Among the many changes to work and life during the COVID-19 pandemic, the actual hours many remote employees worked veered dramatically from the traditional nine-to-five.
Some took the opportunity to create their own schedules, logging on earlier than usual to fit in a mid-day doctor’s appointment or taking a few hours off in the afternoon to pick up their children from school. Others, with no clear distinction between work and home, began working much longer hours than they had before.
At many companies, flexibility was encouraged as a way to lessen employees' stress. And as businesses continue to adapt to a post-pandemic world, this flexibility is likely to become more common in certain fields, argues Alexa von Tobel, founder and managing partner of Inspired Capital, a venture capital firm.
She envisions some computer-based teams being able to work asynchronously for many of their tasks, logging on to work on projects when convenient, no matter where they are located in the world. But offering even a little flexibility with when employees are expected to do their work can be a major benefit to their overall job satisfaction — and their productivity.
“We’re all wired differently,” says von Tobel. “Some people are morning people, some are night people. Some need quiet, some need energy. Now there is more of an opt-in, choose-your-own-work style, rather than everyone having to sit in a bright office.”
Like all conversations about the future of work, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to flexible hours. Teachers need to be at school for the same hours every day; gig workers have never had the predictability of a set, eight-hour schedule. Doctors and nurses working at hospitals are often beholden to 12-hour shifts but might not work five days a week.
But for some knowledge and skilled office workers in fields like tech, public relations, and consulting, experts argue that it doesn’t make sense to be chained to a desk from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday — especially if their companies are embracing remote or hybrid work policies. Productivity ebbs and flows, and schedules can — and should — reflect that.
It would be a popular change: 95% of knowledge workers said they wanted schedule flexibility, in a recent survey of over 10,000 by Slack's Future Forum. That’s more than the share of workers who said they wanted location flexibility.
Cloud computing company Salesforce has already had some success implementing “flextime” arrangements. In fact, last year the company pronounced the typical nine-to-five work day “dead” in a blog post, saying “it no longer makes sense to expect employees to work an eight-hour shift and do their jobs successfully.”
The company has since instituted flex schedules, in which employees are not required to come into the office every day, and do not necessarily have set eight-hour work schedules. In the past year, productivity has sky-rocketed, as has employee approval, says Steve Pickle, Salesforce’s EVP of employee success operations.
“For us, the nine-to-five was on life support before the pandemic,” says Pickle. “The pandemic took it off life support and put it right into the grave. It’s still dead, and we’re in a far better place.”
Salesforce doesn’t have a company-wide mandate on flexible time arrangements; the engineering team and the sales team, for example, may settle on different schedules that reflect their work responsibilities and goals. Crucially, instituting flextime doesn’t mean employees will work whenever and wherever they want, indefinitely; the vast majority of employees do still want to work together in-person some of the time.
But there are plenty of benefits to offering workers this kind of flexibility: They may be able to adhere to a better sleep schedule, work when they are most productive, and feel like they have control over their own time, instead of being at the mercy of their manager. Von Tobel says flexible arrangements would be particularly powerful for parents and caretakers.
Be aware of the “flexibility trap”
That said, companies need to be fully on board with the switch to more flexible schedules, and that involves changing their corporate culture, not just scheduling policies, says Dawna Ballard, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies time as it relates to human connection. Right now, many companies are too traditional for asynchronous schedules to really work and not penalize employees who may not work the same hours as their managers.
“Traditional organizations value facetime,” says Ballard. “Everything is political in life…culturally, out-of-sight, out-of-mind still tends to be pervasive.”
Another potential issue with flextime is that employees tend to work more than 40 hours a week when they are given more freedom to arrange their schedules, says Ballard, who has studied these working arrangements for many years. In fact, she cautions that flexible schedules can actually be more beneficial for employers than employees. Many people can finish their assigned work in less than eight hours; in a flexible arrangement, they might be given more work, rather than fewer hours.
Ballard says instituting a “results only work” environment and limiting meetings on certain days, for example, would help companies make the shift to successful flexible time arrangements.
Salesforce’s Pickle acknowledges that employees working more than 40 hours a week is a concern for the company. He says the company has tried “async weeks” which are completely meeting-free, as well as instituting wellness Fridays and other offerings. The company will continue experimenting and evolving to make a system that works for everyone.
“We don’t want flexibility to become a trap,” he says.
Still, the number-one thing Salesforce employees ask for is flexibility with where and when they work, says Pickle. That lines up with Ballard’s research, which has found that for many workers, the sense of control over their schedules can outweigh any worries about potentially logging more hours. Employees may not be their own boss, but they can be the boss of their own time.
To make flexible hours work long term, employees still need to set schedules and create hard boundaries with their work.
“It’s not a free-for-all,” Ballard says. “In a perfect world, what flexible would look like is that … you have some kind of rigid boundaries of your own. Rigidity within flexibility.”
Salesforce views flexible arrangements — time and place go hand-in-hand — as something else that differentiates the company from competitors, which is especially important in today’s competitive job market.
“Businesses artificially forcing their employees back, I think that’s short-sighted,” says Pickle. “We think we can be more successful by finding that right mix of flexibility and time together.”
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com