The best day to go into the office is…
It’s not Monday. Or Tuesday. Or Wednesday. In fact, the very idea of a ‘best’ day to go into the office is misguided
Alex Holliman had a difficult decision to make when he decided to bring some sense of pre-Covid normality to his digital marketing agency, Climbing Trees. He felt that staff cherished time together, with the ability to bounce ideas off each other – but also knew that they wanted to work from home for most of the week. “Some are ambivalent about coming back, some nervous, and some younger team members a bit in need of mentoring or socialising,” he says.
So he sent around a Google Form asking his 10-strong team when they’d feel most comfortable coming into the office during the average week. The result in his company? Wednesday.
Holliman isn’t alone. The return-to-work scramble is upon us, and employees are carving out the days they’re happy to get back into the office and the days they’d like to continue to work from home. Nearly half of workers surveyed by LinkedIn say their bosses want them to come in at least one or two days a week; more than a third are expected in the office for three or four days.
Those that decide to go into the office three times a week are dividing up into separate tribes, all with acronyms: there are the MTFers who go to the office on Monday, Tuesday, Friday, WTFers (who prefer Wednesday, Thursday, Friday), and the MTWers (who will only set foot in the office on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday).
For employers, it’s a headache to top all others. But is there common ground among all the complication? LinkedIn’s research indicates Monday and Tuesday are likely to be the busiest days in physical workplaces. However, the busiest day depends on who you ask. Workplace technology company Freespace has installed 100,000 sensors in offices across 36 countries worldwide. “Our data [gathered during the pandemic] shows that the busiest day of the week for UK offices is Thursday, followed by Wednesday and Tuesday,” says Raj Krishnamurthy, Freespace CEO. “Office occupancy on Monday and Friday remains very low, and this is a pattern which I suspect will remain long-term as people want to go into the office on the same day.”
Many companies seem to be following the idea that people are most productive at the start of the week, and therefore should be in the office on those days. It perhaps stems from the concept of starting each week afresh, and gradually running out of steam as we head towards the weekend. Research by a project management company found Monday and Tuesday nearly tied when it comes to levels of productivity, with the amount of work done dropping off roughly a percentage point each day afterwards – until the weekend, when hardly any work was done. A separate study found Tuesday is the most productive day. “I don’t think it should be the end of the week,” agrees Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, and president of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, an HR industry body. “If it’s going to be any day, it should be the beginning. Productivity drops off as the week goes on.”
But science shows there are issues with that theory.
A scientific study of workplaces and behaviour in them found that people are least civil with colleagues at the start of the week. They gradually become more friendly and engaging with their peers as the week goes on, though become slightly less civil on Fridays than they were on Thursday – but nowhere near the levels at the start of the week.
The argument may then be to become a TWT (Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday) worker, allowing you a four-day weekend. “We predict that with their new-found flexibility almost everyone wants to go into the office on the same days, avoiding Mondays and Fridays so they can ‘shoulder’ the weekend,” says Andrew Mawson, founder of workplace consultancy Advanced Workplace Associates. That’s something data from smart building software company Metrikus shows, too: the most popular days appear to be Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays for physical office work. “The most striking thing is how similar the patterns of occupancy are to pre-lockdown levels, albeit on a smaller scale,” says Michael Grant of Metrikus. “Tuesday and Wednesday regularly swap places as the busiest day of the week, and Fridays are without fail the least popular day of the week.”
The issue? Employers can read whatever they want from the data to support their preference for the days of the week to bring employees into the office. “There's lots of chatter about what days of the week people are more productive on, but that misses the point, really,” says Alex Bryson, professor of quantitative social science at University College London and the co-author of a 2007 study that concluded there was “scant evidence” for any one day being better than any other. “Pose a slightly different question: what is the optimal scheduling of work for my workers, given the way they work and operate together?”
It can be easy to latch onto a generalised, single-day solution, says Diana Wu David, author of Future Proof: Reinventing Work in an Age of Acceleration, and adjunct professor at Columbia Business School Asia. “The smart thing about the impulse to pick a day is simplifying routine,” she explains. But thinking more deeply about what individual teams, projects, or people need is better.
Because of that, some employers are bucking the trend and going with their own data – and taking into consideration that it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. PwC’s ‘flexible work deal’ asks line managers to work with direct reports on which days are best for them, says Cooper. London-based start-up PR agency Words + Pixels surveyed their staff on how long they’d value being in the office on any given week; they said two days. So, Nick Braund, the company’s founder, suggested trying out Monday working in the office to begin with as a way to help set priorities for the week. “It has remained one of our most productive days,” he says.
The second day was Thursday: an early finish on Friday meant staff felt it wasn’t worth coming into the office then then, but they did value having an end-of-week check-in on how work was progressing. “We’ve attempted consecutive days in person but everyone hated it,” says Braund. The new normal of working from home – and the routines that people had got used to – put paid to a Monday and Tuesday in-office working week. “It put us at a disadvantage as we all lost that focus time we have got used to,” he says.
It’s important to be led by the data within your own company, rather than a simplistic solution,” warns Wu David. “While people may anxiously jump onto a day of the week in order to resist what some feel is a pull back to full time work, over time our schedules will become more nuanced,” she says. She advises clients she works with to identify how a business works, who does it, and how they do the work. Then consulting with those workers on which ways they work best offers a potentially more powerful tweak to the way a firm operates.
“You can’t say ‘Let’s all come in on a Tuesday,’” says Cooper. “There’s no special day. The way it should be done is each line manager works with each of their direct reports to figure out roughly what flexible arrangements they want.”