What does it mean to work flexibly?

2020 has brought many things – not all of them welcome – but for many office workers one of the more significant changes has been the acceptance of working from home.

Of course, there are many jobs that can’t be carried out remotely but, for a lot of people, the increased flexibility that comes with home working is a benefit. For others, it may be less welcome – for example those who do not have a regular place to work from, or who share a house with family who are also competing for the same resources. That means that offices continue to have a role but we’re not quite sure what that is yet. One thing does seem certain: it will continue to evolve over the coming months.

Outputs, not inputs

I’ve been fortunate to have worked from home for some of the time for many years. I’ve been contractually based from home since 2005 but even before then I tried to work from home when I could. What I’ve seen in 2020 is organisations where managers previously wouldn’t allow their teams to work from home being forced to accept change. Very quickly. A culture of “presenteeism” was often rife and sometimes still is. Some organisations have transferred poor office-based culture to a poor online culture but others have embraced the change.

Moving to remote work means providing flexibility. That certainly means flexibility in where work takes place, but it may also mean flexibility in when the work happens.

My own work is contractually 30 hours over a 4 day working week. In reality, it’s not based on hours, it’s based on outputs – and I put in what is needed in order to deliver what is expected of me. That will almost always take more hours – and sometimes there’s a fine balance. Sometimes, I have to say “enough”. I’ve learned that modern work is never “done”, just that priorities change over time. And, as a manager, I have to look for the signs in my own team’s workload and be ready to reassign work or adjust priorities if someone is overloaded whilst a colleague has gaps.

Crucially, I don’t need my team to be in front of me to manage them.

“Working hours”

Similarly, many of us no longer need to be tied to the “9 to 5”. Some roles may require staffing at particular times but, for many office workers, meetings can be scheduled within a set of core hours. For organisations that work across time zones, that challenge of following the sun has been there for a while. Avoiding the temptation to work extended days over multiple time zones can be difficult – but, conversely, working in bursts over an extended period may work for you.

I’m mostly UK-based and nominally work on UK time. For many years, I’ve had an unwritten rule that I don’t arrange meetings first- or last-thing in the day, or over lunch. If that means that all of my meetings are between 09:30 and 12:00 or between 14:00 and 16:30, that’s fine. A solid day meetings is not good. Especially when they are all online!

Before 09:30 people with chlldren may be on the school run. Those with other dependents may have other responsibilities. Everyone is entitled to a lunch break. At the end of the day there may be other commitments, or maybe another meeting is just not going to get the best out of people who have already been in back-to-back Microsoft Teams calls.

Often, I’ll return to work in the evening to catch up on things. That’s not to say I expect others to. I actually have a disclaimer on my email which says:

“My working hours may not be your working hours.  Please do not feel any pressure to reply outside of your normal work schedule. Also, please note that I do not normally work on Fridays. Another member of the risual team will be happy to assist in my absence.”

It’s about setting expectations. In a previous role, I wrote about my email SLA but people shouldn’t feel pressured to respond immediately to email. As a former manager once told me:

“Email is an asynchronous communication mechanism over an unreliable transport.”

[Mark Locke, Fujitsu, approx 2010]

When working across time zones, that’s particularly important but we should also be empowered to work when it works for us.

For me, I’m not great at getting up in the morning. I often get into flow in the late afternoon and work into the evening.

So, whilst I’m sure messages like this one in Microsoft Outlook from My Analytics are well-intentioned, I don’t find them helpful because they are based on the concept of “working hours”. Yes, I could delay send, but what if that person likes to start their day early?

My Anaytics prompt in Microsoft Outlook to consider delaying an email until working hours.

On the basis that email should not be time-sensitive (use a chat-based medium for that – maybe even a phone), it shouldn’t matter when it’s sent, or received. The workplace culture needs to evolve to prevent the “I sent you an email” response from being acceptable. “Ah, thank you. I haven’t seen that yet but I’ll make sure I watch out for it and respond at an appropriate moment.”.

Time to adjust our expectations?

So, in a world of increased flexibility, with colleagues working at a time and place that works for them, we all need to adjust our expectations. I suggest thinking not about when a message is sent but instead about whether email is actually the right medium. And, as for whether we need a meeting or not… that’s a whole blog post in itself…

Featured image by congerdesign from Pixabay.

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