Opinion: Remote working has changed both where and when we work, with hybrid workdays putting an end to uniform starting and ending times

One of the longest and bitterest fights in the history of labour management relations was the fight for the 8 hour working day. Throughout the 19th century, enlisting luminaries ranging from Robert Owen, who coined the slogan "eight hours' labour, eight hours' recreation, eight hours' rest" in 1817 to Karl Marx, workers around the works struggled to achieve an 8 hour work day.

Since the early 1900s, a 40-hour working week, with uniform starting and ending times has been the norm throughout much of the world. Going to work has provided a predictable and stable structure for most adult lives, with eight consecutive hours devoted to work each Monday through Friday.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's History Show, Donal Fallon on the roots of the 8 hour working day

The Covid pandemic disrupted much of the familiar structure and rhythm of work, leading first to the widespread adoption of remote work and currently to growing resistance to returning to the office now that the pandemic has (hopefully) abated. The widespread availability of remote work has affected where work is done. It is increasingly common for remote workers to take advantage of the opportunity to work wherever it is most convenient rather than to cluster near the main office. Many countries are hoping to attract digital nomads by offering them special visas and other forms of support.

But remote work offers more than the possibility of working wherever you wish: it also offers the possibility of changing when you work. A recent BBC Worklife story highlights the growth of non-linear workdays, where the 8 hour workday might be broken up into chunks, perhaps devoting a couple of hours to work projects, then taking an hour for exercise or relaxation, then going back to work, then switching to house cleaning or childcare, then work again etc.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's This Week, employment solictor Linda Hynes on hybrid working

This non-linear work schedule might mean that different workers are working at different places and at different times and that the times people work might change at frequent intervals. Such a nonlinear work schedule creates unique challenges and opportunities for organisations.

The opportunities presented by a nonlinear schedule are obvious. Surveys of employees consistently show that they want flexibility and autonomy and nonlinear work schedules certainly provide that. Remote employees no longer need to struggle with their daily commute, workplace bullying and harassment, endless meetings and even cleaning bills for their work wardrobe. Workers who adopt a nonlinear workday free themselves from a rigid 9 to 5 schedule for their work.

Remember Owen's call for "eight hours' labour" was not a call for eight consecutive hours. Workers who have the freedom to put their eight hours in on a schedule that works for them rather than a fixed schedule may find work more rewarding and less frustrating. There is clear evidence that remote workers are just as productive (and often more productive) as workers in an office setting - and it is likely that people are just as productive working on a nonlinear schedule as they are when forced into a rigid 9 to 5 schedule.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Reignite, Dr. Orla Kelly from UCD and Dee Coakley from Boundless discuss new research which suggests the five-day working week is no longer necessary

The challenges of a nonlinear work schedule mirror, and sometimes add to those that are presented by remote work. It has been argued that workers benefit from face-to-face interactions in an office environment and that bringing workers together in a common setting enhances creativity and cooperation, but there is remarkably little evidence that this is true.

Different work schedules might present unique challenges for work teams, especially teams with high levels of interdependence. If your work depends fundamentally on input from other team members, not knowing when other team members will be working or when they will complete their tasks could create genuine bottlenecks.

Discussions of the implications of remote work for work teams often compare two extremes: a traditional office where everyone is together from 9 to 5 and a scenario where there is no coordination among remote team members. This contrast is a straw man; there is no reason why team members cannot coordinate their schedules to be in contact when they need to be in contact and to work separately when that is more suitable.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, has working from home killed off the office slacker?

Yes, nonlinear schedules do create new challenges for organisations, and make managing and coordinating work more difficult. But this is not a good reason to go back to the inflexibility and rigidity of the traditional 9 to 5 schedule. There are times when it might be useful for workers to meet face to face or to coordinate their work schedules, but there are rarely compelling arguments for going back to the office or for going back to a rigid 9 to 5 schedule.

Remote work is not a panacea, but a solid majority of workers do not want to go back to the office. Once workers get the opportunity to make their own decisions about how to get their eight hours in each day, it is unlikely that many people will be clamoring to go back to a rigid 9 to 5 schedule. In the 19th century, workers achieved the eight-hour day. Perhaps in the 21st century, they will achieve the flexible eight-hour day.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ