Ah, autonomy. Isn't it grand? No defined time when you have to arrive at the office. No guilt over having to leave early for your kid’s recital. And if you’re not feeling well or the roads are bad, no problem -- just work from home.
But is it ever really that simple? After all, other things become more salient when you’re working from home, like that pile of laundry that needs to get done, or a plethora of mindless daytime TV viewing options. That’s one issue with autonomy -- it’s entirely up to you to get your stuff done. You have to set your own deadlines and hold yourself accountable to deliverables, because no one is looking over your shoulder.
But what does the latter look like? How can you still manage to get stuff done with the boundaries that many of us became accustomed to before we had this kind of autonomy? As it turns out, it’s more than possible -- and we’ve got a few tips.
(P.S. - Speaking of flexibility, we just launched our annual Year in Review, detailing a year of flexibility in our people, product, and place around the world. Check it out here.)
The Art of Managing a Flexible Schedule
1) Maintain a Routine
Here at HubSpot, our culture promotes a healthy dose of employee autonomy and flexibility. So when it came time to evaluate the best methods for managing a flexible schedule, my colleagues seemed like a good resource.
Chelsea Hunersen, our social media marketing manager, emphasized the importance of having consistent daily habits. “Start every day at the same time, with the same routine, even if you have to do different things after that,” she explained. “For example, I start each day reading for 30 minutes.”
People often allude to the benefit of having a routine, but little has been done to explain why it’s so good for us. According to psychologist Wendy Wood, there’s a reason why we form habits -- “We find patterns of behavior that allow us to reach goals.” Maintaining a daily routine helps us to establish a foundation that helps us achieve productive goals, like getting our work done or started by a certain time. So even though my manager doesn’t have any specific parameters for what it means to get to work “on time,” I established my own and have a routine planned around it. That way, I can hold myself accountable to making sure I have enough time to get all of my tasks done, even without a schedule dictated by my employer.
2) Treat It Like A "Real" Work Day
Here’s another place where the benefits of a routine come in. As noted above, we form habits that will help us accomplish a goal -- good or bad. When you have a flexible work schedule, treating it like anything other than a “real” work day can throw you off-course and cause you to send yourself the message that your deadlines don’t matter as much.
So in addition to starting every day with the same routine, says Thinkgrowth.org Editor Janessa Lantz, treat every day with equal importance, even if your schedule varies.
“If you’re working from home on a regular basis, it’s good to get into a habit of showering and getting dressed,” she says. “You’re really just doing it for yourself, and I’m not even sure that it makes you more productive, but it does provide some parameters that say, ‘work day has begun!’”
As silly as it may sound, sending yourself these signals can accomplish a lot for your outlook and approach to your work. In fact, researchers have found that dressing formally correlates with a person’s ability to engage in abstract thought -- that’s especially good for marketers and other creative professionals. That’s not to say you should sport full evening attire when you’re working from home, but you should still follow the steps that you would with a structured work schedule. You’ll probably find that it shifts your state of mind in a way that prepares you for and signals the work day ahead.
3) Have a Hard Stop on the Workday
By that same account, you also need to know when to call it quits. Having an unconventional work schedule, especially a remote one, can often leave people without ambient signals -- like people going home -- that the work day is over.
Just as getting dressed in the morning sends the internal message, “The work day has begun,” says Lantz, you also “put your pajamas to communicate, ‘work day is over!’ Otherwise, you will forget what time and eventually day it is, and that's scary.”
When working remotely, I’ve been known to keep plugging away long after dark when I’m really absorbed with my work. And with no other signal than the dog whining to be fed, I don’t have any parameters to indicate that it’s time for me to turn off my laptop and focus on my non-work life.
So how do you implement a hard stop to the work day without set hours dictated by your employer? Well, one easy solution is to set an alarm. Just as you have one to wake you up, you can also use it to wind down. Set it for a time that allows you a few minutes to wrap up whatever you’re working on, so you don’t have to stop abruptly in the middle of a task.
When you’re granted a high amount of autonomy, it’s also easy to lose track of the amount of time you spend on a single task. When your hours aren’t dictated by your employer, it can be easy to think, “Oh, I have plenty of time to work on this,” only to look at the clock and realize that the day is almost over. Trust me -- I’ve been there.
That’s why Hunersen suggests using your calendar as a to-do list. By creating calendar invites for the tasks you need to accomplish each day, you’re achieving two things:
Being reminded of your tasks, especially if you schedule them with an alert.
Managing your own time and dictating the amount of time you can allot to each task.
We also suggest scheduling breaks and the aforementioned “hard stop” in the same way. I’ve written before about how I use this technique. It’s called "time blocking," which means I put appointments in my calendar for practically everything -- work projects, exercise, and even shutting down my electronics before bed. Do I always stick to that exact schedule? Of course not. But by having it right in front of me, it reinforces that those are things I need to do.
And even if that’s not the case, it doesn’t hurt to maintain good communication with your boss, even if you’re not in the same physical location. Keep her updated on your progress and deliverables -- that will help to establish trust, and provide the reassurance that you’re not watching hours of Netflix when you should be working.
That said, if you do need to pause at any point in the day for non-work obligations, like a doctor’s appointment, plan ahead for it, and let your manager ahead of time that you’ll be offline. And when you’re away from your desk for other activities, make sure you’re still reachable -- even with a flexible schedule, it’s probably not a good idea to disappear for two hours to run errands and leave your team unable to contact you in case of emergency.
6) Understand How Screwed You'll Be If You Put Things Off
As we’ve covered in the tips above, when you have a flexible work schedule, it can be easy to feel somewhat immune to time. And without pre-established hours, thoughts like, “Sure, I can finish this project on Sunday,” start to occur naturally.
It’s what the Procrastination Research Group calls “self-defeating behavior,” and yet, about 90% of us do it at least once a day. But not giving into the temptation to put things off, especially in a somewhat unique professional situation, is a challenge. It requires a lot of willpower, but it’s not impossible.
First, remind yourself -- again -- about the purpose of this flexibility. It’s designed to allow you more time beyond nights and weekends to dedicate to self-care and family. So, do you really want to write that monthly report on a Sunday afternoon? If you’d really prefer to have a few extra hours on a Wednesday instead, go for it. But be honest with yourself, and genuinely evaluate how you want to allocate your free time.
Also, ask yourself how often things really go according to plan. Between now and Sunday, for example, what are the chances that something is going to come up or get pushed aside, putting even more responsibilities on your to-do list? As I mentioned before, even when I use time blocking to schedule my week down to the minute, other things always come up. Therefore, when I put things off, I inevitably end up -- for lack of a better word -- screwed.
So before you decide to procrastinate, carefully consider your priorities. Try not to give in -- unless you’re putting something off for a remarkable obligation or event, you’ll probably be glad you didn’t.
Flex Those Productivity Muscles
It’s true -- you can still get stuff done with autonomy and flexibility. Managers and employees, take note: It can be accomplished, often to the benefit of you both.
But as we’ve seen, without the right approach and protocols, it’s not something that can be perfectly executed. It requires mindfulness, communication, and the ability to prioritize strategically. That doesn’t mean it can’t or shouldn’t be granted. It just means that it requires good judgment.
So if you don’t already have a flexible work schedule -- but you want one -- here’s some helpful information to present to your manager when making the case for this setup. Address her potential concerns and outline how you’ll mitigate them. And if you’re one of the lucky ones who already has this kind of autonomy, now you can even better use it to your advantage.
How do you manage a flexible schedule? Let us know in the comments.
Originally published Feb 22, 2017 6:00:00 AM, updated March 29 2018