The flexible work dilemma

When we talk about work, and time, the usual narrative is that everyone wants to work less. Work/life “balance” becomes a code word for reducing work hours so that the other side of the scale — family and personal matters — can rise from neglected status.

But as I look at more and more time logs from people who work, but also take on the bulk of the logistical and caregiving responsibilities for their families, I find that this narrative is not always the best fit.

Here’s what happens. Many of us (and I include myself in this category) work flexibly. This is partly because big chunks of modern work can be done at any time and any place, and also because we’ve sought it out. No one is breathing down our necks about being in a seat in an office at 10 a.m. As I do time makeovers for my “Tranquility by Tuesday” project, I’ve had people tell me that they can work from home at times, and shift hours around work obligations too.

This is an absolute blessing. But it can also lead to other issues. Because we can do things, we do them: taking a mid-morning doctor appointment, for instance, instead of pushing for an evening or weekend one, or taking responsibility for a relatively early school pick-up, and assuming we’ll make it work. Certain logistical family tasks are also often easiest to do during work hours — no kid distractions, we’ve got a phone, a laptop, and the calendar right there! The hazard is that many of these are straightforward and easily accomplished, leading to a feeling of getting stuff done. It’s tempting to do these when we’re stuck on something bigger or nebulous that’s work-related, or to try to “clear the decks” before moving on to complicated matters.

But what winds up happening is that the hours available to work get squeezed. This can lead to people feeling pulled in all directions, or chronically behind. Even if the day-to-day stuff gets done, people can suspect that they’re under-investing in the soft side of work.

So what to do? The answer generally isn’t to work less. It’s to protect longer stretches of time to do work.

That doesn’t mean giving up the benefits of flexibility, and sitting in an office from 9 to 5, Monday-Friday even when that’s not necessary. It does mean being realistic about how many focused hours the workload of a full-time job might entail. Maybe a sitter or partner can handle an early school pick up twice a week. Maybe a partner who is not doing the primary during-the-week duties can commit to covering an evening work shift or a few hours on the weekend. I’ve also been suggesting that people set a time for personal tasks during the work day, so they aren’t always an option. Maybe the online grocery order, birthday party invites, and call to the orthodontist’s office happen between 2-2:45 p.m. If a life administration task occurs to you at 10 a.m., put it on the list, and go back to what you were doing. You can address it during the designated window, rather than succumbing to the lure of knocking if off immediately.

This is definitely a work in progress for me. My kids have dutifully written their thank you notes for birthday presents; I’ve got the envelopes right here, ready to be addressed. But I’m better off using my designated work hours to work on a book proposal than to get those notes out to the mailbox. I probably won’t work on my book proposal on Saturday night while they’re watching a movie. So that’s the time to tackle this other sort of work.

Have you had to be careful about protecting hours for work?


24 thoughts on “The flexible work dilemma

  1. Good lord, yes. Yesterday was a boiling point. I had the flexibility to take a kid to the Dr (and did). But then later, I had two evening meetings (from home) and realized everyone in my family expected me to make them dinner while doing all that. I have for sure hit a wall with my partner on this topic! While he has a lot of flexibility also (arguably more than me), he doesn’t *use* it and I am for SURE the “She-fault” in our hetero marriage. I’m currently reading “Fair Play” and would LOVE IT if you could have the author on the podcast!

    1. Just wanted to add that I haven’t heard of that book but your day sounds a lot like mine so I’m looking it up! 🙂

  2. This is one of my biggest struggles working full time + from home. I finally hired help for 18 hours a week and it has helped me to protect my time a bit better – but it is definitely still a work in progress!

  3. Thank you for this article. It’s perfect timing for me. I’ve recently started working from home two days a week and it’s been going well. However, I can see how it would be easy to allow home tasks to creep into the work day, causing discouragement by evening if the work tasks didn’t get done.

    1. @LaDawn – yep, this might be the biggest issue – plenty of people still make sure stuff gets done, it’s just that it winds up creeping into the late night or weekends because it doesn’t get done during the day. There’s nothing wrong with working at night or on weekends, but it’s unfortunate when it’s from a position of feeling constantly behind, vs. a freely chosen career investment.

  4. Billing for time in small increments (lawyer here) makes one acutely aware of the dangers you’re noting. Life stuff creeping into the workday on a regular basis KILLS your momentum toward achieving billable targets, and so my answer is: nope. Not gonna do it. The only “homing from work” that happens is in the brief walks between meetings or to refill my water bottle. The doctor’s appointment gets delayed until they have a first-on-calendar appointment. Early release at school is covered by our childcare arrangement. Etc. Billable hours are soul-crushing in many ways, but they do make you acutely aware of your time and efficiency!

    1. Also, fascinated by the time stamp on these comments. I posted at 7:05 am eastern, and the time stamp is 11:05 am. That’s the time in… parts of Western Africa? Just curious, nerdy question, but do you know how the time stamp is set?

    2. @Kathleen – we will put this in the category of unforeseen upsides to billable hours! I’d agree that this is more common in situations where there isn’t a billable hour expectation. Time is more amorphous, and hence can easily slip away.

  5. This post is spot on. I transitioned to working fully at home earlier this year and have struggled with either taking full advantage of all of this flexibility or sitting at my desk from 8-4 needlessly. I like the tips you’ve shared.

  6. I definitely have to protect my time with a flexible arrangement. While I appreciate the flexibility, yesterday’s stress was a case in point. My whole morning was eaten up with three necessary errands to make the weekend easier, so my partner stepped up to take on the other daily chores I’d normally do in the evening so I could keep working later and get that work done. If I hadn’t vented to him about the remaining issues of the day, he wouldn’t have known I was in need! And I have to remember that I cannot finish a full day’s work in half a day even if the reasons for leaving myself only a half a day were valid.

    1. @Revanche – yep, we’re very efficient, but a full day’s work generally doesn’t fit in half a day. I’ve been reminding myself of that this week. Kind of racing into the end of workday on Friday, wondering why I feel behind, then remembering oh yeah, I went to the zoo on Wednesday, spent the morning at doctor appointments on Thursday, and went to a playdate/birthday on Friday. All necessary or fun but it is still time.

  7. I struggle with this and don’t have a good solution. My job is not flexible, but it feel good get those little tasks done, even if higher priority tasks loom. Hmmm, awareness is a good first step I guess.

  8. I have also experienced in-office co-workers who spend a LOT of work time on personal tasks. Even if they are “making up for it” after hours (these ones were not), it’s still distracting. I realize and understand it can be unavoidable, but cell phones have magnified the phenomenon.

  9. God I wish I had flexible hours! I’m an optometrist so I will never be able to work from home. I feel like I’m in the minority of jobs now and there’s no way to switch. Ughh..

  10. I like your suggestions above about having a time to do those personal tasks, so they don’t get tackled each time they pop up. I don’t have a better solution and I’m dying to read your time log makeovers. This week I had only a handful of high priority things to do, and two of them were still on my to do list this morning. Well, go figure but by 3pm today I had done an errand for my husband, volunteered to do school pick up, emptied my inbox and yet those two items were still sitting on my list of things to do. Perhaps it’s time for me to re-read Juliet’s School of Possibilities…!

  11. I am new to full time wfh, and still don’t have a full workload following my return from my second maternity leave. Right now everything is getting done, though I know there will come a time when the luxury I have enjoyed of being able to fit in personal obligations during the work day will end. I often think about going part time, so as not to feel as torn about the split, yet I am keenly aware of your warning that many times it is simply doing the same work for less pay. I have one of those jobs which doesn’t take a fixed amount of time and is very flexible. Sigh…

    1. @J Long – If you can work from home full time, I’m not sure that going part time would give you a much better work/life balance. I do think that designating a certain time for the personal tasks can help you feel certain that they will get done without having them always be a possibility.

  12. I have two jobs with a lot of flexibility, on top of personal commitments. My professional job is based on billable hours, but my academic job is paid per semester and I found that the preparation often crowds out my billable working hours. So this semester I started tracking my class preparation hours, and if I see I’m running out of weekly allotment, I just wrap up things quickly or do less.
    In my professional gig I’m working on a fixed fee job, so I cannot bill beyond certain number of hours which make me realize that if I work from home I can actually do things in half a day that often take me a whole day in the office with interruptions. This approach to both jobs as if they were fixed fee billable hours has been great for my work life balance, and now I’m trying to apply the same thing to housework. I
    ‘m also utilizing flexibility to trade tasks based on my energy level. Yesterday, on Friday, I was going to work from home in the afternoon, but I hit an energy slump so I listened to work related audiobook and took care of most of my weekend housework tasks. This morning I’m full of energy and looking forward to working most of the day, and I’m sure I’ll get more done than I would have hanging around the office yesterday afternoon. And it all stems from that sage advice “track your hours”. Thank you, Laura.

    1. @Morana – I am a big fan of tracking all our time. That way, we can be sure that we’re not billing way too much to projects that just don’t deserve it!

  13. I came back to this post today after my childcare emergency nightmare came true: someone woke up vomiting at 4:30am. I had a 7am meeting that was actually important – my absence would have signaled a lack of commitment to this part of my job, and my husband had to be physically at work today to cover a patient-care issue. This is why we have a nanny, but she was the one vomiting, not my kids. We used a nanny service so we could get backup care, but they aren’t much help at 4:30 am (or much at all, since the business was sold and has been neglected, I fear). On one hand, I’m glad we both had some flexibility to make it work – hubby could be there a bit later than usual, so he dropped off the 4-year old at 9am preschool as early as the line opened, then high-tailed it to work with the 19-month old in tow. She hung out there until I was done with meetings, when I grabbed the baby and did noon preschool pickup. I’m grateful it wasn’t worse, since none of our backup sitters are available today. But I was supposed to do some project work today and have no idea when I’m going to make that up. (More margin is needed!) So once I catch up, it looks like finding additional backup childcare (maybe a drop-in daycare) and a little more space is on the agenda.

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