Office cleaner
Working outside normal hours has many disadvantages for the workers involved. Researchers have found alternatives in Norway and Sweden. © unsplash+

When office workers arrive at their workplace at nine o'clock in the morning, their offices are already spotless. The cleaning staff arrived hours earlier, or perhaps even the previous night after office hours, to mop floors and empty trash cans. Most of them are women, many of them migrants. Their wages are low, and they do their work late or early so as not to disturb anyone during busy office days. They are not to be seen.

As a result, cleaning staff often work split shifts – for instance from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. For those affected this fragmentation of the day’s work results in numerous disadvantages. Sociologist Karin Sardadvar from the Vienna University of Economics and Business is the first to have placed this issue, which has hardly ever featured in scientific, media or labor law discourse, at the center of a comprehensive research study.

SPLITWORK - “Split shifts and the fragmentations of working lives”, is the name of her project, which receives funding under the Richter Program of the Austrian Science Fund FWF. Sardadvar and her colleagues are investigating the issue of split working hours in the cleaning and care sectors from several perspectives. They record not only the effects on the lives of the workers concerned, but also the entrepreneurial developments and regulatory contexts that permit and facilitate this work format.

Fragmentation of work

Sardadvar has found that the origins of today's split-shift practice date back to the 1980s and 1990s. “Back then, companies began to outsource cleaning work. The new dynamics on the labor market resulted in many part-time jobs and an increase in split-shift regimes,” says Sardadvar. “In the area of care, on the other hand, the split is often due to patients' daily routines. The majority of tasks has to be carried out in the morning or late afternoon and evening.”

Despite the widespread application of split shifts – they are also common in the hospitality industry and public transport – there are no reliable figures on this system to date. “We have only learned from one large survey that twelve percent of workers have working hours with an interruption of more than one hour,” notes Sardadvar. “This figure also includes other forms of employment, however, such as teachers who have free hours or the self-employed who are free to structure their own day.”

Not really free time

From the perspective of those affected, split shifts mean one thing above all: a restriction of their personal, social and family life: “These workers are deployed outside of the worktime patterns usual in our society. Partnerships, childcare and friendships suffer,” says Sardadvar in summarizing her findings from qualitative interviews with those affected.

At the same time, the workers experience off-time between shifts as neither relaxing nor as “genuine” free time. “Having to return to work on the same day creates a pressure that is perceived as restrictive,” notes Sardadvar. Split-shift workers mention the effort of having to travel to and from work twice a day, the hectic pace of housework during the break and the hassle of seeing their school-age children only at the weekend. Sardadvar emphasizes that a study of this kind needs to apply a broader concept of work that goes beyond the mere hours of gainful activity: “In most cases, we are talking about women who also do a large part of the unpaid work in the household. This must also be taken into account.”

Customer orientation and power relations

One reason why companies are introducing split shifts is customer expectations. “People simply expect the cleaning to be done before office hours begin,” says Sardadvar. She points out that cleaning during normal office hours would still be a viable alternative in most cases. According to the sociologist, the disruptions feared by office workers usually turn out to be of little relevance in practice. Cases where daytime cleaning has been implemented show that it is quite feasible to coordinate office work and cleaning activities without disruptions.

On the other hand, daytime cleaning would also have downside aspects for many employees. Being shunted aside to off-peak hours is also a reflection of a power relationship that becomes apparent when cleaning staff return to daytime working hours. “Many of these workers are ill prepared to come into personal contact with the clients,” explains Sardadvar. “In addition, social inequality is often reflected in the way interactions play out.” In interviews and during participant observation the researchers have learned that cleaners are often ignored or treated in a demeaning manner.

Introducing cultural change

Norway, where Sardadvar conducted research on this topic, is a role model for the establishment of cleaning during office hours. “The situation in Norway shows how important it is for the public sector and its organizations to lead the way and initiate a cultural change,” says the sociologist. “But even here, the switch to cleaning during office hours is a long process.” Both office workers and cleaning staff need to adapt their attitudes and behaviors.

In the field of care, on the other hand, the problem that patients' daily rhythms result in split shifts is also due to excessive efficiency requirements. “The care system finances activities such as washing or serving meals, but not social human needs such as chatting, playing or going for a walk,” says Sardadvar. Her research into new working models for the care sector took her to Sweden, where the majority of systems use non-split working hours. Instead of split shifts, care staff work for longer periods at a time, which allows for a more flexible distribution of activities throughout the day as well as social interaction with patients.

While the care sector often provides for contractual limits on the number of split shifts, such regulations are largely absent in the cleaning industry. Hence, collective agreements and social partnership agreements represent starting points for change, notes the researcher. One example would be extending the hours where staff is paid premiums in order to incentivize cleaning during office-hours. Sardadvar: “At any rate, the basis for any change is to devote more attention to the phenomenon of split-shift work and actually recognize it as part of a structural disadvantage that particularly affects women and migrants.”

Personal details

Karin Sardadvar is a researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Empirical Social Research at the Vienna University of Economics and Business. She teaches in the fields of qualitative research methods, work and gender and sustainable management. The SPLITWORK project (“Split shifts and the fragmentations of working lives”), which runs from 2018 to 2024, was awarded EUR 332,000 in funding under the FWF’s Elise Richter Program. In the academic year 2024/25, Sardadvar is a visiting professor for interdisciplinary gender studies at the University of Potsdam.

Pulications

Sardadvar K., Reiter C.: Von den Tagesrändern zu den Geschäftszeiten: Potenziale und Herausforderungen einer Umstellung auf Tagreinigung, in: Zeitschrift für Arbeitswissenschaft Vol. 78, 2024

Sardadvar K., Reiter C.: Neither work nor leisure: temporalities and life world realities of split shift work in the Austrian care sector, in: Culture and Organization 29(5), 416–432, 2023
 

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