Setting core hours—a period that's open for booking meetings—can help as employees transition to office work and permanent remote work.
One of the greatest concerns for leaders of all stripes is how to manage the return to work in light of a cauldron of concerns. As if maintaining productivity were not enough, leaders must worry about everything from different employee expectations, shifting COVID-19 news, reports of employee burnout and unprecedented numbers of resignations and job changes.
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The seemingly straightforward question of keeping a combination of remote and in-person workers effective and content can become quite challenging. Remote workers might feel they miss out on ad hoc meetings, while in-office workers frequently suspect their remote colleagues are eating bonbons and browsing the web rather than being productive. Even if your work environment is 100% virtual or 100% in-office, one of the recurring laments of workers pre- and post-COVID is the abundance of meetings and lack of time to get work done.
The power of core hours
The idea of core hours is straightforward: Set aside a defined period each day that's open season for meetings, either scheduled or ad hoc. The rest of the day is open for employees to use for focus work, unconventional schedules or travel. The primary expectation is that if you book a meeting, place an ad hoc call or chat, or send an email, your team will be available to respond during core hours. Generally, the core hour block is about half the workday and is generally a three- to four-hour block that extends from late morning to early afternoon.
With a core hours policy in place, in-office workers never have to wonder if their chat will be answered when there's a problem, and remote workers don't have to fear 10 hours of back-to-back Zoom calls that intrude on breakfast, dinner and family time. Similarly, all workers get an uninterrupted block of time each day for focused work.
Many organizations have tried Focus Fridays or No-meeting Mondays. However, the challenge of these one-off special days is that it's easy to innocently forget about the special day and book a meeting or two, and then see your team assume they can and should do the same. While there are sure to be a few mistakes early in your core hours effort, the policy quickly becomes routine after a week or two.
Without a core hours policy, expectations of when you're available and expected to respond become unclear and inconsistent. That urgent and one-off meeting at 8 p.m. quickly becomes a standard, and employees grow resentful. During the pandemic, in particular, many people found themselves living at work rather than working from home.
Core hours also set a clear boundary on the time that's available for meetings. This forces employees at all levels to carefully consider whether a meeting is necessary, and whether it can be shortened. Nearly every organization I've worked with that has instituted a core hours policy has found meetings to be more focused and productive. Essentially you create artificial scarcity in the time that's allowed for meetings, which has the highly desirable side effect of forcing people to make limited meeting time all the more productive.
A core-hours policy demonstrates trust
Many leaders wax poetic about the importance of trust in their teams, yet they grow antsy with the suggestion that their team members are not visible or immediately available 24/7. Core hours is a simple and highly effective way to demonstrate trust in your team. Not only are you laying out a clear and simple expectation of when they should be available, but you are also allowing them complete management and oversight of the remainder of their workday. If a developer is at her best from 2 a.m. to 4 a.m., and takes a nap during the traditional workday but outside of core hours, you are trusting that person to structure her day to deliver her best work, even if it's outside an old-fashioned 9-5 work style.
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Similarly, a worker with family or childcare obligations can now accommodate a defined period when they need to be available, versus struggling to join meetings at all possible hours while caring for an infant or grandparent.
How to get started with core hours
Perhaps the most significant benefit of a core hours policy is that no special software, tools or new positions are required to implement it. The most challenging aspect of implementing core hours is sticking to that policy as a leader and having the backbone to enforce the schedule. There will certainly be times when there's an emergency or a customer demand that simply cannot be accommodated during core hours, but highlight that these situations are exceptions rather than a case of "core hours for me but not for thee."
If you're skeptical, select a small team and ask them to do a six- to -eight-week trial of a core hours policy, perhaps using 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. as your initial schedule to accommodate various time zones. Again, this experiment will cost nothing, and you will likely be positively surprised at the results.
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