More choose flexible hours on the job

It’s a typical morning for Terry Hackett. His 6-year-old son, Connor, wakes him up to snuggle in bed, then the creative director is off to work. He downs a PowerBar, stops at Starbucks for coffee and often holds a planning meeting with senior management.

Never mind that it’s not yet 6:30 a.m. and the sky is still black.

“It took some getting used to because I’m not a morning person,” says Hackett, 53, of PRO Group, a Denver-based marketing and merchandising company for wholesalers. He regularly begins his workday before dawn. “But it means I leave around 4 p.m., and I can spend time with my son before dinner.”


The 5 a.m. commuter is no longer an oddity. The workday is starting at an increasingly early hour as more employees adopt non-traditional work schedules, a fast-growing trend that’s transforming the 9 – to – 5 workday.

Employees are getting to work earlier than ever to avoid rush-hour commutes and handle work-family demands, and many employers are simply demanding earlier start times to service clients across the USA and around the globe.

Businesses that cater to these earlier risers — from coffee shops to fast-food outlets to daycare centers to gas stations — are increasingly opening before dawn. City subways are operating earlier, with weekday trains running at 5 a.m. A number of Burger King restaurants are trying extended early-morning breakfast hours. In some cities, Starbucks stores begin brewing coffee at 4:30 a.m. and about 40 are open 24 hours.

Vito and Eileen Giardina stop for coffee at a local Starbucks that opens at 5:30 a.m. in Bethesda, Md., before they head to work — with Vito commuting to Baltimore and Eileen to Rockville.

Nearly 29 million employees start their workday between 4:30 a.m. and 7:29 a.m., according to the Department of Labor. That’s up from about 27 million in 2005.

Freedom to pick hours

The shift is coming in part because employees have more freedom to pick the hours they work. More than 40% of workers are able to select their start and quit times within a range of core operating hours set by employers, according to a survey by the Families and Work Institute. In 1992, that percentage was 29%.

“There are advantages for both employees and employers, and that accounts for the prevalence,” says Laura Sejen, at benefit consultants Watson Wyatt Worldwide. “From the employee perspective, for someone with child care or elder care needs, it can be helpful. And employers get more coverage to meet client demand.”

But there are downsides. Employees required to be at the office earlier can feel stressed, may work longer days and can miss out on time with spouses, research shows.

The early work hours are coming in large part because employers want the workday to start earlier. By having employees punch the clock at an increasingly early hour, employers hope to beat competitors who might not open as early or operate as late.

Consider PRO Group, the Denver-based marketing firm where Hackett works. At first, the company tried setting up a system that let employees work flexible hours when they wanted. It didn’t work, as it was impossible to schedule meetings because some participants were always missing.

But employees liked the flexibility, and the company was benefiting from extended morning hours. It set up a system to let employees choose between two work schedules, starting their day at either 6:30 a.m. or 7:30 a.m.

“By 6:30 a.m., the phones are already quite active. It’s much more convenient for customers,” CEO Richard Paige says. Since their customer base is skewed to the East Coast, starting at 6:30 a.m. Mountain Time provides an advantage.

In New York, media company 5W Public Relations opens at 7 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m. Employees work flexible hours, and CEO Ronn Torossian says the extended hours give him a competitive edge.

“It’s unique,” Torossian says. “It’s one of the reasons we’ve grown so fast. I’m even thinking of going to a 24-hour schedule as we grow. I’m willing to do it.”

So, it seems, are employees. Flexible schedules, once a novelty, are now more commonplace.

A sought-after perk

It’s a desired perk: A third of workers say greater schedule flexibility would result in more job satisfaction, according to a 2013 study by Menlo Park, Calif.-based staffing services firm OfficeTeam.

One reason more employees want flexible start times is so they can start their day earlier, avoiding rush-hour hassles: Average travel time to work jumped 5 minutes to 29.5 minutes from 2006 to 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. In many cities, the drive to work can take an hour or longer.

Traffic gridlock costs the USA $63 billion in lost productivity and wasted fuel each year, according to the Texas Transportation Institute.

Avoiding commuting hassles is one reason Xerox offers flexible schedules. To accommodate the increase in early risers, the company’s gym opens at 6 a.m., and the cafeteria begins full-service breakfast by 7:30. Employees also get access cards so they can enter the building as soon as they arrive.

“Commuting is much more time-consuming. Managers are sensitive because they’re in the same boat themselves,” says Paula Fleming, director of human resource effectiveness at Xerox headquarters in Stamford, Conn. “A lot of people try to beat or miss the traffic.”

Joe Chambers, a business process manager at Xerox, arrives at work between 6:30 and 7 a.m. His commute to the office in Denver takes about 20 minutes. If he were to leave later, he says, it could take almost an hour and a half.

“I see more and more people at different times of the day commuting,” says Chambers, father to Ryan, 18, and Kaitlynn, 14. He stays until 5:30 or 6 p.m. “I leave earlier and can be there with my family. I can pick my daughter up, and I stay more involved with my son and what he’s doing.”

Family needs drive shift

Spending time with family and accommodating child care schedules are other reasons for the shift to earlier hours and more-flexible work schedules. Working parents are using non-traditional hours at the office to leave earlier, making quitting times mesh with their children’s school hours.

“They don’t want latchkey kids,” says Mary Keleher, a principal at Hetrick Communications, a marketing firm in Indianapolis that just switched to a flexible work schedule. Employees put in at least 40 hours a week Saturday through Friday, but pick when they want to work. Before, she says, the company was on a schedule of 8 hours a day, five days a week.

Child care issues are the main reason Robyn Eckard, 31, of Mira Loma, Calif., gets up at 4:30 a.m. when it’s still dark outside. She lets her son, 1-year-old Max, watch The Wiggles, a children’s show, as she gets dressed, then leaves for the office by 5:45 a.m. at the latest. Leaving that early, she arrives at Kelley Blue Book, a vehicle pricing resource, where she handles media relations, turning on the lights and starting the coffee before her co-workers arrive.

Her husband works a later schedule at another company doing air conditioning sales, and cares for their son until his daycare opens. She leaves at 4 p.m.

She says she’s hardly the only one on the road so early. The gas station and Starbucks are already open, she says. The dry cleaner is also open at 7 a.m.

But it’s not always a choice.

The dismantling of the traditional 9 – to – 5 world is having a spillover effect on many services and businesses. Cities are responding by running mass transit services earlier in the day or later into the evenings. In Washington, the subway service in September began operating 30 minutes earlier on weekdays, at 5 a.m., to meet customer demand and ease overcrowding.

Businesses are also adjusting to cater to non-traditional work hours.

“We have a range of restaurants trying expanded morning hours,” says Alison Russell, a Burger King spokeswoman. “Some that were open at 7 a.m. are now open at 6 a.m. or even earlier.”

That means employees in those industries can be required to work increasingly early shifts.

There can be challenges. Research shows that non-standard work hours can exacerbate marital tensions, especially when couples don’t have similar schedules. Some employees are coming in to work earlier but not getting the benefit of an earlier quit time — logging in overtime hours that are linked to fatigue, illness, and stress.

Earlier work hours, when required by employers, can be a burdensome side effect of the USA’s increasing 24/7 culture. Parents who must work early hours often find most childcare options still hew to a more traditional schedule. There is less family time when one parent must work hours than don’t match a spouse’s schedule.

But others don’t mind. As a Realtor, Barry Graziano of Chappaqua, N.Y., says he gets up at 5:30 or so and devotes two hours to studying local home listings. Early mornings, he says, are simply part of doing business today.

“I had a walk-through on a (home) closing, and a client asked me if I could meet before his workday. He said ‘7 a.m.?’ How can I say no ?” Graziano, 42, says. “I try to make things accommodating to my clients, but I have the flexibility to control my hours. I can give myself more free time later on.”