Every workplace has its unofficial daily, weekly and annual rhythms, says David Bolchover. Managers should acknowledge these when pressing the accelerator or applying the brakes.

The start of the year is traditionally plagued by illness and low motivation. The flu virus has been particularly rampant this January, with Public Health England declaring a 150% rise in the first fortnight of the year. Even after recovering, it can take weeks to rebuild the zest and creativity required to do more than humdrum work.

As well as illness, employees are preoccupied with post-Christmas overdrafts. Debt advisers report an unusually busy January. And then there is the strain of divorce: after a week of enforced family jollity, interest in divorce peaks. In short, January is a tough month to keep staff focused on their jobs.

For the hapless independent contractor, it’s a frustrating month waiting for clients to amble back into action.

January may not be very productive, but it’s not a bad as the second half of December, a time of Christmas parties, late nights and hangovers. July and August can be just as slow, as managers head for warmer climes putting off important decisions. In Southern Europe, many offices shut their doors altogether, and staff are required to take their holidays then.

Employers that struggle on through the summer holiday period have other fairly regular distractions to contend with. Every other year, for example, there is either a football World Cup or an Olympic games that exerts its pull on even the fairest-weather fans. Grand Slam tennis and Ashes cricket offer equally seductive diversions for those who care.

Then there are the less predictable, yet all-too-frequent, occurrences that team leaders will tend to overlook: chaos-inducing snow days and transport strikes, for example, that provide reasonable excuses for late arrival, early departure or working at home. More predictable is the school holiday schedule that presents logistical worries for harried working parents, sometimes resulting in the surprise appearance in the office of tomorrow’s little leaders.

At the other extreme, offices are often too hard-pressed to focus on anything besides the urgent. A budget deadline, for example, can induce panic and adrenaline. Entire industries can have their busy seasons, such as accountants before the end of the tax year or insurance companies during their renewal periods.

Remains of the day

Working rhythms operate according to weekly and even daily cycles too. Workers ease their way into the week with some reluctance. Studies show that Mondays account for a third of all sick leave. And why bother exerting oneself on a Friday afternoon when everyone is thinking about their weekend? No-one will blame you; they might even object to a demonstration of unnecessary effort.

“I wouldn’t send a cold-call email on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon, and expect a reply. The most effective time seems to be mid-to-late morning, mid-week.”

As a freelancer, I wouldn’t send a cold-call email on a Monday morning or Friday afternoon, and expect a reply. A 2016 article collating various quantitative studies, on the best time to get your marketing email read confirms my suspicions. The evidence suggests that Tuesday is far and away the best day, followed by Wednesday or Thursday, and generally during late morning.

Even within the office day there are identifiable ups and downs. Research by organizational psychologists Stephen Robbins and Timothy Judge found that personal moods peak during the middle of the day, then tail off as tiredness sets in. In the afternoon, workers postpone non-urgent tasks to the following day, by which time they have often forgotten about them.

Should such conclusions trouble team leaders? Many happily indulge downtime periods because they themselves participate in them. The more sensible executives acknowledge that such performance dips are inevitable. Humans are not machines capable of unfluctuating output. But there are ways to mitigate the worst of it.

Action points for managers:

Be energetic, it’s infectious. Strive to display energy at all times. If the manager eases off, workers will follow suit.

Use slow months for non-urgent tasks. January and August may be good times to complete often-delayed back office projects.

Harness the Friday ‘feel-good’ factor. Staff try to avoid hard graft just before a weekend, so schedule creative team meetings then instead.

Make a virtue out of necessity. For example, show World Cup matches in a public meeting room as a staff perk; it stops them watching surreptitiously online.

If necessary, be unpopular. Email your direct reports with discreet tasks late Sunday evening so they’re up and running on Monday morning.

Provide autumn flu jabs. This would reduce work days lost to illness and prolonged recuperation.

David Bolchover is an award-winning business journalist and author of three books on management and the workplace.

This article was written for FT|IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
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