I don’t have kids. I’m not married. I don’t have a dog I need to let out. Most of the plants I’ve owned are dead. There is no “real” reason for me to leave early from work, except that sometimes I want to.
The first boss I had who thought this was a valid excuse had a work style a lot like mine: He’d work nonstop, sometimes late at night or early in the morning. Often on weekends. Then, his productivity would flip a switch, and he’d lose his focus entirely. That’s when he’d show up at my desk asking whether I thought everyone should leave early for the day.
I didn’t realize at the time that this was what flexibility in the workplace could look like, a reprieve from the traditional 9-to-5 schedule simply because we’d run out of steam. And that’s likely because no one explicitly defines flexible schedules that way.
The benefits of work-life balance are well reported. You sleep better. You’re less stressed at work. You’re more likely to stay with your company.
Yet despite these sweeping positives, the way we execute “flexibility” and “work-life balance” is surprisingly narrow. We still talk about leaving the office like we either a) need an excuse or b) need to make a clean break at 5 p.m. so we won’t become workaholics. Nowadays, we leave early only if we have to pick up kids or catch a flight, and we brag about shutting off our work phones and not answering emails after-hours. Managers pat themselves on the back because they don’t expect employees to text them back on weekends.
Whether that’s an improvement on what the workplace was like 10 or 20 years ago is up for debate, but with so much focus today on overwork and burnout, what is clear is that something isn’t working. That something is wrong with our seat-warming, time clock–focused work culture. Although standard business hours are important for operational purposes, the one-size-fits-all eight-hour workday is counterproductive.
According to a study released in the U.K. last year, most employees get only about three hours of work done every day in the office, and earlier this year, another study from Draugiem Group found our brains function best with breaks of about 20 minutes in every hour of work. With these waves of inactivity and distraction, it’s no wonder some of us never achieve inbox zero.
Then there’s the issue of the way we like to work, which is what should really move the needle in this conversation because it’s central to employee happiness. Similar to learning styles (you know—visual, auditory, physical, and verbal), everyone has a different preferred workflow: some people like to arrive early and leave early, some take a long lunch, some prefer to come late and stay late, some work around the clock and then take much-deserved breaks.
Those workflows are based on priorities—kids, that midday yoga class we love, spurts of creativity, mental health. No one’s priority is more important. In the working world, they should all be weighted equally, and they should all factor into how we define flexible hours and work-life balance.
When I found a boss who not only understood that but also lived it, it completely upended my perspective on office life because I suddenly had a manager who wanted me to both do my job and do it in the most efficient way possible. All he asked was that I decide what mattered to me and how I would balance those needs with my role on his team.
So, I wrote articles at night or very early in the morning. I came in late so I could go to the gym. I worked from my parents’ house over the holidays so I wouldn’t miss the festivities between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Was that too accommodating? Some would say yes, but I don’t think so. I put in my hours, had great and consistent relationships with my coworkers, and loved every second of what I was doing. In other words, I achieved work-life balance through flexibility.
Beth Castle is the managing editor at InHerSight.