The pursuit of better productivity has become a constant goal for organisations and the people who work in them.

But while it might make sense to think that working longer hours is the key to being more productive, research shows that it isn't just the quantity of hours worked that matters: It's also about when and how we work.

The relationship between working hours and productivity is an intricate one. Here we explore the impact of shorter workweeks, overtime, flexible hours, optimal work hours and the use of productivity time trackers to help you find the productivity sweet spot.

The link between working hours and productivity

The link between working hours and productivity

Before exploring the specifics of productivity, it's important to understand the core concept of productive time. Productive time refers to the hours during which someone is genuinely focused and able to complete tasks efficiently.

Research consistently shows that productivity tends to decrease after a certain threshold of working hours is crossed. While this threshold varies from person to person, it's long been accepted that around a 40-hour work week is most people's limit for productivity. Beyond this point, productivity tends to decline as fatigue sets in.

Is a shorter work week more productive?

Is a shorter work week more productive?

Some studies suggest that, when it comes to productivity and working hours, less might be more. This has been borne out in results from organisations that have experimented with 4-day work weeks. They report increased employee satisfaction and maintained or even improved productivity levels.

But it might be that the working week should be even shorter: A poll carried out by workplace community Blind revealed that 45% of respondents only work four hours – or less – a day, highlighting the importance of quality over quantity.

What's the link between overtime and productivity?

What's the link between overtime and productivity?

While occasional overtime may be necessary, chronic overworking can lead to burnout and reduced productivity. Research shows that excessive overtime can result in diminishing returns for companies, as tired employees are less focused and efficient.

So it's essential for organisations to strike a balance between meeting deadlines and ensuring their employees' wellbeing.

Negative impacts of working overtime include:

  • Decline in productivity:

    Research from Stanford University suggests that productivity dips once people work over a certain number of hours a week.

    Productivity peaks at around 49 hours, then starts to decline beyond that point. And workers who regularly put in more than 50 hours per week tend to experience a noticeable drop in productivity.

  • Impacts on health and wellbeing

    The negative impact of excessive overtime on employees' physical and mental health can't be overlooked.

    According to the World Health Organization, long working hours (including overtime) are associated with an increased risk of health issues, including cardiovascular diseases and mental health disorders. Overworked employees are more likely to experience burnout, hampering productivity even more.

  • Overtime and workplace injuries:

    Statistics from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) show a correlation between long working hours and workplace accidents.

    OSHA reports that employees who work longer hours, including overtime, are at a higher risk of accidents due to fatigue and reduced alertness.

  • Employee engagement

    Employees who regularly work overtime are more likely to experience a decline in engagement.

    Disengaged employees are less motivated and productive, and more likely to consider leaving their jobs. This can have a negative impact on an organisation's overall productivity and turnover rate.

Have flexible hours increased productivity?

Have flexible hours increased productivity?

Flexible hours were first introduced as a way to improve employee wellbeing. But flexible working has also been shown to have hugely positive effects on productivity.

Flexible hours let employees work during the times of day when they're most alert and focused. This aligns with the idea that individual productivity varies throughout the day.

A recent report by Gartner shows that digital workers, who have the flexibility to set their own work hours, overwhelmingly see it as a key factor in enhancing their productivity.

According to the report, flexible working hours led to:

  • Increased productivity: A staggering 43% of digital workers reported that having flexible work hours allows them to be more productive.

  • Less time in meetings: 19% of workers said flexible hours have led to less time spent in meetings.

  • More productive work environment: The report also found that 26% of employees enjoyed being able to choose their physical space. Content and satisfied employees are often more engaged and motivated, translating into higher productivity levels.

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What are the most productive hours in a work day?

What are the most productive hours in a work day?

Research into circadian rhythms reveals that certain times of the day tend to be more productive than others. For most people, cognitive function is at its peak in the morning, with productivity tending to dip as the day goes on.

The most common pattern of productivity looks something like this:

Morning peak

Cognitive abilities, including alertness, peak during late morning, typically between 10:00 and midday – the "morning peak" for productivity.

This is when people tend to be the most focused and alert, making it the best time to tackle complex tasks, problem-solving and decision-making.

Afternoon dip

Studies have observed a natural dip in alertness and productivity in the early afternoon, typically between 14:00 and 16:00. This is sometimes called the "afternoon dip".

During the afternoon dip, people may have lower concentration levels and may feel less energetic, making it an ideal time for admin, routine tasks or short breaks.

The second peak

Cognitive performance tends to rebound in the late afternoon to early evening, around 16:00 to 18:00, AKA the "second peak".

The late afternoon can be a good time for creativity, brainstorming and collaboration.

Evening hours

Evening isn't typically the most productive time. But some of us are "night owls" – more alert and productive during the late evening and night time.

Night owls may find that tasks needing deep concentration or creative thinking are more suited to the evening, rather than the morning peak.

Will using a productivity tracker increase employee productivity?
Will using a productivity tracker increase employee productivity?

Productivity time trackers have become popular tools to help people monitor and manage their time effectively.

Though not all productivity tools are created equal, finding the tool with the right features could help provide valuable insights, helping employees better manage their time and tasks.

Here are some ways productivity time trackers can help increase employee productivity:

  1. Time awareness: Time trackers can make people more aware of how they allocate their time. By visualising how they spend their work hours, they can spot time-wasting activities and become more conscious of their time management.

  2. Goal setting and prioritisation: Productivity trackers let people set goals and prioritise tasks more effectively.

  3. Eliminating distractions: Time tracking tools can help employees identify distractions and interruptions. Once recognised, they can take steps to minimise these disruptions, such as turning off notifications or setting dedicated quiet periods.

  4. Task efficiency: Tracking time spent on specific tasks helps people be aware of how efficient they are. It can help identify tasks that take longer than expected, so processes can be improved and tasks completed more quickly.

  5. Project management: Time trackers often integrate with project management tools, allowing employees to monitor progress. Real-time visibility ensures everyone stays on track and meets deadlines, boosting overall productivity.

  6. Accountability and motivation: Knowing that their work hours are being tracked can motivate employees to stay focused.

  7. Optimising breaks: Productivity trackers often include features for tracking break times. People can use this data to make sure that they take sufficient breaks to recharge.

  8. Flexibility and adaptability: Productivity trackers can adapt to different work styles and preferences. They allow employees to experiment with different work schedules and routines, helping them find the most productive work day for them.

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