Chronotypes: Should You Let Your Coders Work at Night?

Research shows that people fall into different categories of chronotypes and will achieve different levels of productivity and innovation at different times of the day.

Do you ever find yourself joking about employees that roll in in the morning, puffy-eyed, and can’t seem to work up to an acceptable level of productivity until later in the day? Actually, it’s no joke. Research into chronotypes has found that some people truly are “night owls” or “morning people,” naturally predisposed to different work schedules.

In his presentation at the John C. Maxwell 2018 Live2Lead conference, New York Times best-selling author Daniel Pink shared some insights on this topic from his new book “When.” He pointed out that individuals have certain times in a 24-hour period when their cognitive ability peaks and declines, and people don’t — and can’t — perform consistently throughout the day. It’s important for leaders of software development teams to recognize that this cycle isn’t the same for everyone. “Morning people” or those chronotypes Pink refers to as “Larks,” have a cognitive peak in the morning, followed by a trough, then a recovery time. “Night owls” start the day with a recovery time, then have a trough, followed by a time of optimal cognitive ability.

Maximize Productivity by Assigning the Right Job, at the Right Time, to the Right Chronotype

Research shows that people will perform more productively and produce a higher quality of work if they choose the right time for different types of work:

  • Peak: Vigilance and cognitive ability are high. This is a good time for analytic tasks.
  • Trough: Vigilance, cognitive ability, and mood are low. This is a good time for administrative tasks that don’t require higher-level function.
  • Recovery: Cognitive ability rebounds, but vigilance remains low. This is a good time for brainstorming and innovation — exploring answers to the question “what if?”

Pink points out, however, that we often don’t respect this natural cycle when we work — and managers don’t account for it when leading their teams. “We’re intentional about what we do,” says Pink, “but not when we do it. Daily fluctuations are more extreme than we realize. If leaders are aware of timing, following science and not intuition, you’ll make better decisions and have happier teams that contribute more.”

When Do Your Coders Work?

From Pink’s descriptions of the type of work suited to different phases of a chronotype’s day, it would make the most sense to have coders working during their peak times. Knowing when that is, however, may not be obvious. Whether someone is a morning person or a night owl isn’t always a question you ask during a job interview — although it’s a good idea to do so.

Pink suggests a simple test to determine a person’s chronotype:

  • Ask the individual what time they normally go to sleep on a free day and what time they wake up.
  • Find the midpoint of that time. For example, if a person normally goes to bed at 10 p.m. and wakes up at 6 a.m., the midpoint is 2 a.m.
  • Determine the chronotype:
    • If the midpoint is before 3:30 a.m., you’re dealing with a Lark.
    • If it’s after 5:30 a.m., you have an Owl.
    • If it’s between 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m., the person’s schedule falls somewhere in between, for example, their peak time for analytic work could occur mid-morning or in the afternoon.
The Harm that Comes from Punching a Clock

Forcing your software development team to comply with one, rigid schedule may be hurting the quality of the work they produce and the level of productivity they can achieve.

Pink says it’s smart to consider chronotypes when you schedule meetings. Rather than choosing a time based on availability, set meetings at a time when they’ll produce the best results. Brainstorming sessions, for example, would best be held during workers’ recovery time, and meetings for administrative purposes would make the most sense during a time when workers’ cognitive abilities are low — saving peak times for analytic work.

Granted, it can be challenging to accommodate everyone’s schedules, especially if you find your team is made up of various chronotypes. If your company has a large number of employees, you may want to consider building collaborative teams based on similar schedules so they can comfortably work together throughout the day.

Happy, Productive People

Working with an employee’s natural rhythms can also help to create a more positive, less frustrating work environment. You’ll enable your team members to ride the wave during peak times to maximize their productivity and maybe even have fewer application security flaws to deal with. They may also be more comfortable at work and achieve more success, which could contribute to greater employee retention.

Rethinking schedules will take some effort, and maybe even a radical change to your corporate culture, but the payoff, including greater output, happier employees, and a higher quality of work, could be more than worth it.  

Bernadette Wilson

Bernadette Wilson, a DevPro Journal contributor, has 19 years of experience as a journalist, writer, editor, and B2B marketer.


Bernadette Wilson, a DevPro Journal contributor, has 19 years of experience as a journalist, writer, editor, and B2B marketer.