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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

How to Take Advantage of a Flexible Work Schedule—Without Taking it Too Far

Are you most productive in the wee hours of the morning, but then taper off by late afternoon? Do you need to be home for your kids in the early evening, but then have no problem working late into the night to catch up?

Until recently, it didn’t matter—most workplaces maintained a fairly strict 9-to-5, 40-hour, in-office work week. Your schedule revolved around the business’ needs, not the other way around. 

But more and more, companies are offering the benefit of a flexible schedule—that is, the ability to adjust your hours (and where you put in those hours) based on your needs and preferences. 

So if you snag a job at one of these workplaces, can you go ahead and start working from 5 AM until 1 PM each day? Or permanently relocate your workspace to your kitchen table? Not so fast. While a flexible schedule is a great benefit, you have to approach it reasonably. Here are a few guidelines to craft your perfect schedule—without taking it too far.

Get the Lay of the Land Before Jumping In

If you just started working at a company that offers this benefit, you’ll probably—and understandably—want to start taking advantage of your flexible schedule as soon as possible. But before you jump in, it’s best to take a few weeks to simply observe.

Pay attention to your boss and co-workers and see how they use the perk. Do they work from home one or two days a week, or is it closer to once a month? Does everyone work eight hours a day, or do they put in a varying number of hours, as long as they get all of their work done?

Also get a sense for the tactical details of setting that schedule. For example, do team members send out a department-wide email if they’re going to be coming in late or leaving early, or does each person simply OK the schedule change individually with his or her manager?

Gathering this intel will help you determine what’s widely accepted within your team—which will equip you set a schedule for yourself that won’t be considered excessive or out of the ordinary.

Look for Situations That Benefit Both Parties

When you think about the possibilities of a flexible schedule, you tend to think about how the arrangement will benefit you: You get to skip the lengthy commute, arrive home in time to pick up your kids from school, or put a load of laundry in while listening to a conference call. But to make sure you don’t go too far with your schedule, shift your thinking—by instead considering how a flexible schedule could benefit your company, too.

For example, a couple of years ago, I was working on a huge project with a tight deadline. I knew I could get the work done much more efficiently if I worked from home for a few days, so I could avoid co-worker chitchat and other common office distractions. In this situation, sure, working from home would be convenient for me—but it would also enable me do more focused, quality work, which would ultimately benefit my employer.

Not every situation will have an apparent benefit to the company (let’s be honest—sometimes you just need to work from home because the cable guy gave you an eight-hour appointment slot), but keeping this in mind will help you create a schedule that’s in line with the goals of the business.

Consider the Effects on Others

As you create your ideal schedule, consider how your physical absence from the office may affect your colleagues

For example, are you working from home during a brainstorming session for a group project that you’re heading? Sure, you could call into the meeting, but if you’re the only one on the phone while everyone else is face-to-face, you may find it’s harder to fully participate.

That doesn’t mean that you can never call into meetings or should always adjust your schedule for everyone else, but if you’re constantly out of the office for important meetings and rely solely on calls and email instead of showing up in person, you may start becoming a hindrance to your team, or they may start to feel like you’re not fully invested.

By thinking ahead about how your schedule will impact the people you work with, you’ll be able to keep yourself from going overboard with your flexibility. You’ll realize that there are times when you really should be physically in the office, and that will help you determine an acceptable schedule.

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Don’t Go Off the Grid During “Normal” Hours

Having a flexible schedule often means you get to disappear from the office when you otherwise wouldn’t be able to—but it doesn’t mean you can disconnect entirely. A flexible scheduling arrangement can go awry if, when you work from home or work nonstandard hours, you’re not available to connect with your team.

To make sure your schedule doesn’t push the limits, make sure to stay available to your team and manager while you’re outside of the office—and clearly convey to your colleagues how to reach you. For example, if you’re working from home and have an office-wide messaging or chat system, make sure you’re online for a good chunk of the day.

Or, if you only work until 3 PM, while the rest of your co-workers stay until 6 PM, make sure they know how they can reach you if necessary. Theoretically, yes, you should be able to leave at 3 and not return to work until the next morning, but in reality, that leaves your co-workers without you for a few hours each afternoon. In this case, you could give your colleagues your cell number for emergencies, or agree to check your email at 5 PM each afternoon, which would be minimally disruptive to you, but still allow your co-workers to get in touch if they absolutely need to.

Stay in Touch With Your Boss

The key, of course, to keeping your new flexible schedule under control is to maintain open communication with your boss. It’s easy to go wrong if you assume everything is going swimmingly without asking anyone else’s opinion.

So, during your regular one-on-one meetings with your boss (which, if you’re not already having, you should set up now), simply ask if your schedule is working out on his or her end. In addition, ask if any of your teammates have brought up concerns or mentioned any issues that have occurred because of your schedule.

Regularly asking for that feedback can help you understand the right balance and make sure the arrangement is working for both you and your officemates.

If your company offers a flexible schedule, by all means, take advantage of it! But to continue to be a productive and effective member of your team, it’s important that you don’t take it too far. Follow these guidelines, and you’ll be on your way to working when and how you prefer—while working well with everyone else.

Photo of woman leaving work courtesy of visualspace/Getty Images.