Workers Want To Do Their Work, Bosses Want "Flexible Hours"

Ed Zitron 8 min read

The content farmers - myself included - are continuing to milk the month-old future forum study around remote work habits, and this time they’re talking about “flexible hours.” According to Fortune, “95% of knowledge workers want flexible hours more than hybrid work,” which is an interesting stat that they appear to have made up:

Globally, nearly seven in 10 (68%) respondents said hybrid is their preferred work environment. But most workers also want flexibility in not just where they work but when. While 78% of all survey respondents say they want location flexibility, nearly all (95%) want schedule flexibility.

This does not appear to say that they want flexible hours more than hybrid work but that most respondents want flexible hours. As ever, major business outlets are contorting themselves to find the story they want to tell, specifically that workers may want to come to the office, but they want to do so with flexible hours. I will add that the Wall Street Journal also went with this broken logic.

Let’s continue:

“People don’t want a full, nine-to-five day of meetings,” Brian Elliott, executive leader of the Future Forum, tells Fortune. “They want the flexibility to turn off notifications when it’s right for them. Maybe for caregivers, it’s the flexibility to log off from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., and then come back and do some heads-down work after the kids are in bed.”

While he’s right that people don’t want an entire day of meetings, I’m not exactly sure he actually gets what he’s talking about by suggesting a specific (and bizarre) block of hours that someone is working. This is my primary concern about the idea of flexible hours - who is the arbiter of said hours? Who decides what happens and when?

And I also think that workers and management have a vastly different idea of what flexible hours actually means.

Take this quote from the Wall Street Journal article:

What employees want may not be the most effective way for organizations to operate, said Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University who researches remote work. “There is going to be a battle royale over choice versus coordination,” he said.

I’m extremely tired of hearing from professors of anything, particularly when they start saying things like “workers don’t know the best way for organizations to operate.” I would argue that many CEOs and managers don’t know how their companies operate, and the proof point is those trying to shove people back into the office when their companies are working perfectly well remotely.

With flexible hours, workers are calling for pragmatism - the ability to get their work done when it suits them, assuming it hits deadlines, with no expectation to respond at any specific point unless it directly affects their performance. In my personal case, there are hours when my people are “on” - the regular 9 to 5 - but unless there’s a specific call, I’m not really concerned where they are or what they’re doing, only that if necessary they can jump on something in an emergency.

Flexible hours (at least from my perspective) are not so much about “okay you need to work exactly 8 hours, but those hours can be in whatever order you want,” but are more focused on meeting one’s obligations to the company. This may mean they have to be on certain calls or have things done by a certain time, but the number of hours worked is immaterial. I think it’s reasonable to set up an “on-call” window where the person in question is expected to respond in a reasonable timeframe and be ready to do work in an emergency (unless otherwise agreed upon) - but for the most part, the actual hours of flexible hours are irrelevant.

You are hearing lots of bosses talk about flexible hours because they feel they’re losing control and want to offer something to appease the masses. Some are also hiding a vital detail - “flexible hours that you can work from home” - because they fully intend to demand that people come back to the office, just “on their schedule.” A worrying number of business leaders talking about “flexible” work describe how they’re changing their offices because they still want people to come into them for some reason, despite having no compelling evidence to suggest it matters.

A Harvard Business Review piece about managing flexible workers is one of the more sensible things I’ve read on the subject and highlights why I think there’s such a push against true “flexibility”:

If employees want the benefits of flexibility, they’ll also need to shoulder some of the responsibility that goes with it, like autonomous problem-solving and providing and checking for updates. However, that doesn’t mean setting them adrift in the storm. Managers are still responsible for making sure everyone is rowing to the correct location in the same direction — even if they’re rowing at different times.

To increase flexibility for employees without losing productivity — or sanity — managers will need to think differently about when employees work together, who works together, and how to share information and with whom, all while being careful to stay abreast of any changes and rapidly communicating changes in priorities.

Flexible hours - and flexible work - require an organizational effort to sustain but work well and make for happier workers. The problem is that the organizations frequently don’t want to do any of the necessary work to make things better, and that’s why you’re seeing the push for “flexible hours” that actually means “hybrid work but also you can come in a bit later but we fully expect you to work late as a result.” The HBR piece makes the point that you have to create information systems that can be accessed at any time and maintain those systems - both as a worker and a manager - and in my mind that’s the reason that companies don’t want to do it. Making managers do actual work to manage people is against treating management as an aspirational title rather than a discipline.

As I discussed yesterday, the other problem is that business leaders are obsessed with hours and ownership of people. If they don’t have the ability to have you dance for them at any given hour or bring you into an office for no good reason, why do they even hire you? To do WORK? To make them MONEY? Well, sure, but they also want the quasi-slavery thing, and that’s why their version of flexibility differs from what workers ask for.

Flexibility For Me, But Not For Thee

Of all the places to find a thought worth sharing, a comment from the comments section on the Wall Street Journal flexibility piece nailed it [copied ad verbatim, so forgive the grammar]:

People want the ability to take care of their own lives during the week. Just like "business never stops" (something my own company likes to say), "life never stops." And just as a pressing business need can arise at 10PM on a Thursday, a pressing family need can just as easily come at 10AM on a Tuesday. Every business understands the need to be flexible. Now time for them to expand their understanding of personnel to understand that their most valuable resource also needs flexibility.

“Flexibility” does not mean that you can choose when and where you can spend your 8 hours a day while working - it means that you are flexible to do what you want where you want as long as your obligations are met at the company.

The problematic part comes from companies themselves that don’t like this idea because it doesn’t really allow them to control the people they’re hiring. It’s yet another situation where corporations seem unable to grasp that they are paying money for someone’s execution of business outcomes rather than their time. You should only be able to control someone in a professional relationship in as much as they are compensated for that control - if you are paying them to do a particular thing and that thing is done, and they are doing that thing well, there is no reason to care about when that thing is done other than if it’s done late.

Now, you may ask what happens if you “need to talk to someone and they’re not around.” Here’s the thing: do you really need them to answer you that second? If so, then there needs to be a system that allows you to get quick answers, and there should be an organizational understanding that there will be times that require quick answers to questions. For example, assuming the person isn’t asleep, and it’s a reasonable time during daylight hours on both of your coasts, a quick Slack should do it. Done! No worries.

More complex situations - like “this deadline is coming up, and this is the only time I can finish my part of it” - call for a little thing called “communication and planning” and also “management.” If a manager knows that someone is going to need to complete something and roughly when they’re going to do it, they should make sure that the other person is available to keep things moving. These are far from impossible things to do, but require management to actually manage people, which is much easier to do if you just say “it’s 9 to 5, you must work these hours, and you must be at your desk waiting for all of them too.”

It also makes micromanagement more complicated, because you can’t reliably tell if you’re able to nag someone at different hours. This makes a lot of managers extremely sad.

Anyway, a big fear I have with the discussion of flexibility is how it will be wielded against workers. If “flexible hours” are maintained as a permission-based system, they are the equivalent of unlimited paid time off - endlessly available as long as your manager says so. As I said…

This is the problem with any kind of arbitrary policy within a business - it can be (perhaps intentionally) used to create the illusion of freedom within a tightly controlled environment. Whereas hybrid work says that you must come in X and Y days (which sucks), flexibility allows you “unlimited work from home privileges,” which is any number multiplied by any number, and that number can also be zero. You can, to quote designer Ryan Mattson, flexibly work the same hours as your manager - which, as I’ve discussed, likely means more hours in the office than not.

I believe that this is the “flexibility” a lot of executives are arguing for - a nebulous perk that is allotted based on the whims of management or HR. Flexibility is a challenging concept and requires an organizational focus on outcomes over appearances. It may not be as flexible as every worker wants - you may not be able to work literally whenever you want, but basically be able to set your own schedule as long as you do the things you’re paid to do.

It also requires a knowledge of the actual work that goes into said outcomes, and trust in the worker - two things that organizations are regularly allergic to. This is partly because they also don’t like mentoring or training anyone, and partly because they don’t want to do the work to actually “know stuff” or “manage people.”

What we’re seeing is the cognitive dissonance of executives who for years have used the rhetoric of “efficiency” and “profit” to drive changes in their organizations (usually involving layoffs) having to actually think about what efficiency and profit means. If they really cared about it, they’d be over the moon with remote work - a way of closing expensive office space and having an operation focused on delivering business outcomes and profit - instead of trying to come up with wonky little tricks to get people into the office.

In closing, I will say how funny it has been watching executives and managers squirm over these concepts. There is so clearly a substrate of management that has succeeded in their “fake it ‘til you make it” career path, telling themselves that they actually worked really hard and totally understand why they made it. And now that people are asking them to do stuff that genuinely benefits the company and improves employee retention, they’re freaking out because nothing about this new world matches their personal narrative of success.

And they realize that they’re losing their grip, learning that the office was all they had to really keep workers in check, and keep acting as if they’ve complete power over the time and energy of their workers beyond the outcomes of their job.

Millions of managers and executives are experiencing a simultaneous conversation with their subordinates, where they have to answer one little question: do you feel in charge?

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