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4 Rules For Making A Flexible Schedule Work

Around two-thirds of companies let employees work from home. But there are a few things you need to know to make flex-time work.

4 Rules For Making A Flexible Schedule Work
[Photo: MoMo Productions/Getty Images]

If you’ve ever worked an entire day in sweatpants, chances are you don’t need to be sold on the virtues of working remotely. Neither do the growing number of companies that now offer flexible work arrangements–which, by one recent estimate, around two-thirds of employers at least occasionally do.

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The responsibility for seeing that work gets done well and on time used to rest on managers’ shoulders. Now, some of that burden is shifting towards remote workers, who need to manage themselves when they aren’t in the office.

After all, working remotely might sound like a great idea until it comes down to actually working. So if you’re fortunate enough to be able to design your own flexible work schedule, these are some good ground rules to follow.

1. Consider Your Company’s Needs

If you’re permitted to work remotely some or even all of the time, remember that it isn’t out of the goodness of your company’s heart. It’s because your employer thinks it’s a good way to keep you engaged and productive. Respect for your personal life is certainly part of that equation, but you shouldn’t think of the opportunity as an act of charity or an entitlement.

Instead, it’s a practical arrangement–so treat it that way. You need to set a balance between your needs and your company’s. So start by asking your supervisor exactly what’s expected of you, beginning with the duties you need to tackle in-person and onsite.

Maybe there’s an all-hands meeting every Wednesday afternoon that you need to attend. Plan to be at your desk by midday to prepare and consult with colleagues, then stick around afterwards so you can have any follow-up conversations based on what’s been discussed.

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Once you’ve identified those periods for collaborative work, see what space that leaves you to take your solo tasks out of the office.

2. Stay Connected

Then, for the times you’re working remotely, make sure your team knows you’re no less available than if you were physically present.

“Communication is both the biggest obstacle and the solution to developing trust within remote teams,” FlexJobs CEO Sara Sutton Fell recently told Fast Company. Don’t rely on just one method. Decide which tools–email, phone, Skype, Slack, etc.–work best depending on the type of message you need to get across. And let your coworkers weigh in on which methods they like best for keeping in touch with you while you work offsite.

Staying connected isn’t just a logistical matter. It’s also important that you remain plugged into the company’s culture. VenturePact cofounder Randy Rayess, who manages remote teams around the world, suggests making periodic personal check-ins by email or video chat with your boss or colleagues, even when you don’t need to discuss some pressing, work-related task.

It can be as simple as asking how someone’s week is going at the end of an email, or sharing what you did over the weekend while you’re on the phone with a colleague on Monday morning.

This is especially critical if you’re spending more time out of the office than in it. As Rayess notes, there’s an “important personal basis to [a] team’s working relationships” that’s hard to sustain when employees work remotely. Your manager might not explicitly tell you that these types of check-ins matter, but you should still take the initiative to stay connected in whatever way seems most appropriate.

3. Know Your Own Habits

You’ve taken into considerations all your company’s needs while designing your flexible schedule–now it’s time to think about your own.

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Most of us have trouble sitting still and working for eight hours at a stretch without taking some kind of break. That holds true, even if you’re working from your couch. And jumping from coffee shop to coffee shop can leave you frazzled and over-caffeinated in short order.

One alternative, as productivity expert (and frequent remote worker) Laura Vanderkam points out, is the growing range of coworking spaces you can rent for set periods of time. This way you can get the feel of an office without the commitment.

Otherwise, think creatively. Vanderkam suggests trying restaurants during off-hours, especially the time between lunch and dinner. And while public libraries aren’t always as silent as they should be, at least you won’t have to buy a latte before sitting down.

Second, try to impose some order and regularity on your remote working methods. As Zirtual CEO Mary Kate Donovan explains to Fast Company, “Because the drudgery of organizing your work and workspace can feel like wasted time”–especially when your boss won’t see it–“it’s easy to let it go by the wayside. But don’t underestimate it—strategic organization can pay off tenfold in productivity.”

4. Recognize When Flexible Work Isn’t Working

Finally, it’s important to be honest with yourself. If it’s getting harder to focus while working from your kitchen table, don’t try and tough it out. Stop working there and find someplace new. Sometimes a great work spot becomes a not-so-great work spot after a while, for various reasons. The upside to having a flexible schedule is that you aren’t locked into it.

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Maybe there are other distractions. Is your Facebook feed sucking away too much of your attention now that you don’t have colleagues peering over your shoulder? Consider using a program like Freedom, which locks your computer off the Internet for as long as you command it. The point is to be disciplined enough not just to know when something isn’t working, but to change things up quickly. Without a manager setting boundaries for you, you need to establish your own.

Working remotely isn’t for everybody. If you’re splitting your time between an office and a remote workspace, there will be days when you’ll just need to go into the office in order to get anything done–even if you weren’t planning to.

Being “flexible” sounds laidback and low-key, but it hardly ever is. It’s about having more options, which means making smart decisions about how to use each of them productively.

If you prove unable to do that, they can always be taken away from you.

About the author

Rich Bellis is Associate Editor of Fast Company's Leadership section.

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