Nonlinear Workdays: Working from Home Just Got More Fulfilling & Productive

As the world’s workforce makes a permanent shift toward remote work, employers and employees are experimenting with a variety of new work models. New terms, such as co-located, hybrid, and remote-first are have become buzzwords to describe the diversity of approaches. The experiments underway are now opening up new opportunities for employees to reconsider how they structure their day. Another term that’s becoming more popular is nonlinear workdays; a concept that may define a new era in working from home.

Before diving into the concept of nonlinear workdays, one certainty needs to be addressed. A permanent change to working from home will require lifestyle adjustments in order to fully take advantage of the new freedom. As a worker is no longer tied to an employer-enforced daily schedule, the responsibility for optimizing productivity and performance shifts to the individual. Now you can adjust your living and work arrangements to allow for more balance and integration between work and leisure.

Driving the long-term adoption of remote work models are the largely positive results of the past year’s enforced circumstances. In a recent survey of 3,900 knowledge workers world-wide, GitLab’s 2021 Remote Work Report explores what happened when working from home went from a mere concept to a practical necessity. Of employees, 80% would recommend remote working to a friend and 85% are satisfied with their productivity. Employers are benefitting too. According to remote employers, 42% note increased productivity, 38% cite increased efficiency, and 31% report increased employee morale. 

What Is a Nonlinear Workday?

One way to optimize your work from home experience is to embrace nonlinear workdays. Simply put, nonlinear refers to your newfound ability to completely restructure your day. Ditch the 9 to-5! This approach works best if your employer allows you the flexibility to set your own schedule. However, even with limited flexibility, you can still incorporate aspects of a nonlinear workday into your routine.

A nonlinear workday can bring many benefits to employees and their families because you are free to schedule your business and personal activities in a way that optimizes your time. Organizational researchers, Greenhaus and Parasuramen described this work life integration as, “when attitudes in one role positively spill over into another role, or when experiences in one role serve as resources that enrich another role in one’s life.”

Benefits of Nonlinear Workdays

  • Work to personal preferences. Everyone is a little different and feels productive at slightly different times. Learn your own circadian rhythm and plan your day accordingly. If you’re a night owl, work into the evening. If you’re an early bird, work before anyone else is even up. Schedule a nap to recover from your mid-afternoon slump.
  • More time for family and friends. Nonlinear workdays means you can take the time to run your child to the doctor or have a late lunch with friends. You don’t have to miss out on beautiful weather either. If it’s a sunny, warm day, go for a walk. You’ll return recharged and happy to work a little later.  
  • Increased efficiency. Because you can organize tasks in groupings that make the most sense to you, you can optimize your time spent on each activity. There will also be fewer distractions from coworkers so you can focus on the work at hand without worrying about having to change tasks every five minutes in response to a new request.

Optimal Remote Work Environment

The temptation for employers is to send employees home and function as usual. However, moving to a remote or hybrid work model works best if combined with human resource strategies designed to encourage a happy and productive workforce. One way to do this is to offer flexible schedules and support nonlinear workdays. Nonlinear workdays function best in companies that offer:

  • Nonjudgmental organizational culture. With everyone choosing their own work hours, the organization should emphasize transparency and tolerance. All employee work hours should be easily accessed so it’s clear when someone is working and when they are not to avoid misunderstandings. Also, this is a two-way street. Remember to be flexible with coworkers because you want them to be flexible with you.
  • Comprehensive documentation. Having well written documentation of work processes and procedures can go a long way to ensuring the success of nonlinear workdays. Documentation also needs to be centrally stored and easily accessed by everyone. If it is, employees can easily find the answers to many of their questions without requiring an immediate response from a manager or coworker.
  • Asynchronous communication & workflows. Nonlinear workdays rely on employees being able to work independently in their own time and at their own pace. This means limiting the requirements for meetings and phone calls. It also may mean reorganizing work activities to allow for completion without relying on time and order dependent processes.

The Example of Dropbox

Dropbox is one example of a company adopting a new work model as a result of lessons learned during the pandemic. In October 2020, the company announced that it was moving to a new “virtual-first” model. As part of their new strategy, the company also announced it was embracing nonlinear workdays.

To accommodate teamwork and other necessary interactions, the company asked employees to conduct an audit of their calendar to identify meetings that could be eliminated. They then established “core collaboration” hours when employees need to be available for phone calls and meetings. Currently, these hours are between 10 am and noon and 4 to 6 pm to allow collaboration across multiple time zones. However, teams can adjust these hours as long as everyone agrees.

The rest of the day, employees are free to structure in a way that works best for them. They are able to work outside of traditional work hours according to their preferences. Employees are asked to clearly communicate when they are working for transparency. However, during their independent time, coworkers are discouraged from requesting or taking additional meetings.

The goal of adopting nonlinear workdays according to Dropbox executives is to reduce “busywork” and increase work that is impactful to the organization. In addition, in today’s competitive job market, Dropbox is relying on this new work model to attract the best and brightest industry talent.

How to Schedule and Plan Nonlinear Workdays

At first glance, nonlinear workdays may seem like chaos, but it’s just moving responsibility for your daily schedule from your employer to you. If you’ve never been in charge before, you can feel overwhelmed and may find yourself automatically duplicating what you did before. Take your time and experiment with a flexible schedule. You may well discover previously unknown strengths and preferences. Below are a few tips to get you started:

Calendar Audits

Take a page from Dropbox’s strategy, and start with an audit of your calendar. What meetings do you currently participate in? How many other meetings do you usually get called in for each week? Assess your participation in each meeting and determine if your presence adds value. If the answer is no or little value, do your best to drop those meetings from your calendar. This will free up more time in your day for independent, focused work.

Set Collaboration Hours

Once you have pared down your calendar, you can set your own collaboration hours following the example of Dropbox. Think of them as office hours when you can be available for meetings and conversations with coworkers. The number of hours required will depend on your role. If you usually work independently, a few hours a week may suffice, while individuals on teams may need to set aside several hours a day. The key to this strategy working is communication. Let coworkers know so they can talk to you, and let family and friends know so they don’t.

Schedule Time in Blocks

To make the most of your day, schedule it in blocks of time. Two-hour blocks are ideal and provide enough time to focus on a task. You can also group alike tasks into blocks as well. For example, scheduling time for writing and responding to emails, making social media posts, and other similar tasks all at one time. You may find yourself decoupling familiar work processes and creating new flows that are more efficient.

Embrace Asynchrony

What makes nonlinear workdays most efficient are asynchronous workflows and communication channels. While the definitions are different, the idea is the same. The task or communication can be received, but there is no pressure to immediately respond. Work can be completed at a time most efficient for the employee.

Asynchronous Communication

Asynchronous communication is correspondence that does not require an immediate response. Email and instant messaging are ubiquitous examples. Messages are received, but you do not need to respond as soon as it is received. You can answer according to your schedule and time zone.

While the technology is here, management attitudes and workplace culture can sometimes derail the potential benefits if these communication methods are used with the expectation of a quick response. This leads to employees feeling “always on” and can lead to overwork and burnout. Set realistic expectations for responses, for example within 24 or 48 hours, to avoid this pitfall.

In addition to adding asynchronous communication channels, you can reduce dependence on synchronous communication resulting from a lack of transparency or documentation. For example, simply making information easily discoverable can reduce the pressure for synchronous communication. By making handbooks, manuals, and project documentation easy to find and access, many questions can be resolved through independent research.

Asynchronous Workflows

Many work processes are designed in a synchronous way where one task leads to a next and a next task, and these tasks are all assigned to different people. Think of processes like accounts payable and receivable, hiring new employees, or developing a new product. Everything happens in a prescribed order and each task is made dependent on the one before it.

To move to a more asynchronous workflow, evaluate the processes in your job to see if they can be completed out of order and independently. If it doesn’t appear so at first glance, try breaking the tasks down into smaller pieces. The idea is to create work activities that are less dependent on the order of completion so they can be undertaken when and in what order is most efficient for you. For example, when you have time blocked on your schedule for focused project work.

Achieving asynchronous workflows can require a lot more process reengineering than implementing asynchronous communication methods, however, the possibilities for improvements in productivity are significant.

Nonlinear Workdays Equal Working Freedom

Now that working from home has gone from a nice idea to a practical necessity, companies are exploring, experimenting, and making adjustments to find the best work models for their business. One thing is certain, remote employees today have more control over their time and activities than ever before. Take charge of your newfound freedom and make the most of every day by implementing your own version of a nonlinear workday.

Have you experimented with nonlinear workdays? Connect with Virtual Vocations on FacebookTwitterLinkedInInstagram, and YouTube to share your thoughts and tips. We’d love to hear from you!


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