Flexible Work Schedules: The Unwritten Rules

This Mother's Day, working moms have something to celebrate: More and more workplaces are offering flexible scheduling.

Flexible schedules are widely popular among all workers, but research has shown that they're especially important to women. One study found that having flexible hours closes the wage gap (and then some!) between working moms and women who don't have children. Flexible schedules also support women's ambitions. At companies with flexible work arrangements, more high-potential women aspire to the senior executive/CEO level compared with firms without such arrangements.


However, if you are taking advantage of flexible scheduling at your workplace, there are some things you need to know to reap the benefits while still sending the right messages about your leadership. That's why I chose to cover this topic in my series of articles about the unwritten rules of business.

Do Others Understand Your Schedule?

After all these years of everyone talking about work-life balance, working on a nontraditional schedule can still get a range of reactions in the business world. You may run into others' perceptions of what a typical workday should look like and what it says about you when you're doing something different.

During my last executive role at Deloitte, I incorporated some informal flexibility into my schedule. Some of my team members were in different time zones, and I had a 2-year-old son at home. So it made sense for me to leave the office a little earlier in the afternoon, go home to spend some time with my son and then do some more work after he went to bed.

This was great for managing both my personal and professional priorities. But because of my after-hours emails, some of my team members, especially those in other cities, thought I worked nonstop and all the time. Even worse, they thought I expected them to keep similar long hours, which just wasn't the case.

The Hidden Messages in After-Hours Emails

As I discovered, when people get an email from you that has a time stamp that is outside regular business hours, it raises questions. I recently discussed this with a couple of clients, one who often works a few hours late at night and the other who starts before her small children wake up, often sending her first emails before 7 a.m.

Neither of these clients feels overworked or overwhelmed. In fact, they are well in control of their schedules and are far from burnout. But the optics of their email habits convey a different message to people who don’t realize the informal flexibility they have integrated into how they work. Their team members may assume (as my former colleagues did) that they:

  • Are constantly checking email

  • Expect their teams to work well beyond regular business hours

  • Are approaching burnout and are up at all hours working

  • Can’t effectively manage their workload, delegate or ask for help

If you put yourself in others’ shoes for a minute and reflect about your own behavior, what might it say to people about you?

Communicate Clearly About Your Schedule

Don't leave it to others to draw their own conclusions about your capabilities or your stress level. Consider proactively sharing how the strategies you’ve implemented increase your productivity and effectiveness as a leader. Remember that most people have difficulty working in a way that is sustainable, and sharing your approach may give the permission they want to start making changes.

That's what I did with my colleagues at Deloitte. When I realized that they thought I never unplugged, I knew that I needed to explain my approach and “connect the dots” for them. I told them that I wasn't always working — and that I didn't expect them to, either. I also encouraged them to adapt their schedules to fit their own needs (as long as business needs were also met).

But sometimes you may have to tweak your approach to better fit the culture. For example, if you frequently send emails outside of normal business hours, you may inadvertently set an expectation that others have to change the hours they work to accommodate you. So, unless it’s urgent, I suggest that you save your draft emails to send during business hours. This will reinforce your commitment to everyone working in a way that honors their personal and professional priorities.

I want to challenge you to take 5-10 minutes to identify the assumptions people may be making about you, based on how you work. Are they taking away the right messages about your leadership? For more ideas on building work-life balance, check out "Staying in the Driver's Seat" from my Leadership EDGE Series℠.

More Unwritten Rules

Did you miss the earlier articles in this series? Follow the links below to catch up now:

And if you have questions about other unwritten rules at work, please don't hesitate to drop me a note. I may answer your question in an upcoming blog article.