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The resurgence of personal time
Flexible work makes time for life outside of work.
Maybe you’re lucky, and your work (what you are paid to do) is also your passion in life. I’m not talking about simply enjoying the work… I mean that if you suddenly won the lottery and no longer needed money, you would still keep doing the work—that kind of passion.
I spent 15 years in fintech and another six before that working in a bank. I admire and support the mission of community banks. I’ve even used the words “passionate about community banking.” But, absent money, I would not work in banking, technology, or any adjacent field.
Instead, I would write things. Once my life no longer rotates around my kids’ school year, I would travel. I would continue learning to paint.
I’ve been a remote employee for a long time, which has afforded me a fabulous amount of work-life flexing. I don’t like the word “balance” because they’re never equal. Sometimes work demands more time; sometimes life demands more time. But I can flex between the two.
Yet, we’ve seen the emergence of new demands over the past year. Remote work is definitely part of the equation, but people are also seeking ways to work less. Finding work environments that are not toxic or stressful. Rejecting hustle culture and burnout.
If there is a pyramid of work/life flexibility, it comes in three phases: work from home, flexibility, and life first.
Phase 1: Work From Home
I remember a time more than a decade ago when I missed a Mom’s Night Out.
My husband and I had just moved from Wisconsin to a suburb of Chicago with our 1-year-old son. I was lonely, having left behind a solid group of friends. I used Meetup to find a mom’s group in the area and made plans to meet at a restaurant.
I was dressed up, ready to go out. My husband’s new job—the one that had prompted the move—required him to commute into the city, an endeavor that absorbed anywhere from 1.5 - 2.5 hours per day. On that day, of all days, he had to work late and then got stuck in traffic as a result. He was so late that I missed the event.
By the time my husband got home, I was so upset. I really needed that time outside of the house to meet new people, and his job had utterly ruined my plans.
I’ve been a remote employee since 2006 and my husband started working from home in 2016. Without the ability to work from home, our days would look very different. Lengthy commute aside, we face doctor’s appointments, the school bus dropoff/pickup, or a trip to the post office. Some of which directly conflict with the “business hours” of the office.
But working from home makes “the rest of life” 100% easier. No question. I couldn’t be lured back into the office with any amount of money.
Phase 2: Flexibility
While working from home is amazing in “getting time back in the day,” many companies try to mimic office life at home. You are expected to work specific hours and make the team aware that you step away from your desk for a minute.
Work from home solves the problem of where work gets done, but a truly flexible work environment allows you to control how work gets done. You work at a time of day and place that is best for you. Only an internet connection is required.
This type of work culture relies very little on the number of hours worked and instead embraces the idea that as long as work gets done, hours don’t matter. Employees are given the freedom to meet results in a way that balances their needs and company/client needs.
Does that mean that emails go unanswered for days without explanation? Of course not. Work still has to get done. But this work environment prioritizes asynchronous communication, whether it’s by encouraging the “non-immediate” response time, using recorded videos to clarify ideas or de-emphasizing meetings. It leaves a lot of room for deep, focused work—without interruption.
I have worked in flexible remote environments for years. I’ve learned that I work best early in the morning (before the sun comes up) and that I like naps.
Phase 3: Life First
The last, glorious stage of the work-life flexibility pyramid is when life truly comes first. Work might be something you do, but not what you live and breathe (unless you fall into the earlier-mentioned category where you’re lucky enough to work a job is truly your passion).
In a life-first environment, there are generous or unlimited paid-time-off policies. Unlimited sick time (because who can control how often they’re sick?). Shorter workdays or 4-day workweeks are prioritized. Policies for parental leave, family leave, or bereavement leave are supportive. And in all instances, the company says, “Don’t worry about anything. We’ve got your back.” The last thing that anyone should be worried about during a major life event is their job.
These companies also prioritize mental health and actively work to avoid burnout. They seek to hire people that mirror company values. They recognize that work shouldn’t be a source of stress and that employees have lives outside of work.
Work and life co-exist.
This movement has given rise not only to the creator economy, but also to a “hobby renaissance.” By shunning hustle culture and instead focusing on employee well-being, people have the time—and energy—to do what brings them joy.
In the past year since I quit my job, I have had more time for things I love. And I had a flexible job (see Phase 2), but the stress of the job extended far beyond the workday. It consumed and drained me.
Now, I have found more time for writing—both personally and professionally. I have been able to set some more long-term creative goals for myself. And I continue to learn how to paint.
In the News: Knowledge workers want flexible hours more than hybrid work
Workers have figured out that hybrid work alone isn’t the same as flexible work. Your boss may say, “come into the office two days per week, and you can pick which two days,” but that’s still confining work to specific hours of the day (not reaching Phase 2 above).
According to Fortune, 95% of all knowledge workers want schedule flexibility. This surpasses even those that want location flexibility, which is still high at 78%.
Decision-makers need to pay attention since The Great Resignation has shown that people will easily leave to find a job that offers the flexibility they desire.
“People don’t want a full, nine-to-five day of meetings,” Brian Elliott, executive leader of the Future Forum, tells Fortune. “They want the flexibility to turn off notifications when it’s right for them.”
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