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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

How Flex Hours Work in Reality (Because It's Never Quite Clear)

At one of my former places of employment, we kind of, sort of had flex hours. Because I didn’t know enough to ask about the company’s policy during the interview process, I learned on my first day that we were expected to arrive between 9:30 and 10:15 AM and stay until 6:30 or 7 PM, the idea being that if you came in on the later side of that morning range, you’d stay later as well.

I was a pretty strict 9:30 to 6:30 person, and though it seemed nice at the time to not have to be in at 9 AM sharp, there wasn’t much flexibility outside of that. No one—and I mean no one—ever left before 6:30, but most people stayed much later than that. Still, because there was no official start time, my boss often stated how great it was that we had these “flex hours.”

I learned that, unlike a company’s vacation and personal day policy, its “flex” policy is often pretty gray or, even, in some cases, half-baked.

How it’s actually defined varies greatly across organization, and even among managers within those organizations, making it a head-scratching policy for many a professional.

So what can you do to make it more clear? I reached out to two C-level executives at The Muse to get the manager’s take on how bring it up during the interview process, as well as how it really works in practice at an organization (like The Muse) that touts it as a benefit.

Yusuf Simonson, Chief Technology Officer, agrees that there’s no clear definition. As such he has several thoughts on how a candidate can better understand an organization’s system. If you’re a candidate who considers flexible work hours important in your next move, Simonson says there’s “no harm in asking for clarification on what it means to an interviewer if she brings it up.”

You’ve heard us say before that you’re interviewing the company just as much as it’s interviewing you, and so asking for more detail on this gray policy will help you “suss out reasons you may not be a good fit…before going through the crucible of the full interview process.” Simonson is candid: “Frankly, if the interviewer finds questions around the topic off-putting, then it shouldn’t be offered as a benefit in the first place.”

On the other hand, if leeway in your workday isn't something you care about—maybe the more traditional nine to six set-up suits you just fine—then you might as well hold off on asking for clarifying details, even if you find yourself beginning to be intrigued by the idea of it.

Kara Walsh, Chief Marketing Officer, stresses the importance of not just when you ask, but how. The reason the “how” is important is because “You don’t want to come across as a can't-live-without-structure person, or somebody thinking ‘woo hoo, I can do whatever I want, whenever I want!’” Obviously, neither of these characterizations will impress a hiring manager. But, explains Walsh, “If you ask about the range of norms across groups, and for some examples of how employees use it to their (and the company's) benefit,” you’ll gain a better understanding of “how the policy typically works in practice.” And, since “it's always healthier to communicate needs and expectations at the beginning of a potential relationship,” you’ll be doing your future employed self a real service.

Obviously, if the topic’s brought up by your interviewer, it’ll be easier for you to glean more information without seeming like it’s the only thing you care about. Still, if your previous employer was so rigid that you believe you absolutely must have some flexibility to succeed in the role, it’d be foolish not to broach the subject even if the hiring manager doesn’t mention it.

You don’t need to come straight out and ask if the hours are flexible though; you can glean information on how strict the office hours are by asking leading questions, such as, “What’s a typical day-to-day like? When do people typically clock in and out? Do you have many remote employees” Your goal should be finding out if what the company is offering resonates with you.

Although Walsh believes it’s fine if “it comes up organically earlier in the process,” she says that once an offer is on the table is the best time to get the information you need. Walsh cautions, “Asking an HR person [about a flex policy] can happen earlier in the process, but still shouldn't lead before questions that show interest in the business and team.”

Here’s the thing though: Even a company with a clearly delineated policy may leave it up to individual managers to decide how it’s best carried out by his or her team. Simonson says he believes “flexibility is needed for any creative field, including engineering.” To him, it’s not about having his team report at a certain time and clocking out at a certain time. It’s about getting the job done. Walsh expresses a similar sentiment, saying that “I am happy for my team to take advantage of when it's clear that it's not at the sake of collaboration and delivering on commitments. It's really great when it's working well, which requires mutual respect and trust.”

Trust is, obviously, huge and it’s probably why some companies and managers are reluctant to fully implement flex policies. If you want to take advantage of your organization’s less-traditional expectations or you want to work remotely on a consistent basis (once a week, for example), then it’s up to you to show that you can handle it.

At the end of the day—at whatever hour that may be!—the majority of bosses care far more about the work you’re doing than the hours you’re doing them in. Being flexible, as far as Walsh is concerned, means enabling “an employee to pick up and spend time with kids, deal with personal issues (e.g., cable guy, medical, moving).” Being able to manage these types of things without taking official time off is an obvious advantage of working for a company that understands set hours don’t work best for everybody.

If you’re currently employed and want to find out how you can take advantage of this benefit, have a conversation with your manager or reach out to someone in HR for clarification. And don’t be afraid to get the information you need if you’re interviewing with companies who claim to offer it. So long as you’re not doing it at the expense of demonstrating that you can help the business grow and solve problems, and that you’ll be a strong contributor to the team, embracing a flexible work policy could actually aid in your success.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Xia Yuan/Getty Images.

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