There’s plenty of science to suggest flexible work schedules are critical for happier, more productive employees, and a more successful company overall.
For instance, take a look at this graph from The Economist, which shows that working fewer hours correlates with higher levels of productivity in the form of increased GDP (gross domestic product). I guess there’s something to be said for the old “work hard, play hard” motto.
Additionally, Jabra, a Denmark-based electronics company, found that, in 2018, four times more employees believe working from home to be the most productive option, compared to people’s perceptions in 2015. In recent years, more people prefer to work from home and believe it to be more productive than working in an office.
But let’s put the data aside for a second. I’m willing to bet we’ve all had those afternoons when we’ve felt entirely unproductive, but still sat at our desks until five p.m. anyway just to clock in the hours.
Or, we’ve wished we could have the mornings free to run errands and spend time with family, but a traditional work schedule doesn’t leave us the option to meet those demands.
Ultimately, we’ve all been in situations where our rigid work schedule has been a hinderance to our productivity in the office, and our priorities outside of it. A flexible work schedule could allow you to work when you’re most productive, and give you the autonomy you need to create an ideal work-life balance, however that looks to you.
There are pros and cons to flexible schedules, just like there are pros and cons to a rigid nine-to-five job. But, as the Jabra study indicates, flexible schedules are becoming more typical nowadays, so we’ve compiled a list of everything good, bad, and surprising about implementing flexible work hours at your office.
What is a flexible work schedule?
A flexible work schedule allows employees a level of autonomy to create their own schedules and find a work-life balance that works for them. Rather than a traditional, 40 hour nine-to-five work week, a flexible schedule allows employees to vary the times they begin and end their work day. There is still structure to a flexible work schedule: employees must work a certain number of hours, or come up with an alternative agreement with their employer regarding office hours verus remote time.
Flexible Schedules: The Good
1. You can adapt your schedule to fit family needs.
If you make your own hours, you can ensure those hours adapt to your family and social life demands. For instance, we have parents at HubSpot who make their hours fit around their children’s daycare schedules: they work early in the morning, take a break in the afternoon to pick up their kids, and then resume work later in the evening. Or perhaps your flex schedule is less rigid than that -- maybe you just want time to see your son’s soccer games, or your sister’s graduation, and you need flexibility to manipulate your work schedule without taking time off.
Emily MacIntyre, HubSpot’s Marketing Team Development Manager, agrees that there are pros and cons to flexible schedules in regards to parenting: “There are often in-office events after work that I have to miss out on, because I need to be home. But I get to see my daughter, and spend time with her each night, so it’s a trade-off.”
Ultimately, a flexible schedule can go a long way towards maintaining a healthy work-life balance and protecting important relationships in your life.
2. You can indulge in self-care.
It might sound strange, but having the option to occasionally put your personal needs before work can help you find more joy throughout your day. Plus, in a University of Warwick study, happiness made people approximately 12% more productive. Self-care can be anything from a noon cycling class to finding time to meditate in the park -- anything that makes you feel better able to tackle your responsibilities with a clear mind.
3. Your employees can pursue passions outside of work.
Unfortunately, your employee’s passions can’t always fit outside a nine-to-five work schedule. Sometimes that poetry class starts at four, and other times your hiking group leaves at noon on a Friday.
4. Your employees can work whenever they’re most productive.
For me personally, this is the single most important benefit to flexible schedules: I work insanely well in the mornings. On some mornings, it feels like I can finish two-weeks worth of work before noon. But then, around three or four p.m., it becomes a struggle to even write a grocery list. My brain just doesn’t seem to function past that time. On the other hand, one of my coworkers does best when he can come into the office around 10 a.m., and then work, head-down, later into the night.
Tony Schwartz, author of The Way We're Working Isn't Working, writes about the importance of working like a sprinter. He says it’s important to work intensely and distraction-free for a period of time, but equally critical to take regular renewal breaks to recover from that intense work period.
Ultimately, your employees aren’t all going to be productive at the exact same time. Flexibility allows them to become better workers -- they will get everything accomplished during the hours they want, and they won’t feel burnt out from sitting at their desks during times they are unproductive.
5. Your employees can avoid rush hour.
This might seem trivial, but it’s not -- in 2017 in Boston alone, a rush hour commuter wasted approximately two and a half full days out of a year sitting in a car. That’s almost a full 60 wasted hours where they could have been spending time mentally preparing for their day. A truly painful commute could even eventually drive employees to search for companies closer to home or with different hours. An easy way to improve employee satisfaction is to allow commuters the option to avoid traffic by leaving even just thirty minutes later.
One study by McGill University’s Charis Loong and colleagues found that “satisfaction with travel mode is associated with higher odds of feeling energized and being punctual,” and “the strain of the daily commute can negatively impact performance at work.” Unfortunately, a terrible commute can interfere with your employee’s levels of energy and productivity, so it’s important to consider alternative options.
6. You give employees a sense of autonomy.
People like control over their schedules -- it enables them to feel fully in charge of their work and personal lives, and makes them feel like their company trusts them. HubSpot’s Culture Code recognizes the importance of autonomy, saying, “Results matter more than the number of hours we work. Results matter more than where we produce them.” And, referring to the Economist graph we mentioned earlier, we can see it’s true -- people are more productive even when they work fewer hours, so why not let people choose whichever time they need to commit to deliver the best results?
Siobhán McGinty, a Campaign Marketing Manager in HubSpot's Dublin office, says her flexible schedule gives her the opportunity to “live my best life. I enjoy getting up at 7 a.m., clearing my emails, enjoying my coffee and getting some work out of the way early on in the day. I also enjoy taking two hours off in the middle of the day to go to the gym, or do yoga, or -- if it’s pay day -- get a massage.”
7. You can recruit and retain better talent.
Flexible schedules have been shown to increase employee productivity and overall morale. Ultimately, you can use the benefits of a flexible schedule as a selling point for hiring better talent.
The Creative Group surveyed marketing and advertising executives, and found 33% are offered flexible schedules and remote options. Offering flexible schedules is a good way for your company to attract talent and stand out from competitors in the industry, particularly as flex hours and remote work rise in popularity and employees begin to expect it from their next job.
Flexible Schedules: The Bad
We’ve covered seven different ways flexible schedules can benefit both employers and employees. But like any work arrangement, there are also some downsides to consider before committing to becoming a flexible workplace. Here are a few risks associated with flexible schedules.
1. It’s more difficult for you to arrange meetings with your team.
If everyone has different schedules, figuring out everyone’s availability can get tricky -- for instance, perhaps you can’t have any nine a.m. meetings because three people on your team don’t arrive until 10 a.m. This gets even harder if your team works around the globe, or if you need to schedule meetings with clients who work the traditional nine-to-five.
2. Lines between work and life blur more drastically.
Maybe you’re working from home and your roommate asks you to go to a cycling class at noon, and suddenly it’s three p.m. and you’ve still got a ton of work to do. Or maybe your kids interrupt meetings and calls with pleas for trips to the pool. Whatever the case, life intervenes more drastically when you’re working flexible hours, particularly if you’re working remote. Plus, if all the people in your life work nine-to-five, they might try to pressure you into plans that are inconvenient for your schedule, since you “make your own schedule anyway.” Drawing boundaries between personal life and work can get difficult.
Besides having a tough time getting into work mode when you’re tempted by your personal life, it’s also often challenging to shut off “work mode” when you can technically work whenever you want. Maybe it’s eight p.m. and you simply can’t relax when your desk, and all those piles of work, is within view. During those instances, it’s important you separate work from the rest of your life as much as possible, even creating a separate office space and closing the door when you leave.
3. You won’t find much structure at home.
If you’re working remote, there’s very little structure. With that freedom to take breaks, you might suddenly find you’re getting very little done. Working remotely often requires more focus and discipline than working in an office. You’ll need to set your own rigid structure and stick to it, or you might risk your performance sliding as you take more TV breaks or spend precious productivity hours folding laundry.
4. It can be difficult to create a bonded team.
If you’ve got a team that works from wherever, whenever, it can be hard to pencil in time to develop organic, authentic relationships between your team members. It just doesn’t happen as naturally as it would if everyone sat beside one another 9 to 5 and digressed into talks about the latest Bachelorette episode. One way to counteract this is to plan fun corporate team-building activities, but you might still need to work with everyone’s flex hours or remote time.
Siobhán McGinty admits remote work in particular can get lonely, so, “to overcome that, I set up virtual “water cooler chats” with people on the team if I have 15-30 mins between meetings. It also helps to maintain rapport.” She also says she “practiced” going remote by initially working from home a few days a week, and eventually working her way up to full-time remote, and admits while rewarding, it’s also difficult.
Flexible Schedules: The Surprising
We’ve explored some pros and cons of a flexible schedule for employees and employers, but there are some additional surprising facts you should know when deciding if flexible schedules is right for you and your company.
1. The more flexible your employees' schedules are, the longer they’ll work.
If you’re worried about employees taking advantage of flexible hours and working an hour a day before hitting the beach, don’t be -- Heejung Chung, a senior lecturer at University of Kent in the UK, conducted research with her colleague Yvonne Lott, and found there’s a tendency for people with more autonomy over their schedules to work longer hours, regardless of level of influence or job type. In fact, “this increase in working hours was greatest when workers had full atonomy over their working hours.”
One explanation for this is known as the gift exchange theory, which is the idea that you’re grateful when your employer gives you a flexible schedule and you see it as a gift, which you feel obligated to repay by working harder and longer. You want to prove you deserve the flexible schedule, so you push yourself to work over eight hours a day.
2. Flex hours make your employees happier -- and their children.
A study conducted by the American Sociological Review found workers with flex hours slept better, felt healthier, and were less stressed than their nine-to-five counterparts. Overall, the group with flex hours felt happier than the group with a rigid schedule. But, most surprisingly, as noted by the New York Times, is “the effects even cascaded down to employees’ children, who reported less volatility around their own daily stresses; adolescents saw the quality of their sleep improve.” Happiness is contagious, and so is stress, so it makes sense parents with lower levels of stress and higher levels of happiness were able to spread those emotions to their children.
3. It might be harder to get flexible hours if you’re a woman.
A 2014 experiment by Furman University sociologist Christin Munsch showed 600 participants a transcript of a conversation between an employee asking for flexible hours and an HR representative. Shockingly, when participants assumed it was a man asking for flexible time, almost 70% said they’d be likely or very likely to approve the request, compared to 56% when they believed it was a woman making the request. There are other studies supporting the same hypothesis -- that it’s harder for a woman to receive flex time than a man -- here.
Munsch speculated the study’s results come from inherent gender biases when it comes to childcare: the participants might’ve felt impressed by a man’s desire to spend more time at home with children, while they might’ve felt a woman should find a better way to balance her home and work obligations. Of course, this varies immensely company to company and even country to country, but it’s important for employers to keep it in mind if they’re in charge of approving flexible work schedules for employees.
So what now?
Ultimately, providing flexible schedules for employees won’t work for every company or every department. For instance, if your employees work in the services industry and often speak both on the phone and in-person with clients, perhaps you need them to maintain a nine-to-five schedule. Hopefully, weighing these pros and cons will help you make the best decision for your team, or even brainstorm alternative ways to combat some of the negative consequences of a traditional work schedule.
Originally published Jun 26, 2018 6:00:00 AM, updated March 13 2020