Use flex time to come in late at your own peril

The early bird gets the worm. This is pounded into our heads from our earliest ages. Schools, for instance, will record every instance that a child is so much as two minutes late, even if it was for an early morning doctor's appointment. But nowhere on the child's record does it show that his mom checked him out two hours early for a doctor's appointment.

This same punitive mindset carries into adulthood, even in companies which have official "flex time" policies. Flex-time policies generally allow employees to set their own hours, provided that everyone is there for some core business hours. Employees love it. It allows them the flexibility to take care of their personal lives while they still get work done. However, even though you're putting in the same amount of work, regardless of whether you get to work early or late, Harvard Business Review is reporting that managers view coming in early positively and coming in late negatively.

If you're an early riser, or your spouse gets the kids to school while you go in early, that's great news for you. In a forthcoming study by Christopher M. Barnes, Kai Chi Yam and Ryan Fehr, people thought of the early birds as more conscientious than the night owls. The study gave volunteers identical descriptions of workers and asked them to rate them for conscientiousness. The only thing that varied was their work schedule -- either it stated that the person worked 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. or 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Early people were rated as more conscientious.

This, of course, is great news if you're an early riser, and terrible news if you're a night owl. Not all of us have our peak productivity times at the same time. In fact, drag some night owls into the office at 7:00 a.m. and they still won't be very productive until their natural body rhythms kick in, later in the day.

So, what to do about this? Flex time programs are wildly popular, but you don't want to punish people for taking advantage of officially allowed programs. Instead, managers need to be more aware of how they are judging people.

For instance, managers that set clear quantifiable goals, can evaluate worker productivity and success based on actual performance. However, managers that sit down at year's end and say, "Gee, I need to write performance reviews. Let's see, Bob's always here early and working so hard!" are going to fall for this fallacy." But, if you're not a manager what can you do? The study's authors write:

One message workers could take from this research is that, if they have the opportunity to use flextime, they might be better served by using it to move their schedules early in the day rather than later in the day. However, we would hesitate to recommend this, since a trend in that direction can only heighten the penalties for their colleagues whose lives outside work make the earlier hours difficult. More productively, they can raise the subject of hours and timing with their supervisors, and help make explicit the understanding that start time is immaterial.

Another thing night owls (or simply people whose lives function better when they come in later) is look for jobs with managers who are also late starting flex-time users, as the early bird effects were not so strong, suggests management guru, Alison Green.

If flex time is to continue as a successful practice, management needs to overcome those prejudices ingrained in them from pre-school to realize that while early birds get the worm, there a lot of things out there better than worms.