The Pros and Cons of Working the “Third Shift”

I often work a Third Shift on the laptop after Nick's asleep
I often work a Third Shift on the laptop after Nick’s asleep

More and more employees are working a metaphorical Third Shift. They put in their day at work, come home to spend time as an active parent, and then, after the kids go to sleep, they log in to work and put in a few more hours.

Third Shifting allows more time for family, but we need to be careful as it can perpetuate the notion that we must always be available to work.

The other day, I took a call from a reporter from Fatherly.com, a new online magazine for millennial dads. They do some great work, including this list of 50 Great Employers for New Dads.

The reporter asked me about Third Shifts for an upcoming piece, and ever since our interview, I found myself thinking more and more about whether the Third Shift is a good or bad thing. I guess like most things, it is a little bit of both.

When used appropriately, the Third Shift is a useful strategy for balancing work and family. Instead of say, working 9 until 6:30 and then getting home just in time to scarf down a hurried dinner and do the bedtime routine does not leave a lot of time for family life. If however, one could leave work at 4:30 instead, and make up for the missing work time from 9 until 11, it would open up time for family while maintaining the same work hours. This is a common form of Time Shifting, which was the focus of my dissertation years ago, and is discussed in my book, The Working Dad’s Survival Guide (Follow that link to pre-order on Amazon).

I bet lots of us work at least an occasional Third Shift. I know I do. I’d rather spend the evening with Amy and Nick and then grade my papers after Nick’s in bed. Lots of dads with more demanding schedules probably Third Shift way more than I do.

While Third Shifting does open time for life, it does very little to reduce the expectations of well-more-than-full-time work hours. It may even perpetuate the notion that, to be a productive employee, one must work a full day and also work a few extra hours from home. Research on productivity and chronic overwork demonstrate that continually logging long hours actually decreases performance — and causes stress that leads to burnout, a loss of commitment to work, and an increased likelihood one quits their job.

You need to take charge of your time use
You need to take charge of your time use (photo used under Creative Commons license)

Even more perniciously, when Third Shifts become an expectation for employees, this actually erodes and contaminates family time. Third Shifts can become the beginning of the slippery slope leading to the demand that we must “always be on call” to work. We need to stop that slide before it starts.

In my opinion, Third Shifts are best used as an occasional trade-off for when you use traditional work time for family activities, rather than an everyday occurrence. It should be a safety valve, not a standard operating procedure.

In fact, I think it would be wise if we all worked with our supervisors and coworkers to let them know that when you have to leave early for a school event, doctor’s appointment, or other family-related responsibility, that you will either make sure you get to everything you have to do earlier that day or that you will log in after hours to make up the work. And that otherwise, you will only occasionally, when it is absolutely necessary, be available for work during family time and the Third Shift.

A great book, Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self-Help for the Chronically Overworked,  by my friend Greg Marcus discusses how to set these expectations with your coworkers and supervisors. He advises starting off by telling people that you will only check messages once per night, and will only respond if the response absolutely cannot wait until the next day. If you maintain this discipline, eventually others get it. If your performance remains great, eventually, no one will mind.

Do you work the Third Shift? What’s your experience, either good or bad? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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12 thoughts on “The Pros and Cons of Working the “Third Shift”

  1. As a section manager, after the birth of my second child I negotiated time off during the day in exchange for working the Third Shift.

    It worked well for me and, after rethinking some aspects of what “management” meant (moving to negotiated monthly objectives with greater day-to-day autonomy) it also worked well for my team.

    My boss never really liked it though, although he could never explain why except that “it’s important to be seen at work” (why?).

    So eventually I quit to set up my own business.

    • Thanks for sharing this. It is definitely true that many managers have a hang up about “face time.”

      I’m also a big fan of a shift towards autonomy and management by objectives. As you describe, this takes the focus off time and on to productivity, freeing up folks to work schedules that work best for them.

  2. The third shift is a very interesting idea in order to balance work and life but in my opinion it should be an exception.Sometimes you could do your job at home but your boss wants you to be at your desk.   In my life the third shift is very important for hobbies, for example for writing my blog 🙂  

  3. These days the Third Shift is inevitable because of the proliferation of smart phones and WIFI. Yes, technology is great for productivity, but in the good ole days, you often couldn’t check email at night. I agree that expectations need to be negotiated up front when possible so you don’t get trapped. A little while back I got wind that there was an impression that I wasn’t engaged enough. I was often off the clock around 5. (Didn’t matter that I start at 7). So, I do some email on the Third Shift and voila stellar performance review!

  4. My Third Shift is in the AM, before anyone wakes up. It also happens to be my most productive time. I essentially work from 5:30-4:00 with a break from 7:30-8:30 as my kids get up and out of the house. Fortunately, my organization doesn’t expect 24/7 connectivity.

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