Zoe Kaplan
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Staff Writer & Content Strategist @ Fairygodboss

Flexible work is a buzzwordy benefit for job seekers right now. It’s so important that some say they’d be willing to take lower wages in trade for it.

But what flexibility actually means can differ greatly from one company to another, and even from one employee to the next. For some, flexibility might mean a flex hour every day of the week. Others might think it means a vastly different schedule than the traditional 9-to-5.

When flexibility isn’t clearly defined, it can soon turn from “working when you want” to “always expected to be working.”

University of Kent sociologist Heejung Chung warns against the use of undefined flexibility at work, citing that when employees get more flexibility, they tend to actually work more — working harder and longer hours, and even thinking more about work when they’re not working. 

This overwork — and preoccupation with work during non-work hours — explains why Charlie Sull, cofounder of Culture X, found that predictable schedules, rather than flexibility, were actually key to retaining employees.

“One thing we found is especially powerful is schedules,” he said. “If you make schedules predictable — if you tell employees exactly when they’ll be working, you don’t call them at unexpected times — you can create quite a powerful way to alleviate attrition.”

Instead of letting employees pick and choose their schedules — which is what flexibility might mean to some employees — telling employees exactly when they’re working helps set clear boundaries of when they’re expected to be online. This prevents them from overworking and gives them freedom to be unresponsive when they’re not online.

But schedules don’t necessarily mean flexibility is out of the equation. You can have flexibility beyond the traditional 9-to-5 hours and still have set schedules. 

Setting schedules for yourself and openly communicating them is a great way to incorporate flexibility into your work schedule while maintaining trust and collaboration at work. Start by setting a small boundary and sharing it with your team. This may look like:

Instead of asking for the time, setting the boundary — with a plan for when you’ll respond — sets the right expectations and gives you the space you need.

Communicating the boundary can also set an important example for your coworkers, even if you aren’t a manager. 

Letita Moye-Moore, Vice Present of Diversity Talent at Citi, has a “do you” hour at work where her team can put themselves out of the office for any hour of the day, as long as they’re not missing a critical meeting. But for a long time, her team didn’t take advantage of the hour.

Instead, she had to communicate her boundary to lead by example. 

“It got to a point…where we'll be wrapping up the meeting and I'll say, oh, by the way, I’m going to go put my shoes on, I’m taking a walk. I’m going to go do me,” Moye-Moree said at a panel during Fairygodboss’ Inspiration Summit. “You go do you, or don’t forget to do you.”

By sharing that she was going to take her hour, Moye-Moore opened the door for her team to feel comfortable setting their own schedule and adding a flex hour to their day.

Schedules are a great way for employers to draw boundaries around employee work, but you don’t need an employer to set your own schedule to make work boundaries work for you. Work with the flexibility you do have to set your own working hours, and make sure to communicate them — either implicitly through calendar blocks and Slack or Teams statuses, or directly by giving your colleagues a friendly, but firm, heads up.

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This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.

Would you rather work scheduled hours or have total flexibility? Why? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!