Flexible working

I’ve been pondering, after my last post, just how feasible it is to have a workplace with different attitudes to working hours.

It’s a horrible time of year right now, which exaggerates the problem, but I’m working in a workplace which has (at one extreme) someone who sent me emails at 1.30 am and 3.30 am on different days this week, and who was in at 9 the next morning both times, and someone who works for me who works in the office two days a week and from home one other day. I’m in the middle; I almost always leave the office by 5.30, but work at home in the evenings a fair bit.

I used to be someone who worked long hours when necessary (my personal record was six hours between leaving the office at night and arriving the next morning), although I’ve never been the most extreme anywhere I’ve worked. I used to get paid for it, too; I worked in a place where the bonus system did reward the hard workers, with reasonably good ways of checking that the hours were productive. But I used to really resent those people in the same office who declined to work long hours; that meant that the flexible people had to pick up the slack; always. What I wanted at the time was for the shorter people to still work longer if we had too much to do; what usually happened was that I worked twice as hard, and they usually worked their shorter hours, as they had carved out the right.

Can you only make flexible hours work if everyone works short hours? What if you have a few people who are willing to work slavish hours? Can you make it work if you pay them for it? Or is the only way to get flexible hours for the (substantial) minority who want them, make sure that nobody works stupid hours? Or, to put it another way, are we destined to have two kinds of companies – the family friendly and the not family friendly, with two quite different kinds of workers?


When I was the person working somewhat stupid hours, I didn’t mind them that much because I loved my work, I worked with friends, and E was also working stupid hours, so I was often going home to an empty house (no kids at that stage). Not to say that I always enjoyed them, but I think it’s important to acknowledge in this kind of debate that some people really do enjoy their work, and quite like the hours it entails.

  4 comments for “Flexible working

  1. bj
    July 30, 2006 at 2:56 pm

    I think more people have to work through the debate your having with yourself here, and am frustrated by those who just ask for the perfect flexible, intellectually satisfying, remunerative job.

    I’m also in a field where many truly love their jobs, and are happy working long hours. We can’t prevent them, and it’s hard to figure how to not reward them, since they will actually produce something with those extra hours (rewards aren’t compensation in academia, anyway).

    [followed you here from Half Changed World.]

  2. August 1, 2006 at 12:18 pm

    Interesting question. I think that there are differences between white collar and blue collar work in this regard–or at least, certain kinds of white collar work. It partly depends whether you have a finite amount of work that is attached to each job, or if you have a shared pool of work, where everyone is equally responsible for getting it done. I can see a situation where an employer might be ‘rewarding’ the more efficient workers (who get their work done quicker) with shorter hours, for example.

    I’ve been fairly lucky to have work situations that have allowed me to be flexible, in my time as a parent, but I’ve also been forceful about asking for flexibility–and realistic about my own career path while I’m not willing to put in 80 hours a week. I know that most people aren’t in the position I’m in, though.

  3. August 1, 2006 at 8:17 pm

    Thanks for the comment landismom! My first on this new site (which I decided to move to after reading how easy you found wordpress).

    Interesting thought about rewarding efficient workers; I think employers find that really hard to measure.

  4. susoz
    August 5, 2006 at 4:12 pm

    I don’t think we can or should look at this as individuals. I think companies should have policies about the expected work hours.We’re all in this together, both in our employment situations and in society, which becomes more obvious to us after we have children. I don’t think ‘society’ is well served by having people work 50+ hours a week. Especially not when there is a substantial unemployment problem. (I know the two don’t simply equate, but there is a link if even in the sense of social dissonance.) My own employer, which is family frendly, used to say (haven’t heard it for a while, but it’s still an underpinning – I hope) that people consistently working later was a sign that their work wasn’t under control. Or that more people needed to be employed. That’s a view I strongly support. I think in a civilised society, 40 hours of work a week is enough, unless you were doing something like groundbreaking scientific research and couldn’t turn off your brain. There are other things in life…

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