The exact origin of the definition of a standard workday as being from 9am to 6pm is probably shrouded in the mists of time, but it is quite likely that this definition came into being during the Industrial Revolution in the West.
Certainly, before the Industrial Revolution, when farming and trade ruled as professions, the workday definition must have been different. Farmers probably worked the hardest (and longest), from the crack of dawn till way beyond dusk, and could only take a breather when the livestock was finally bedded down for the night. To farmers of those times, working a 9-6 job must have seemed like a dream come true!
How different that is compared to today’s information age, when we have come to regard 9-6 as a constraint at best and a curse at worst. Reams are being written about how flexible work timings (we’ll call it flexitime for the sake of brevity) are the best thing to have happened to productivity since the invention of the bread-slicer, and how 9-6 will soon suffer the same fate as the unlucky dinosaurs. And they may not be too far off the mark either, if we persist with our definition of 9-6 as a mandatory or imposed 9-6. However, optional 9-6 could be an entirely different beast, and one likely to not only survive but also to flourish and thrive, especially as the whole work/life balance movement gains momentum.
The difference between mandatory (or imposed) and optional is not just semantic or notional. It is an ideological difference, and could play a very real and tangible role in improving productivity. While the mandatory 9-6 can seem constraining, the optional 9-6 can be liberating. What does this mean on the ground for a company interested in productivity? Instead of penalizing employees for coming in 30 minutes late, for example, the company can empower and motivate them to be more productive in the remaining time. They can do this by not focusing on the timing of coming to work but on the actual work time the employees put in while in office, and put in place the tools and systems to measure this work time.
While modern conventional wisdom claims that flexitime translates into higher productivity because of longer office hours and more freedom, data analyzed by Sapience from more than 30,000 live users and more than 29 million work hours suggests that this is not necessarily true. Employees opting to work in the traditional working hours of 9-6 were no more or no less productive than their flexitime counterparts, even if the flexitime counterparts were keeping longer office hours. In fact, Sapience found conclusive evidence that both these categories are evenly represented in the Top 20% on the productivity metric. If anything, the 9-6 employees are found to be more efficient because they deliver the same work time for lesser office time, thus improving their work/life balance (and presumably overall happiness quotient) as well.
Thus, while mandated 9-6 may be detrimental to productivity as expected, it is not the 9-6 part that makes it so as much as the mandated part does. In other words, opting to work 9-6 may be the best middle path for productivity and work/life balance, and it could very well become the new flexitime!