For night owls and early birds, the traditional 9-to-5 workday can be agonizing. The exhausted night owl drags himself bleary-eyed into the office every morning, while the chipper early bird finds his energy waning well before quitting time.
But there are ways to cope. Experts offer these workplace survival strategies for those with body clocks out of sync with their employers' hours.
Recognize that It's Nature, Not Nurture
Early birds and night owls don't choose to be the way they are and shouldn't blame themselves for their bodies' quirks. "It's a physiological characteristic that's genetically predetermined, like being tall or blond," says Carolyn Schur, a Saskatchewan, Canada-based human resources consultant and author of Birds of a Different Feather: Early Birds and Night Owls Talk About Their Characteristic Behaviors. A night owl who has difficulty getting to work on time is not lazy, and an early bird who can't function well late in the day is not a slacker.
"Try not to feel guilty or apologize all the time for the way you are," says Schur, who notes that up to 40 percent of the population may have early-bird or night-owl predispositions. Additional research indicates about 10 percent of the population is comprised of "extreme" night owls or early birds, who may get chronically fatigued, sick or depressed if they work a schedule counter to their nature.
Don't resign yourself to working 9-to-5 if your body rebels. If your company doesn't already have a flexible scheduling policy, approach your boss. Explain how working your preferred hours would enhance your productivity and effectiveness, for example, or how your employer could extend its hours of service at no additional cost if you came in early or stayed late. "Frame your request in terms that mean something to your employer," Schur says.
If your boss lets you start late or leave early, you've still got to be a team player. "Don't leave your colleagues hanging, waiting for a work product they might be dependent on," says Keirsten Moore, PhD, an associate dean in the School of Management at Columbus, Ohio-based Capital University. Stick to deadlines and clearly communicate with your coworkers and manager about how they can reach you if you are not in the office during regular business hours, Moore says.
Overcoming the perception that you're not dedicated or productive is one of the biggest obstacles to working different hours, Moore says. "The challenge is making it evident that you are contributing your full weight," she says. In the best-case scenario, your night-owl or early-bird tendencies will mirror your boss's. If they don't, however, you may have to take extra steps to be visible.
For example, use email or voice mail with time and date stamps that document when you completed your early-morning or late-night work. Hand-deliver projects to your boss's desk to make it evident when you were at the office. If you come in early, park close to where your boss usually parks so he will notice your early arrival.
If you come to work late or leave early, don't consider your schedule set in stone. Be flexible enough to attend the occasional 8 a.m. meeting or after-hours brainstorming session. Although the time of day may not be optimal for you, with advance warning you can rise to the occasion. "The night owl needs to prepare the night before what he is going to say or contribute at the morning meeting, and the early bird needs to prepare that morning for a late-afternoon meeting," Schur says. "You need to put your very best work on paper at your best time of day."
Find the Right Industry
Flexible scheduling is simply not an option at many companies and in many industries. If the issue is paramount to your happiness or even your health, find work that's a better fit, Schur says. Early birds generally function better than night owls in 8-to-5 jobs but would suffer working evening or night shifts, she notes. Night owls are drawn to late-afternoon, evening and overnight jobs in the service and entertainment sectors.