Creating a sense of balance: Finding flexibility in the nine-to-five workday

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You may have seen a not-so-funny meme floating around on social media that says, “I don’t have a 9 to 5. I have a ‘when I open my eyes to when I close my eyes.’” It's true that in today's world, people are working long hours and then some.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 58 percent of Canadians report “overload” due to the pressures associated with the many different roles they now play at home and at work. “Health and wellness doesn’t mean a massage and a glass of wine at the end of the day,” says leadership coach Kathy Archer. “If you wait until the end of the day to start unwinding, you don’t have enough time or energy to do so.” What often happens instead, she adds, is that people “barely hold it together throughout long days only to arrive home and blow up.”

But some people have found a secret to making their long days work. “Mona” works 8:30 to 4:30 plus some evenings and weekends in her job at a large Canadian university, but this works for her because she has creatively developed flexibility within the constraints of her job.

We talked with a number of individuals in the nonprofit sector who see flexibility as a key to healthy work environments that benefit workers and add value to their organizations.

What is flexibility?

Flexible work can take a variety of forms but often involves letting an employee “change where or when they work to help balance other responsibilities.” In nonprofit organizations where staff are often asked to do evening or weekend work, flexibility often means allowing employees the opportunity take care of personal matters, even if they sometimes fall within typical working hours.

We talked with various Canadian nonprofits to understand what flexibility can look like. Here are a few examples:

  • At one organization, staff can choose between working 8-hour days; doing 9-hour days and taking alternate Fridays off, or 10-hour days and taking every Friday off.
  • One ED sleeps in one morning a week. “I get up at 11 with pretty much all my most vexing problems solved and my forward strategy solidified. I don’t charge for my sleep-in time but it is incredibly productive.”
  • Another ED who works many evenings and weekends has negotiated being in the office on Tuesday to Thursday with the rest of her schedule up to her to determine.
  • One organization allows staff with young children to come in at 9 or 9:30 rather than 8:30 to allow their lives to run more smoothly. The same organization employs musicians who occasionally have to travel for gigs — they can take planned unpaid time off to pursue their passions.

Mona says, “My role requires me to work evenings and weekends — those events spill into family time and I consider that an inconvenience. I think of time taken back as my convenience.” Often, she says, if she works a Saturday, she doesn’t necessarily take the following Monday off (sometimes because there is clean-up or follow-up to be done) but instead looks ahead to opportunities when she can give meaningful time back to her family — such as being able to attend a child’s weekday track meet.

Archer agrees with this intentionality as a key strategy. She suggests people working long hours consider: “What am I taking away from and how can I give back to that area of my life?” This could be family time, sleep, etc.

Benefits of flexibility

Flexibility allows employees to take back a sense of balance and control of their schedules but also adds value to organizations.

Flexibility attracts good employees — in the United Kingdom, where employees can request flexible working arrangements, research shows companies that embrace flex work find it easier to attract and keep top talent, giving them a competitive advantage. 100% of people surveyed in a CharityVillage Twitter poll said that having flexibility in their work would be a selling point for a potential job.

Flexibility can also allow potential staff to afford to work in what is typically a low-paying sector, says Denise Lloyd of Engaged HR. “Staff who couldn’t afford to work because daycare is the same as their salary can sometimes arrange flexible working hours so that they don’t even need childcare.”

Vikki Stevenson, executive director of furniture bank HomeStart says, “Offering flexible hours enables us to hire people who wouldn’t have otherwise considered working for us. It’s meant we have interesting and loyal employees who know we are willing to work with them.” There are huge psychological benefits to flexibility for employees, says Mona. “Psychologically it feels great. It helps keep me healthy – there is room to breathe, I can be off when I need to be.” Another nonprofit staffer says, “It's nice to be treated as an adult, that you do in fact work the hours you report.” Lloyd notes that, “Having a flexible organization is a strong retention tool.”

Lloyd adds that, “If you allow employees to have control over how they manage their time chances are you get more hours from them and achieve results without getting into lieu time.”

It is important that organizations looking at flexibility and lieu time be sure that their policies and practices follow provincial employment standards which offer clear guidelines about overtime. It is also interesting to note that the Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour has launched a consultation to amend the Canada Labour Code to provide every federally regulated worker the right to formally request flexible working arrangements; the government will also work with interested provinces and territories to give their workers such rights.

Is it for everyone?

While many people welcome flexibility, others prefer a more structured approach where there is comfort in routine and predictability. However, Lloyd suggests that “leaders who believe that work isn’t happening unless I watch you do it are engaged in old-school thinking that has to change, partly because technology is changing it for us.” Just as education so often happens today via webinars and online learning, so too technology, such as remote desktop systems, allows people to work seamlessly with colleagues whether they are at the next desk or working in their backyards. Although one potential benefit to old-school thinking, says Mona, is that “Someone who insists on having all the bodies in place at 9am might support you walking away at 5pm.”

It is important that flexibility is available to all staff and not simply to those with young children at the expense of other staff whose lives are more predictable, says Lloyd. “Flexibility can’t mean that everyone else picks up the slack for one person and feels badly about it. There are ways of allowing flexibility that don’t negatively impact on others or add to their workload.”

Nonprofits offering service provision often believe that they can’t offer flexible working experiences because of the nature of their work, but this doesn’t have to be so. While it can be more challenging, Lloyd says it is possible. She advises such organizations to look at the bigger staffing picture and to involve the whole staff team in collaborative discussion about how to do this. When she ran a nonprofit career counselling service, for instance, they built in a floater position so that each staff member could have a day off every two weeks.

How to incorporate more flex

Flexibility isn’t something organizations can just dive into, cautions Lloyd. “It requires raising the bar around communication, policy, supports required, and clarity about job descriptions and results.” She adds, “Organizations can’t say that we are flexible but expect everyone to show up at 8:30. We have to walk the talk.”

This begins with looking at the values of the organization and the results it is trying to achieve. This allows managers to know and measure the effectiveness of its employees. Onboarding an employee should include a documented explanation of what flexibility looks like in the organization as well as what measurable results will be evaluated.

Individual employees can also lead the way. Many business coaches advise that everyone should consider themselves as self-employed, looking at their employer as their largest (or perhaps only) client. Mona encourages employees to talk with their managers (or boards), to propose flexible working arrangements and to see whether the leadership can see value in the proposed trade-off.

What about the bad apples?

There are slackers who try to take advantage of flexible workplaces. Stevenson says, “We’ve hired staff who see work as a low priority. They need to learn that flexibility doesn’t mean coming to work when you feel like it.”

At the same time, Lloyd says, “We are distracted by the bad apples and we forget that the majority of people want to do a good job and to be loyal and that they can do this better when they can balance other things that are important to them. Most employees recognize and appreciate the privilege of flexibility and give back in good quality work.” Mona says, “Flexibility means trusting the people you work with that they are doing what they are supposed to do – but at the same time, employees who work flexibly can gain credibility by doing more than their fair share of work.”

“A lot of times,” Lloyd adds, “if a leader believes that employees are taking advantage of a flexible workplace, this may be because they believe they are exchanging dollars for hours. If instead they recognize that they are actually exchanging dollars for results, it shouldn’t matter if staff are physically there when they work. ” If an employee can achieve results and still take significant time off, employers can adjust the employee’s responsibilities.

Flex isn’t just time

Author Daniel Pink says that motivation at work is linked to purpose, mastery and autonomy. Autonomy can be enhanced by offering flexible hours but can also come in other forms.

A receptionist who opens the door in the morning and closes it at night may not have flex hours but can feel that sense of autonomy if given room to be innovative and allowed to create his/her own processes, says Lloyd. Similarly, HomeStart’s drivers are given an itinerary but are also allowed to make changes to make it work better.

Organizations can also shake up usual ways of working to reflect reality — whether that means holding walking meetings, inviting staff to work from home in the midst of a blizzard or allowing staff to work outside at a picnic table on a sunny day.

Archer encourages clients to create small pauses in their days and to add personalized elements to their work to make it more enjoyable and healthy. This can include stretch breaks at regular intervals or even naps (author and consultant Michael Hyatt suggests napping is a key to improved productivity). She advises people to set up systems (such as alarms on their phones) to remind them to take a deep breath, stand up to stretch or whatever they need to be more flexible and productive. “These small steps make a big difference but we often don’t do them because we think it will look like we aren’t working hard.”

“When you work long hours and overtime,” says Mona, “you could think that you aren’t prioritizing your life by what is valuable, but when you feel that work is important too, flexibility makes working a Saturday a gift, allowing you to do things you might not have been able to do otherwise. It really works mentally in terms of feeling like you are balancing work and life well.”

Susan Fish is a writer/editor at Storywell, a company that helps individuals and organizations tell their story well. She has written for the nonprofit sector for almost two decades and loves a good story.

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