The Business of Night Working
Anyone working between Night 11pm and 6am on a regular basis is classed as a night worker. In the majority of cases their managers are day workers. So, how can this ever work?
There are predominately two shift patterns used for night workers: twelve-hour shifts and eight-hour shifts. There is much debate about which pattern is most effective. Much academic study has been done on the impact of each on long-term worker health, but that’s a topic for another blog. Here we focus on the rationale for night work and the management of the workers.
The rationale for night working
Let’s consider a scenario. A company is selling products online. Customers are located across the world. The customer services team is based in the UK. Covering shifts from 7am to 7pm they are able to take calls from a wide range countries across the world. A decision is taken to implement night working to increase sales by providing customer support 24/7. This will allow contact with potential customers worldwide.
Setting up night working from scratch is not easy. There are so many questions. How many people do you need? How long will they work? How will you manage them?
In many cases, firms simply decide to open their call centre for more hours to service customers without thinking through their business plan. They don’t model their business; they don’t work out how much increased business they will gain based on their increased overheads. Overheads include salary and other costs such as utilities required to keep the business operating.
Outcomes can be increased profit through increased sales and better asset utilisation. But outcomes also include the staff negativity that can occur due to the new working pattern.
Staff working nights are not able to interact with the majority of the other staff in the firm. In many cases, night workers will consist of a handful of staff whose movements are restricted to certain areas of the building so as not to compromise security.
In many scenarios the rationale for night working is finance-centric rather than employee-centric. There is little consideration given to the employees. How do they leave the building at night if they want to take a break? How many workers are on duty? What happens in an emergency? How is sickness absence and holiday covered? These are all questions that need to be addressed when the business rationale is being developed. Sadly, in many cases, such considerations are ignored.
Commitment, engagement and motivation are all important – they are distinct personal outcomes for each employee. The firm must manage each. Commitment put simply, means that the person wants to (or needs to) turn up at work. Engagement (caring about their work and the firm) then follows, provided that the conditions are right. Motivation, the reason for doing something, follows commitment and engagement. If night working is not implemented and managed properly commitment, engagement and motivation will be severely damaged.
Research shows that there are about 3 million night workers in the UK. Research also shows that there is an increased risk that night workers will suffer from heart disease, cancer, diabetes and depression. So, how can managers lower this risk for their night working employees?
One simple way to show that the worker is valued is to change the manager-worker interaction. Typically, when a manager wants to meet with a night worker, it is the night worker who has to change their shift and come to work during the day. Why? The manager may feel that they are maintaining the power balance, but they are impacting commitment, engagement and motivation. Night working shifts the body clock, and to be told to change one shift to accommodate a daytime meeting can have longer-term consequences. What stops the manager from working later one night, or coming in earlier to have the meeting at the start or end of the worker’s shift? This simple act shows that the manager cares about the worker. Commitment will increase and stress will be reduced.
Let’s now consider how often a day manager normally interacts with night workers. Has the manager ever spent a shift with the night workers so that they truly understand what the workers do? Without knowing what occurs during a night shift how can a manager support the night worker? How can they appraise the worker?
In many cases the night workers will have night supervisors who also work during the night. This solves the need for direct supervision of the night workers. But, these night supervisors are also likely to have a manager who works days. How often does that day manager meet the night supervisor over breakfast for meaningful discussions?
If night workers are not to feel abandoned, managers should be seen around at night.
In our scenario discussed earlier, a small group of workers were employed as night workers. They needed to be recruited and inducted - all done during the day. The night workers did not experience night-time within the building until after their induction. Working at night in an almost empty and quiet building is very different to working in a full and vibrant building during the day. This difference is very rarely considered and many leave shortly after joining. Night shift is not for everyone.
Employing a small number of night workers based on the perceived workload means that there is little scope to cover illness and holiday. Workers can suddenly be required to work on their own, or with only one or two others. In such situations it is difficult to manage breaks, particularly if someone wishes to leave the building. These scenarios should all be considered before night working is implemented.
Finally, the additional revenue derived from implementing night working many not justify the additional spend of setting up and running a night shift once all costs are included. A full analysis should be undertaken to ensure that the business model is sound.
The additional business achieved must be balanced against all options. Instead of night shifts, can the day shifts be extended to accommodate longer hours? How much benefit would extended daytime hours bring? What additional benefit would night working bring?
These questions (and many others) need to be answered before night working is implemented. A full cost/benefit and risk assessment must be undertaken. In many cases night working is only marginally more profitable than extended daytime hours. And, the damage done to commitment, engagement and motivation far outweighs increased asset utilisation.