Illustration by Justin Tran

Virtual First, Shifting dimensions

Sleep equity: good for night owls and early birds


Published on December 11, 2020

The entire world wants you to be a Morning Person.

This pressure, fittingly enough, starts early in our lives. The average American school day begins at 7:59 a.m. and ends somewhere before 3:00 p.m. For adults, the traditional 9-to-5 workday—a relic of automotive assembly lines from a century ago—has become synonymous with almost all non-shiftwork schedules. From ubiquitous phrases like “early to bed, early to rise” or romanticized ideas of us all rising at the crack of dawn (complete with a rooster’s call for maximum effect), it seems almost ridiculous to push back against such an established fact of life.

But if 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that many foundations of our society have remained intact for generations—usually thanks to little more than habit and tradition. Entire industries that held steadfast against remote work a year ago have made the switch with minimal growing pains. The Covid-19 pandemic has already challenged the idea that teams can only be productive in a centralized space while under the watchful eye of a manager. 

What if we’ve also been wrong in our assumptions about when we should sleep and wake up for work? It turns out your sleep cycle has far less to do with your personal discipline and way more to do with the original project management system: genetics.

Early birds eat worms; night owls don’t

All human bodies have their own internal clock: our circadian rhythm. The natural ability to sense the time of day was historically the difference between knowing when it was time to hunt/gather in the daylight and when it was Hungry Predator o’Clock. But research into the gene that controls our circadian rhythm has revealed that it’s less of a clock and more of a spectrum.

Along this spectrum, one can find their own chronotype or biological preferences for sleep. In his book, Why We Sleep, Dr. Matthew Walker lays out a statistic that will either be terrifying or liberating to you depending on how many times you hit the snooze button. He says that across the population, 40% of us are genetically hard-wired to be morning people, 30% are night owls, and the rest fall somewhere in the middle.

This still means that our entire approach to work is built around the genetic predisposition of less than half of the population. Moreso, it’s actively terrible for a third. And your predilections may be exaggerated by other factors that drastically change your sleep schedule, like having pets, kids, certain diets, or exposure to blue light.

People who are most productive later in the day may literally burn the midnight oil, only sleeping around 2 a.m. and naturally waking up at 10 a.m. All the sleepytime tea and calming music can’t make someone fall into a restful sleep if their internal rhythm is still charged up. Inflexible job hours mean they can’t modify when they wake up, leaving them perpetually sleep-deprived.

Sleep deprivation is no joke; it affects your mood, productivity, and ability to think creatively. So if you’re a night owl working normal business hours, there’s a good chance you’re not showing your best work or your best self to your team every day. And that complicated relationship to our societal duties can manifest in our teenage years, too.

Studies have consistently shown that pushing high school school start times back by just one hour increased the performance levels and quality of life for students across the board. Another study from Bentley University found that 77% of Millennials said that flexible work hours allowed them to be more productive.

It turns out your sleep cycle has far less to do with your personal discipline and way more to do with the original project management system: genetics.

The core of distributed work is about using modern tools and attitudes to remove as many barriers between people and productivity as possible. It’s a way of thinking that requires trust and autonomy for everyone involved. Reimagining how and why we keep the hours we do is the next logical step.

But more importantly, it’s about allowing everyone to do and be their best. Critical to that is a fair distribution of sleep. Let’s call it sleep equity.

Where flexibility meets opportunity

This year’s shift to remote work found so many of us rewriting our plans and schedules on the fly. That’s stressful enough as is, which already makes it harder to get a good night’s sleep. An unpredictable structure with work and life happening on top of each other may seem like a recipe for eating up even more of your time as everyone adjusts and compensates for each other.

But according to a new study from the Economist Intelligence Unit, the opposite is true. Almost half of all respondents (46%) found that working remotely helped them increase their periods of focused work. Building a new structure always means we have the chance to build a more efficient and compassionate one, together.

That’s what sleep equity is all about; using the unprecedented nature of our current circumstances to level the playing field and let night owls and early birds play to all of their respective strengths. It’s about valuing the quality and impact of someone’s work over rigid working hours that make less sense when we’re not all sharing the same space each day.

Office-based jobs kept workers on a linear work week schedule. Everyone commuted to the same place at the same time, and commuted home in a similar fashion. Rinse and repeat. If that linear framework made other parts of your life difficult, from family obligations to your own personal preferred sleep cycle, there was little you could do to change things up for yourself. 

But in remote work, as virtually all communication becomes digital, we have the opportunity to do more of it asynchronously, so that you can work (and sleep) when it works best for you. Sleep equity will be made possible by turning toward a non-linear workweek. And true to its name, it could go in a lot of directions. That’s what makes it so exciting. It all starts with communication.

No more one-size-fits-all schedules

A hypothetical team working under a non-linear schedule with the goal of sleep equity could operate like this: Everyone on a team identifies their ideal or current sleep situation, either through open (lighthearted!) communication or a discussion about everyone’s sleep-energy chronotype. The newest studies suggest that the majority of people fit into one of six sleep patterns.

From there, scheduling workdays can be collaborative rather than prescriptive. If a team is spread across time zones, then the opportunity for trust and collaboration is even greater, and time management becomes a superpower. Members could work shifts across a 24-hour period, collaborating with others in the overlap. Global teams could allow individuals to build schedules that fit their own time zones, rather than orbiting whatever their HQ’s operating hours may be. Want to take it even further? We can break down the entire concept of a workweek to some number of hours that everyone on your team is free to spend how they wish. 

Everyone benefits from working in the style that best fits their life, whether that’s a 4-day workweek or evening hours. As long as all the members of a team know what tasks are expected of them, meet them on time, and contribute to their team’s goals, then the destination is more important than everyone’s personal journey to get there.

Obviously, this approach may not be feasible for all roles or situations. It might be impossible for logistical or client communication reasons. But the main point here is that right now, we’re not having these conversations at all. If everyone on your team prefers afternoon meetings but no one has ever brought it up as a possibility, are you all subjecting yourselves to conference calls where no one is on their A-game because it’s too early in the day?

After the personal and societal whirlwind of 2020, we’ve all been forced to rapidly reevaluate our priorities and what makes us effective in our work. In a way, our ability to focus and achieve will speak louder than it ever has before in lieu of the social mechanisms and buffers of a shared space. If your ability to be your best self and do your best work is being thrown off by a couple of hours one way or another, at what point does a seemingly harmless adherence to rigid work times hold you and your team back?

The world isn’t just full of early birds. And it’s not all night owls either. But how can any team flourish under a system that penalizes 30% of its members before they even get out of bed? Sleep equity is about respecting someone else’s time and process as much as you’d love for them to respect yours.

It’s about crafting a system where everyone feels like an early bird ready to catch that worm. Who wouldn’t want to work on a team like that?