Flexible working can be a double-edged sword. Whether you are a freelancer, or work for a company that allows you to choose your own hours, flexible working can sometimes turn out to mean working all the time.
My thoughts this month are based on a tweet I saw, which led me to this article from 2014. The article encourages people to not work out of hours, and to not send messages out of hours for fear of making other people in the team feel obligated to respond. It suggests that this is a kind of silent peer pressure to other people in the team who were trying to have some downtime. This seem a great aim, if your entire team work the same hours in the same timezone. It doesn’t scale to teams of people who work flexible hours, located around the world, and who switch timezones regularly.
Forcing me into a nine to five on weekdays would make me miserable, it makes no sense. I don’t have children at home with a school hours routine or a partner with a nine to five job. The things I like to do are weather dependent. If the weekend is damp and grey I’ll happily work, in exchange for being able to take advantage of the blue skies and escape for a flying lesson on a Tuesday afternoon. I also travel and switch timezones a lot. I’d be asking a lot of anyone I’m working with to keep tabs on where I am and what I’m working on at any one time.
Being able to escape the nine to five is a reason cited by many people for self-employment, or an attractive feature on an employment contract. If you like to start work at 5am, so you can spend time with your children when they get home from school, or if you do your best work between 6pm and 2am, then why not? However it is interesting how the construct of the nine to five and the weekend will continue to crop up, even among groups of people who are fully aware of the benefits of flexibility.
Do you often work on the weekends, e.g. Saturday or Sunday, or are you usually in a "no-laptop"-mode?— Smashing Magazine (@smashingmag) February 17, 2018
I see a message like that and feel slightly guilty that I work on weekends. Then when I’m not available in the middle of the day on a Tuesday I feel somewhat guilty because I’m out of the office on a workday. Yet neither workday or weekend make a great deal of sense in my life.
The concept of the weekend in the West dates from additional time off being granted to factory workers, in exchange for them promising to come into work refreshed and not hungover on a Monday morning. While most countries have adopted the five day workweek two day weekend pattern, the weekend days are not always Saturday and Sunday. Having a standard pattern that people who need to be in a physical location together follow, still makes sense. The concepts however start to fall apart once we are distributed globally, or even simply taking advantage of working when we are most productive.
It feels as if this is one of those areas where we haven’t quite worked out how it should work, and so we fall back into what are essentially early 20th century patterns for want of a better solution.
None of these musings negate the very real issue the original article was describing, that of people being made to feel they aren’t pulling their weight when they see a team member working out of hours. How can we personally manage our schedules to ensure time off, when there is no standard weekend or end of the working day? How do we ensure that team members take time off, and aren’t stressed by our email in the middle of their time off?
Perhaps the first thing to do is set expectations, new team members need to know that people on this team work all kinds of hours. It is not expected that you reply to messages outside of the times you are at work.
When working with people across timezones, everyone needs to be aware of the need for additional time for a response. Sending a message that something is urgent and must be reviewed TODAY, late afternoon in San Francisco, will arrive in the middle of the night in Europe. Set deadlines for work accordingly, so that a person working in a different location or on a different schedule can respond when they are working. As an additional note, it is always worth using dates and timezones when setting deadlines, to save confusion.
Share schedules in some way. I would personally love a dashboard that tells me in which timezone the Smashing Magazine team members are today, and who is working when. How you do this depends on the size of the team, it might be enough to pop a message into Slack or similar with your schedule for the week.
Many messages we deal with each day are non-urgent, many don't even need a response. They are the notifications, someone comments on a pull request, another person posts a message in Slack about some content that is due next Wednesday. A reply is sent to an email, cc-ing in people who also need to know about that issue. These things are non-urgent and low priority. Yes, they show that someone is working, but if the basic understanding is that due to schedules and timezones someone is always working, these simply need a way to be easily ignored.
Using, and encouraging the use of a work-only email address for notifications, can help here. As can closing down work-related tools which send notifications, or setting yourself as away on Slack. Managers should make it clear to team members that turning off work-related tools is not only encouraged but expected.
Depending on your personality and how you like to deal with things, you might prefer to see emails even when not officially working. I clear my inbox every morning, days off included, because I am far more relaxed that way. That doesn’t mean I do the work, mostly I fire things into OmniFocus as a to-do. To stop a chain of email happening during non-work time, use a tool that will schedule email to be sent on a delay. You can respond to emails that would take longer to file as a to do than respond to, but don’t open up a long communication on a day off. If you are aware of a team members schedule you could also do this as courtesy to them, delay a reply to their email to go out when they are at work.
Finally, there are messages that you never want to end up in someone’s inbox at 10pm on a Friday, or whenever the start of their time off might be. Do not be the person who sends an email which leaves someone worried and miserable for two days. This can be especially tricky with a remote team, being aware of schedules helps, but being aware of your own tone is also important. I am frequently the offender as the sender of angry sounding emails, which were not meant in that way at all! If you do have something tricky that needs to be broached with a team member perhaps don’t send a message at all. Wait until you see they are online and you are aware they are in work, and have that chat face to face via Skype or similar.
I’m no expert on work life balance, the edges of what is work and what is not work have always been blurred for me, long before I worked in this industry. I think however this is an interesting subject to explore. If we are to lose the clocking in and clocking out, lose the office building where we all leave at the same time, lose a Victorian sense of what hard work and working hours actually are, what are we going to replace it with?