Anyone who needs an alarm clock to wake up for work is ‘out of sync’ with their body, and some companies are realizing it’s a major problem

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An article in The New York Times highlights a recent trend among companies across the globe: allowing employees to tweak their schedules based on when they work best.

One expert, Céline Vetter, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the university’s circadian and sleep epidemiology lab, told The Times’ Emily Laber-Warren that as many as 80% of people have work schedules that clash with their internal clocks. These internal clocks are also known as “chronotypes,” or your biological predisposition to be a morning person, an evening person, or somewhere in between.

Scientists have been studying chronobiology for a while. But the topic has gained more widespread attention recently. For example, in his book “The Power of When,” psychologist and sleep specialist Dr. Michael Breus assigns labels to broad categories of chronotypes: dolphins, lions, bears, and wolves. According to Breus, roughly half the population is made up of bears, meaning their internal clocks track the rise and fall of the sun and they need a full eight hours of sleep a night.

 

You can tell if your chronotype clashes with your work schedule by asking yourself a simple question: Do you use an alarm clock to wake up? If so, Laber-Warren writes, “you’re out of sync with your own biology.”

Employees who work at companies that mandate the same, strict work hours for everyone may have it rough. But more organizations are starting to recognize the important role chronotypes play in performance, and encouraging people to figure out their own.

For example, The Times article mentions a ThyssenKrupp steel factory in Germany, which assigned shifts based on chronotypes. Researchers reported that employees got more (and better quality) sleep.

And at the Denmark offices of AbbVie, a pharmaceutical company, employees go through a nine-hour training program that helps them figure out when they should tackle tough projects, and then craft their work schedules accordingly.

Most businesses get chronobiology all wrong

Still, these practices are hardly the norm. In fact, a 2014 studypublished in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that managers are typically biased toward early risers: Employees whoget in early are generally perceived as more conscientious and receive higher performance ratings than employees who get in later — even if the early-arrivers leave earlier, too.

As Christopher M. Barnes, an associate professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, wrote in aHarvard Business Review article in 2015, most companies get chronobiology wrong. “Many employees are flooded with writing and responding to emails throughout their entire morning, which takes them up through lunch. They return from lunch having already used up most of their first peak in alertness.” (Barnes writes that most people reach their peak in alertness and energy mid-morning.)

Meanwhile, a 2017 study published in the Academy of Management Review focused on the potential of “chronotype diversity” in business teams, i.e. groups of people in which some are early risers and some are night owls. The authors write that chronotype diversity can have positive or negative effects, depending on the nature of the work. (In The Times, Laber-Warren contrasts a surgery team, whose members need to be alert at the same time, and a nuclear power plant, where someone always needs to be on.)

To be sure, even organizations that don’t explicitly recognize the role of chronotype diversity may support flexible schedules. For example, at web app company Basecamp, employees work wherever and whenever suits them best, as long as they’re getting their work done.