Even as more companies accept remote-work arrangements, the norm of being available from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. shows little sign of fading.

That's even though 94 per cent of desk workers want flexibility in when they work, according to a new survey by Slack Technologies Inc.'s Future Forum, compared with 80 per cent who say they want location flexibility. Slack polled more than 10,000 desk workers in the US, Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the UK.

Asynchronous arrangements — meaning that employees get work done on their own schedules and aren't required to be online at the same time as their coworkers — remain rare outside some startups and tech companies.

While remote work provides more schedule flexibility than the office — allowing time to do laundry or take the dog for a walk, for instance — many people still feel pressure to have a “green dot” on their workplace software that shows they're online and working. 

A lot of this pressure comes from leaders and managers who are holding onto outdated norms of professionalism, said Future Forum's co-founder, Sheela Subramanian. “We need to have a broader conversation about professional norms and what it means to be a good employee,” she said. “We're at the beginning of this experiment, of re-evaluating the role of work in our lives. We have a long way to go.” 

Subramanian said that when she talks to executives about schedule flexibility, they often get alarmed (“But we have so many meetings!”). Yet having scheduling flexibility doesn't mean working at all hours or that employees will never get together in person, she said. On the contrary, many people want clearer boundaries around when they're expected to respond to messages. “Organizations can create flexibility within a framework,” she said. “They can set expectations and be intentional.”

Future Forum suggests adopting “core working hours,” where coworkers are all online for a set, limited block of time, team-level agreements so everyone's on the same page in terms of how the work will get done, and digital tools that help keep track of progress in a transparent way.

Crunchbase Inc., a software firm that specializes in private company data, established a core working-hours policy when it went remote last year. Since the company was hiring employees across time zones, it set aside 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. New York time for meetings and synchronous work.

For people used to traditional schedules, it can take some time to adjust to the fact that they may not get immediate responses outside of core working hours, said Kelly Scheib, Crunchbase's chief people officer. 

According to Future Forum, workers who have full schedule flexibility are almost 30 per cent more productive than those with no ability to shift their schedule. Location flexibility, by comparison, is associated with a four per cent bump in productivity. Employees with schedule flexibility say they can focus better and have improved work-life balance. Workers with no schedule flexibility are also more than twice as likely to look for a new job in the coming year compared with those who have moderate schedule flexibility.

The 9-to-5 shift was formalized on the factory floor by Henry Ford in 1926, and while its origins hold little in common with today's digitized workplaces, it's so culturally ingrained in our economy and social lives that it may not make sense to abandon altogether, said Alexia Cambon, a human-resources research director at Gartner Inc. Instead, she advocates for getting away from the norm of back-to-back meetings.

It all comes down to workers' need for autonomy and trusting they can get the job done.

“The person who is best placed to decide how they should work is the individuals themselves, because they know what makes them productive,” Cambon said.