The When of WFH: Finding the Right Balance for Workplace Flexibility

 

There is no shortage of debate about whether employees are more productive and fulfilled if they are working at home, in the office, or a combination of the two. An offshoot of that conversation is now developing around when people work. With high demands for flexibility and the definition of a “workplace” in flux, is there any reason not to toss the traditional nine-to-five work week?

Part of this question relies on an ongoing Goldilocks-like exploration of what the “just right” balance is when it comes to responding to flexible work expectations. What’s “too much” and what’s “not enough”?. The general consensus is that more flexibility = more benefits, but every adjustment —even when it results in a net positive — introduces new problems.

For leaders, this means weighing all aspects of the “when” and “where” of workplace flexibility to make sure that employees are staying motivated and engaged, without giving way completely to anxieties around reduced productivity and collaboration.

 

The Rise of Asynchronous WFH

“Asynchronous work” is one alternative to the traditional in-office work week that’s gained momentum in the post-pandemic world. With this model, employees set their own schedules and focus on completing objectives and tasks without needing to clock in during certain hours. Employees work when it best fits their schedule.

While this might seem radical in this context, the idea of working remotely on one’s own time has a well-established precedent in higher education, with the first accredited fully online university opening in 1996. Long before the pandemic, online universities were offering degree programs using an asynchronous model, meaning that students could earn degrees without ever setting foot in a classroom.

The mainstream growth of online degree programs provides insight into the possible future of asynchronous work. On the pro side, both support accessibility.

Online education is a boon for working adults who want to invest in professional development but don’t have the option to attend in-person classes. Similarly, asynchronous work allows individuals to take care of other obligations — like picking up kids from school or caring for elderly parents — without as many scheduling conflicts. Life and work fit together more fluidly.

However, the challenges of online learning suggest one downside to asynchronous work that isn’t as heavily touched on in the conversation: it might not be for everyone.

Compared to traditional in-person classes, online education has a higher drop-out rate of 10 to 20%. Some students simply need the structure of the physical classroom to stay on pace (which also speaks volumes to the value of live, cohort-based training versus pre-recorded courses).

While it’s too early to offer long-term data points to this end on asynchronous work, it’s safe to wager that some employees will thrive in boundless time and space, while others may struggle to stay motivated, or may find themselves working too much.

 

Balancing Flexibility with Motivation

The rhetoric around a “standard” workweek often suggests it’s stifling and outdated, especially for remote workers. Case in point: one article from Harvard Business Review offers tips for how companies can “break free” from the proverbial prison of nine-to-five culture. However, this freedom comes with a potential trade-off: reduced intrinsic motivation.

In their research on organizational behavior, authors Laura M. Giurge and Kaitlin Woolley challenge “the overly positive portrayal of increased work schedule flexibility” by offering the first study connecting intrinsic motivation to structured work time.

They found the following:

“…pursuing work activities outside the traditional Monday-Friday, 9-to-5 work week undermines employees’ desire to engage in work out of interest, enjoyment, and 

meaningfulness; that is, it undermines their intrinsic motivation to work.”

According to Giurge and Woolley, people have a tendency to compare what they are doing to what they could be doing. So, when people work non-standard work hours (whether in remote or office settings) they are more likely to imagine themselves doing other things — especially if a majority of their social groups are clocking out at five.

For instance, working on a Monday afternoon is a normalized activity, so people working at that time won’t feel a sense of FOMO and get demotivated. However, individuals working late into the evening on a weekday are more likely to be distracted thinking about activities other than work, leading to a declining sense of motivation.

Flexibility is meant to enhance work-life balance, but it can also mean some employees will struggle to set and maintain healthy boundaries.

According to a Conference Board survey, 47% of remote workers are concerned about maintaining a distinct separation between work and their personal lives. This is echoed in the Microsoft New Future of Work Report, which indicates that remote work has led to a “permeability across domains.” Or, in other words, work time has bled into personal time, leading to a 28% increase in work beyond the traditional nine-to-five, and a 14% increase in work on the weekends — the very times when employees feel less engaged by work.

 

Takeaways for Managers

On the whole, flexibility is something to strive for, and all signs point to it being a mainstay of employee well-being. For managers, that means offering flexibility while also understanding how it impacts employees on a case-by-case basis, recognizing that flexible work models are not necessarily free of their own biases and challenges.

Managers should not assume that employees on flexible WFH schedules are by default the happiest and most productive, or vice versa. Each arrangement comes with its own subset of considerations that must be accounted for, especially with regard to personal boundaries and motivation.

Two things to keep in mind for an asynchronous workplace…

  1. Managers can boost motivation for WFH employees by supporting collaboration among teams who share similar work schedules. That way employees know they aren’t alone (at risk of succumbing to Giurge and Woolley’s hypotheses), creating a bond over the shared experience and allowing for more focus on the work at hand.
  2. Managers should also make sure remote workers are physically and mentally stepping away from work so they stay refreshed. It’s especially important that employees get time “off the clock” when that clock doesn’t exist (or is stretched out across four time zones). For example, Giurge and Woolley note that highly motivated and ambitious employees are more likely to work into the evenings and weekends to “go above and beyond.” This is something that may have been viewed in a positive light in the past, but as rising cases of burnout indicate, this is a fast track to employee attrition.

Bottom line: flexibility is certainly of value to employees and employers alike, and can come in different forms — from where and when work happens, to what employees work on. But the “just right” approach isn’t “one-size-fits-all.” It involves investing in knowing the unique needs and interests of employees, taking into account what kind of flexibility individuals need to thrive within the organization, and how your management style may need to adjust to accommodate.

 


For more on how leaders can create a better employee experience across the organization (especially amid evolving workplace expectations) check out these additional resources on The Forem’s blog…

WFH or Return to Office? How to Fight for the Work Week You Want (and Need)

The Hybrid Work Debate: Is Your Company Addressing Flexibility Bias?

How the Overemployment Trend Can Help Us Re-imagine Work

Why Your Workplace Empathy Efforts are Failing