Organizations are getting a lot right in the transition to hybrid work: Recognizing that most professionals want to keep working remotely at least part of the time. Taking a team-based approach to hybrid, because the right structure depends on the kind of work you do. Investing in workshops and events that help people reconnect with one another, and build their hybrid work skills.
But there’s one mistake I see over and over again—and it’s a mistake made by both employers and employees.
That mistake? Aiming for too much scheduling flexibility as we return to the office.
The flexibility fallacy
I get the motivation: It is wonderful to have full control over your schedule. Heck, the whole reason I’ve been working remotely for the past eight years is because I needed an extreme level of scheduling flexibility in order to handle our particular parenting challenges.
Two-thirds of remote workers cite flexibility—in how they spend their time, and in where they do their work—as one of the chief benefits of working remotely. In the current tight labor market, where employers are competing to retain or hire talent, offering the maximum amount of flexibility may feel like an easy or desirable way of keeping your employees happy. In many organizations, that has taken the form of policies like “come into the office at least two days a week, but you pick the two days”, or even, “just come into the office when you need to”.
That kind of flexibility might seem like a win for employees. After all, if you can pick your own schedule, you can achieve a wide range of cost savings and conveniences.
Maybe you alternate office days with your spouse, so you can split one car between your commutes—and share one home office you each use on your days at home. Maybe you arrange your work days around your team sports schedule, so that you work from home on the days you have afternoon practices or games. Maybe you have parents who are happy to take on afterschool care for the grandkids on specific days of the week, so those are the days that it’s easiest to go to the office.
And all of those considerations are a great way to determine when to go into the office….if you work entirely alone.
But if you work alone, why are you going into the office at all?
Why we’re at the office
The whole reason for returning to the office is so that we can spend time with our colleagues, clients and collaborators. Even one or two days in the office each week can be transformative: Meeting face-to-face is typically more effective and enjoyable than endless video meetings, and can help build connection and trust within a team or organization.
If each person on the team makes their own schedule, we lose that benefit. And I know I would be super irritated to pay for childcare and put on my serious grownup clothes for a day at the office…only to discover that nobody else was there, and I was spending my whole office day on Teams and Zoom.
A smarter approach is to negotiate a common office-day schedule for your whole team, or at least, for the people who work closely together. That doesn’t have to look like issuing an edict: Henceforth All Who Are In Sales Shall Work In The Office Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Alternate Thursdays.
It’s much better to co-create a hybrid work covenant, covering a series of key decisions that determine the shape and structure of how you’ll work as a team. I outlined exactly what a hybrid-work covenant should cover, in an article for The Wall Street Journal on Five Things Every Worker Needs to Agree To in a Hybrid Workplace.
At the top of the list: When will we work together?
Making a common schedule
Agreeing on a common hybrid schedule is crucial to making the most of your days at the office—but it’s just as crucial to making the most of your days at home. As long as we take a DIY approach to workplace scheduling, we are trapped in the pattern so many of us have lived for the past two years: exhausting days crammed full of video meetings, forcing us to catch up on email, report writing and other tasks during our evenings and weekends.
It’s a pattern that costs us the chief benefit of remote work: the opportunity to do focused, reflective work in long, uninterrupted stretches of time at home (or at your favorite coffee shop). When every day of the week is treated the same—some people on the team are at the office, others are at home—then every time is an equally good (or equally bad) time to hold a meeting. We’re at the mercy of the conference-call calendar, and that calendar is usually overbooked.
Once we trade a little bit of personal scheduling flexibility for a shared team schedule, however, some new possibilities emerge. We can plan our team meetings and one-on-ones for the days at the office, where communication will be easier because we are all in the same room, parsing body language and scrawling on the white board. (Even if some of your team members are in other cities, this approach can work: Link board rooms via videoconference, or fit video calls for a distributed team into gaps between face-to-face meetings.)
When you’re not in a meeting, forget about sitting down at a desk to do your work. Seize the interstitial moments in the day, and use them for unscheduled check-ins with your colleagues. All those little problems that pile up when you can’t bounce ideas of a colleague by simply poking your head into their cubicle: That’s what you should tackle when you’re all there in person. (It helps to keep a perpetual, running list of non-urgent questions for each of your colleagues, so you remember what’s on your agenda the next time you see them.)
What office time does for remote work
The real pay-off from this approach comes on your days out of the office. Once you’ve agreed on a common schedule, you can and should agree to protect your time, focus and flexibility on the days you’re all working from home.
The best-case scenario is a team where all the meetings happen on your two or three days in the workplace, so that remote days are 100% unscheduled and available to dive deep into projects that benefit from uninterrupted time. Unscheduled days also make it easier to find time for lunch meetings with colleagues (and friends), medical appointments or even just a little time for yourself.
Even if you can’t go totally meeting-free on your out-of-office days, getting your team’s schedule in sync may make it feasible to have long meeting-free blocks of time—like a team agreement that there will be no meetings after noon on the days you’re all working from home.
If you’re the kind of person who actually needs some structure to be productive, and tends to get lost when you have five or six hours of unscheduled time, you can create your own structure on those wide-open days. Break up the day with coffee meetings or co-working dates with the colleagues you find inspiring, or schedule short errands that create some punctuation in your day. You’ll still benefit from having remote days without video calls, so that you can create the structure that works for you.
This vision of a schedule that balances shared office days with focused home days does come at a cost: We all have to sacrifice a little bit of personal flexibility in order to get the benefits of coordination as a team.
But that is the very essence of team-based work. If you’re the kind of person who really does not like team coordination, or if your personal situation (like mine) means you need the maximum amount of scheduling flexibility—well, maybe you need to find a role that involves only a limited amount of collaboration, so you really can work on your own schedule without affecting the rest of the team.
The real meaning of flexibility
Flexibility truly is a wonderful part of working remotely. But flexibility is about so much more than which days you’re in the office. Real flexibility is about having real control over big chunks of your time and attention, so that you’re not living at the mercy of conference calls and text messages.
And that’s the kind of flexibility you get when you commit to a shared schedule as a team.
This post was originally featured in the Thrive at Work newsletter. Subscribe here to be the first to receive updates and insights on the new workplace.