How to make flexible work hours work for you

While we're told flexible working hours are the way of the future, the reality is many of us struggle to put that into practice. Here's how to negotiate to get your work-life balance back in check while keeping both yourself - and, crucially, your boss - happy.

How flexible are your work hours? Are you able to set your own days or work a four day week? Or do you find yourself leaving work at 5.30 every day but then logging on at home until 10, regularly checking emails just in case? And is that stressing you out?

If you fall into that last category, you’re not alone. A new study from the US suggests that the expectations from bosses these days that we will always be available, is causing all of us anxiety. William Becker, a Virginia Tech associate professor of management in the Pamplin College of Business, co-authored a new study, and suggests that "the competing demands of work and nonwork lives present a dilemma for employees, which triggers feelings of anxiety and endangers work and personal lives."

And then some. In Australia according to National Employment Standards employers must not ask full-time employees to work more than 38 hours a week, unless the additional hours are reasonable. But while that is there in black and white it seems we have a pretty bad rep when it comes to work-life balance  - in fact, according to recent stats by the Institute of Health and Welfare we are in the bottom third worldwide when it comes to getting that right. Which is crazy when you see growing research that says by being able to spend more time away from their job and their email, employees engage better with their work. In other words, workers with a better work-life balance are actually more productive.

“Productivity increases when workers aren’t so frazzled,” says Amanda Blesing, a mentor and brand strategist for Leading Women. “Frazzle is the enemy of focus and focus is what produces results.”

But what can we do about it? The obvious answer is that we need more flexibility – and more freedom to switch off the laptop at night or to work the hours that, well, work for us. More freedom from the frazzle, in fact.

READ: Why we should have a four-day working week

When it comes to those after work emails, setting boundaries about after-work communication can help. In fact, productivity experts recommend a no-go zone for emails overnight so we can get the downtime we need. France famously now even has a right to disconnect law, where people in companies of over 50 people can ignore emails after work hours.

And as for work hours, flex is the key. For instance, New Zealand company Perpetual Guardian recently took part in an innovative trial of a four-day working week. And 78 per cent of their employees said afterwards they were better able to manage their work-life balance, they felt better about their job, were more engaged, and generally reported less stress -- and all while maintaining the same level of productivity (and same levels of pay).

So, armed with that information, how can you negotiate flexibility if it’s not on offer at your workplace?

Change the way you think

Amanda says we need to change our mindsets about work.“You need to shift from thinking about trading your time for money to trading impact or results for money,” she says. If you can deliver those results with a more flexible work life, you can - and should - ask for just that.

Be confident

“You do need to be confident enough to ask about what you want,” Amanda says. “If you don’t ask you won’t get. Women especially don’t ask because they think they won’t get.”

Have a plan

“The conversation needs to be done with a plan in mind,” Amanda adds. “Don’t just accept no for an answer.” If your boss is wary of changes, she suggests you ask for their help in perfecting a solution. Suggest a trial for whatever you want - a four day week, a day out of the office working remotely, or simply no email contact after, say 7 pm, with a time frame in which to review it. “Don’t accept the first no you get as no forever - maybe it’s no, not right now but let’s revisit in a month - or let’s trial for a month.”

Be flexible yourself

If your employer can’t give you exactly what you want – don’t close the door on it. They may be able to suggest a compromise that works for both of you.

If you get what you want, make it work for you

“Make sure your boss and your team know when you are at work and when you’re not,” advises Amanda. “They need to know when you’ll respond and - crucially - when you won’t.”

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