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How to ensure flex doesn’t mean 24/7

It's getting late.
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It’s getting late. Love Island is over (the +1 repeat – who gets everything they need finished by 9pm?) The kids are in bed. It’s time you thought about the same. Before you hit the hay you check your work emails on your phone. Finally some feedback on a project piece you finished in the early afternoon. Fairly good, you’re making progress. Some useful suggestions. A few changes. It’d be great, a comment says, if we could get this updated by the demo meeting on Wednesday morning.
That’s the day after tomorrow. And tomorrow you have a full schedule – you get the kids to school for 8.15, then head straight to your father’s assisted-living community to spend a few hours with him. You’ve got a list of errands to squeeze in on the journey to and from, errands you would really like to tick off because on Tuesday afternoons you dedicate time to your own nascent business. It’s the main reason you’ve pursued flexible working so hard with your employer. That time is ring-fenced; you have to get some personal work done.
You fall asleep thinking about how to squeeze the project changes in tomorrow evening, before the kids get home. Or maybe after dinner. Or maybe both. You’ll fit it in somehow, you’d be letting others down if you didn’t.
If the scenario above fills you with uneasy recognition then you’re probably suffering from a very modern disease – the malady of “always on”. In truth its effects are just as serious for those who nominally work a traditional 9-5 (that odious genie came out of the bottle with the advent of email), but flexible workers can be especially at risk of contracting it. Without the inoculating barriers of traditional office hours, flexible workers can find themselves battling the perception that they work “whenever” – that they’re always checking email, always paying close attention, always ready to get things done.
Juggle’s Content Coordinator Joshua Piercey – who works for other businesses during the working week, as well as managing his own creative projects – suffers from this particular ailment, and says it can be entirely self-inflicted. “I’ve always found it tough to say no to people, and ignoring emails is almost impossible. It’s hard to concentrate on other things – let alone relax – when I know there’s stuff that requires my attention. Choosing to dedicate myself to flexible work was a real eye-opener: I quickly had to learn to set boundaries and communicate better with my colleagues. You have to be upfront and explicit from the get-go or, if you’re anything like me, you’ll just stress yourself out.”
Together with Joshua, we’ve put together some advice on ensuring flex doesn’t come to mean 24/7.

Boundaries are key…

Sometimes it’s just unrealistic to say ‘these are my working hours and I won’t be doing anything outside them,’ especially if your colleagues aren’t doing the same. Flexible work is supposed to be just that. But some hard barriers are necessary. “My out-of-office lets people know when I’m not available – even on my personal email account,” Joshua says. “There are times when I won’t be working or responding without prior explicit agreement. Late in the evenings and the days I have dedicated to other projects are off limits, and everyone I work with knows it.”

so is sticking to them

Joshua says it’s always tempting to crack. “If something’s not particularly time-consuming or complicated then you think ‘why not?’ For me it starts with doing favours for people, then because I’ve made the boundaries blurry I find people coming to me with requests that I’m struggling to accommodate. Which is totally my fault, because I’ve been inconsistent with maintaining the proper structure in the past.” Try to avoid being wishy-washy with your limits; you’ll only give your colleagues unrealistic expectations.

Stay in contact

If you’re not in an office or in regular contact with colleagues it can difficult for them to gauge your workflow. “It’s important to keep people informed,” Joshua says. “Leaving them to make assumptions is a bit unfair, and assumptions will get reinforced if you don’t address them.” Make sure your colleagues know what you’re working on and what your schedule is like for the day. This is a situation where the onus is really on you.

Learn what works, when

Everyone works on different types of tasks at different times, but when you’re working flexibly you may need to plan ahead a little more. This is especially true if your schedule is dictated by location as much as time. “I spend a lot of time asking myself the same simple question: am I going to have stable internet access?” Joshua says. “I never rely on it, I always double check, and I always have work that doesn’t need WiFi ready for those situations. You don’t have the absolute consistency of tools that you might in an office, so you need to allow for that. Working flexibly allows me use my free time more effectively – so I hate wasting time that should be spent working, because it mucks up everything else!”

Use communication tools effectively…

Joshua uses all the online tools at his disposal. “If you’ve got an online calendar, use it. People will look at it, especially after a reminder. It’s the simplest way of keeping everyone informed. Stuff like Slack can be invaluable because it’s a convenient way of keeping group discussions going – email just isn’t the right technology for mass low-input chat. A central place to share and feedback on work is also very important. Messing about with attachments is a massive hassle and will lead to missed changes and duplicate conversations.” Technology is a huge part of what makes flexible work possible, you can’t be shy of it and expect everything to go smoothly.

but prioritise face-to-face

A three-hour round-trip for a forty-minute meeting might not sound like the best use of your resources, but Joshua values face-time over anything else. “If you know a meeting is going to be important – and everyone can tell the difference between an important one and a dud – then make an effort to be present if you can. Those discussions are super-valuable and dense: you get a lot more done in just one conversation than a back-and-forth all afternoon in text format. If a business is making an effort to support you flexibly then I think you should try and show the same willingness whenever you can. If you can’t make the meeting then get on a video call, current tech absolutely makes that a reality. I have a decidedly dodgy smartphone right now but Google Hangouts works fine and is so much better than having to catch up via email later.”

Value flexible time alongside “regular” time and make sure everyone else does the same

“Anyone who’s been under deadline pressure while working at home knows that it’s no less stressful than when you’re in the office,” Joshua says. “Flexible time isn’t ‘easier’ than going in to sit at a desk, it’s not a rest, and labelling it as such – even with a whisper – is a really damaging attitude. If you’ve put in the time during the week – no matter where you’re doing it from – then you’ve put in the time.” If your employer is begrudging in their assessment of flexible time or the work that’s done when you’re away from the office, perhaps it’s time to…

Find a more supportive business

For Joshua, the goal of flexible working has occasionally felt like a moving target. “The last few years of my career have been about pursuing a greater level of autonomy, but it hasn’t always been completely smooth. My own goals and circumstances have changed a few times, and I’ve also had a few short-term contracts in less-flexible environments, which really stand out if you’ve been working flexibly before. That’s part of what attracted me to Juggle. You can’t preach without being a convert.” Joshua thinks he’ll struggle to ever go back to non-flexible work. “You learn to treasure the autonomy most of all – the ability to set goals and succeed at them on your own terms. If someone I was working with couldn’t recognise that I think I’d have to move on. ”
If a business – whether they have a flexible working solution or not – is struggling to stick to boundaries that you’ve previously established, then the best thing you can do is have a frank conversation with them. If that doesn’t fix things… it might be time to start looking for a switch.
If you’re a professional looking for companies that have had their flexible-work culture vetted by experts, create a profile with Juggle today.

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