamwork for remote and hybrid teams, there’s a need for some degree of scheduling coordination.
Creating alignment for a hybrid world
The rise of long-term hybrid and remote work means the structured schedules of the office may be behind us. Companies like Google have already announced that hybrid work will be the new normal; across organizations only a minority of executives—21%—believes that coming into the office a full five days a week is a requirement for maintaining a strong culture.
This means that the vast majority will need to find ways to bring back some alignment to employee schedules. Here are some ways to do so (while maintaining flexibility at the same time).
Establish together time
Because we know some types of work flourish when teammates are online at the same time, it’s a good idea to plan for together time. Rather than leaving schedule overlap to chance, establish set times where the whole team is expected to be available—and encourage employees to schedule work that benefits from or requires collaboration during those periods.
Don’t micromanage schedules
Night owls, early risers—individuals are productive at different times of day. With a third of business processes unaffected by team overlap, it’s a good idea to respect those preferences and give employees some scheduling freedom to manage their solo tasks.
Block off time for solo work
Not all work benefits from team input—in fact, some tasks are easier to get done when there are no distractions. To give workers room to focus, it’s a good idea to not only encourage scheduled together time—but to also make sure people block off uninterrupted time for solo work too.
Respect time off
Working remotely gives often people the flexibility to work when it suits them best. But when some team members work irregular hours, it can create pressure on others to be responsive at those times too. It’s a recipe for burnout. But this risk can be reduced by setting clear expectations around responsiveness and respecting people’s off hours.
Hybrid and remote models mean work is becoming more flexible and fluid—and not only when it comes to location. New workplace models are freeing workers to do their best work from anywhere and at any time. It’s time to consider how to create team schedules that support not only flexibility—but great collaboration too.
Originally published Sep 16, 2021, updated Jan 18, 2023