Core Hours

One of the first practices an Agile Scrum team agrees upon is when they will work together. The time and duration each day, they will interact, collaborate and inspire each other on the team’s backlog of work and its common goals. This includes participating in team meetings, pair programming or simply being available and accessible to help each other. This practice is referred to as the team’s “core hours”. One team called it their “Get ‘er Done Time”. Another team simply called it their “Work Together Session”.

Core Hours Aren’t The Same As Core Hours

When deciding on their core hours, team members will usually consider a start time and a duration. It’s a team decision arrived at based on accommodating the individual team member’s preferences. A team’s core hours are typically less than a full working day. This allows time for team members to engage with people external to the team and deal with personal lifestyle matters. For example, a team’s core hours could be daily from 10 am to 3 pm.

The term “core hours” is not unique to Agile teams. It can also refer to the operating hours of a business or the standard hours of work for the employees of a business. For example, 9am-5pm. More recently, “core hours” has also been used to describe the “set times that all employees must be available for meetings, collaboration and other interactions with colleagues”. Pre-COVID, “available” would have meant “in-the-office”. In our current remote work world, it means “on-line and accessible”. This latest definition of core hours at an enterprise wide level bears similarities to the definition of core hours at an Agile team level. However, there are differences.

Motivation, Benefits & Challenges

Comparing Agile team core hours with enterprise-wide core hours, there are similarities and differences. Here is a list of characteristics that I’ve noted for each type of core hours.

One key difference I see is what motivated the desire for core hours.

  • Agile teams needed a way to nurture collaborative work and minimize interruptions. This was a good practice when teams were physically colocated. It’s even more so now, when team members are all remote. When team members are physically together within sight and earshot of each other, it’s so much easier to look up and ask for help or offer help to someone else. When remote, our online chat tools become our eyes and ears during core hours. When it comes to minimizing interruptions, physically colocated teams have an advantage. Especially if the colocated space has a door. It’s visible to everyone when someone from outside the team (including managers) is trying to interrupt one of the team members. And easier for the Scrum Master to gate-keep against any unnecessary interruptions. This is not so easy with remote teams. The same online chat tools used to connect with each other may also become the source of external interruptions. It becomes harder, if not impossible for the Scrum Master to act as gatekeeper for access to the team. The onus then, falls on each team member to resist remote interruptions during core hours.
  • The enterprise was seeking better work/life balance for its staff. During the pandemic, it was difficult to separate work from home life. Our virtual tools essentially invite the potential for 7/24 availability and access. The use of company wide core hours helps mitigate realizing and condoning that potential. One company I know of has forbidden any meetings over lunchtime. They have not adopted core hours (yet) but this small step made a huge difference in people’s morale. The CEO of another company shifted all her employees from a 5-day work week to a 4-day work week during the pandemic to address employee burnout. And she did it without changing their pay and compensation! The surprising result was an increase in business including higher revenue and larger average deal size for her firm! Both these examples, albeit not definitively core hours per se, are in the spirit of its intent.

A couple of key similarities I see are:

  • Both benefit from an increase in people interactions and innovation. An opportunity to check-in, share, explore and co-create together. Core hours in both cases foster the proverbial water-cooler conversations so essential to chance encounters and out-of-the-box thinking.
  • Both may be challenged by management tampering with a belief that if something works then why not do more of it? The belief that increasing the duration and frequency of core hours would in turn, increase productivity ad infinitum. To a point where there is no difference between the core hours and an employee’s standard 8-hour work day. I could imagine this tendency to tamper increases substantially for micro managers of remote teams and staff. I could also imagine the surprise when the tampering results in the opposite effect – a productivity drop.

Unexpected Challenges

In addition to the common challenges noted above, there may be additional unexpected challenges. For teams new to Agile ways of working, the practice of “core hours” may feel unnatural and even subversive. One recent new Agile Scrum team I’ve been helping coach, resisted the practice for the following reasons:

  1. Requiring the entire team to be present during the team’s core hours “feels like micro management”. Why not just let the team members coordinate interactions on their own?
  2. Some people on the Scrum team were not fully dedicated to the team so could not commit to the core hours due to their other obligations outside the team.
  3. The value of core hours was questionable given the historically individual nature of their work. “Why do I need to get together with others when I’m doing my work?

The team was still stuck in their old natural ways of working.

As we start to venture out of our pandemic induced cocoons and into a post-COVID world, the practice of core hours may be essential to the success of other future workplace realities and innovations including:

  • Hybrid back-to-work strategies
  • Co-sharing office real estate
  • Less than 5-day work weeks
  • Geographically distributed agile teams
  • Virtual presence and workplaces

Let’s wind up that clock.

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