Flexible working arrangements

Guidelines for responsible work schedules

Software engineering jobs offer increasingly flexible working arrangements. That flexibility spans the number of hours you work each day, how frequently you work from home, and how you choose to use your remote time.

While I generally believe people should enjoy the flexible working arrangements available to them, it’s important to remain prudent. Below I’ve suggested a few guidelines for how to contribute to a productive, high-trust environment while also leveraging flexible working arrangements.

To quickly summarize:

  1. Do not abuse a lenient policy
  2. Be transparent about your schedule
  3. Work smart and hard

Let’s dive into each one.

Do not abuse a lenient policy

Abusing a lenient policy creates a culture where the people most willing to push the limits benefit more than those who choose not to.

By way of example, some people choose to work remotely during the day(s) leading up to a holiday or long weekend. People that make a regular habit of spending little to no time on actual work during such periods effectively end up with more vacation time than those who chose a more traditional option (e.g. working in the office or expending a vacation day).

Likewise, some people flex their time when working from home to run errands or take care of family. However, people that make a regular habit of placing personal productivity above work productivity while at home can quickly poison an otherwise productive work culture.

The downside to pushing the limits on these flexible working arrangements should be obvious. It’s not only unfair to your colleagues, but it can also be demotivating or frustrating to those relying on you. Put simply: rewarding people who routinely push the limits creates a culture of jealousy or resentment, and encourages more people to follow suit.

On the other hand, if you or your team have been working especially hard for an extended period of time or consistently work longer hours than is typical, it’s fair for you to be more lenient when it comes to flexing your hours or choosing to work a light day rather than take a vacation day. Similarly, don’t hesitate to take a day off to deal with personal issues, clear your mind, or just recharge. In fact, doing so sets a good example for the rest of your team.

Be transparent about your schedule

Arguably the best way to mitigate any issues, perceived or otherwise, is to communicate your schedule clearly and transparently.

For example, a good rule of thumb is to communicate your leave at least 5x ahead of your planned absence — about a week of notice for a day off, over a month for a week off, etc.

As another example, if you know that you will have distractions on one of the days that you’re supposed to be working remotely (e.g. close to a holiday or while taking care of family), be open about that with the team and communicate how you plan to handle the distractions. It’s okay to have days where you’re not operating at full capacity! The important part is that you tell the team rather than try to hide it. The former builds trust; the latter creates resentment.

Work smart and hard

Finally, the mantra, “hours don’t matter as long as you get your work done” is too simplistic. Work hours do matter — but only up to a certain point. Having a talented person on the team come in late, leave early, or slack off regularly during the day can be demotivating (and therefore counterproductive) for the rest of the team, even if that person’s output is above average. The behavior prioritizes the individual over the team.

Instead, most employees should make sure they’re doing at least 35-40 productive hours of work a week, regardless of differences in skill or efficiency. We should all strive to work smart and hard, not settle for one or the other.

However, there are strong diminishing returns to hours worked beyond that standard. Productivity and quality are often inversely correlated with number of hours worked; stress can rise precipitously without proper time to recuperate; creativity can suffer without the space to think passively; and burn out becomes a serious risk with unrelenting work.

The amount of time you spend working is ultimately a function of your own priorities. You might choose to work more to accelerate your learning or to assume additional responsibilities faster. Alternatively, you might choose to stick with a regimented schedule to protect time with your family, friends, or personal passions. In any case, the decision is a personal one — you do not need to defend or explain it.

The golden rules

To quickly summarize these guidelines through a different lens:

  • You should meet or exceed the work ethic you expect from your teammates.
  • You should meet or exceed the work ethic that is commensurate to your role and company.

As long as you’re doing both of those, you can and should take full advantage of the flexibility your job offers!

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