(In)Flexible Scheduling

(In)Flexible Scheduling

This past week, I’ve been having to work a very odd schedule because my babysitter took a week of vacation. I’m very fortunate that my supervisor and co-workers have all been very accommodating.  I’ve been able to put in most of my time this week before everyone else gets into work, and the time I did have a meeting, my coworkers were able to tolerate the presence of my seven-year-old while we discussed some of that ‘boring engineering stuff’.

This flexibility also extends to my coworkers. One recently went through the illness and death of a parent.  He had to take time off on a regular basis to bring his mother to various doctor visits and then more extended leave when she passed away. Another coworker lives on a farm and regularly comes in and leaves early to take care of work at home.

Over the years, I’ve known quite a few people who have gone into engineering and computer science.  I expected the two fields to have similar expectations, but I was apparently wrong. Most of the CS types have landed jobs with flexible schedules and a lot of telecommuting options. The engineers have usually ended up on very set schedules. Despite being on salary, many of them are dinged for utilizing that flexibility and working less than 40 hours after a weeks of 60+ hours. (These long work hours have been noted as one reason more women than men leave engineering, although, as noted above, flexible scheduling can benefit men as well as women.)

Of course, the ones in academia have also had flexible schedules, but they have to deal with the fact that, no matter how flexible their schedule is, they somehow need to get in 70-80 hours per week. Likewise, those who telecommute have often had to deal with the unspoken rule that it doesn’t matter where they do their work, they are still expected to get a significant amount of time in. Sometimes they feel as if they can never leave work behind.

What options have your employers offered you in terms of flexible scheduling and have you been able to use it effectively? Is flexible scheduling one of the criteria in choosing a job?


“Of course, the ones in academia have also had flexible schedules, but they have to deal with the fact that, no matter how flexible their schedule is, they somehow need to get in 70-80 hours per week. ”

I have to say this is the part I hated most. My schedule ’round the year was mostly something like this:

– January: nothing happens. Everyone’s drowsy from the holiday.
– February, March: boring routine tests and experiments.
– April: holy snail we need to finish that abstract => one week of work at 20 hours/day
– May: holy snail we need to finish that article => two weeks of work at 20 hours/day. Weekends? What weekends?
– June: boring routine tests and experiments
– July: final exams, nothing happens. Go to conferences, sunbathe etc.
– August: nothing happens
– September: holy snail we need to finish that abstract and that one and that article => two weeks of work at 20 hours/day. Weekends? What weekends?
– October: nothing happens
– November: holy snail we need to…
– December: gifts, party, nothing happens

It wasn’t a “flexible” schedule — the year was just split in three parts:

– One part where nothing happened, nobody was around and nobody was even there to see if you showed up at work
– One part where you just had to run various experiments, draft reports and so on, so you could mostly work from home or do whatever you wanted to do at whatever hour you wanted to
– One part where you had no life, family, sleep, food, drink without caffeine and weekends were out of order.

The first two took most of the time, but it was the last one that killed you, despite eventually amounting to maybe 6 or 8 weeks per year at most. It would constantly leave me with funky sleeping schedules, miseerable feelings and caffeine-processing liver.

I now work as an embedded systems engineer and frankly, it’s far better. The schedule is not fantastically flexible — we usually come around the same hour and leave around the same hour — but these are decent hours (come around 10 AM, leave around 7 PM), and we take breaks liberally. Coming earlier or later is fine as long as we can all be in the office around 10-11 AM in case there’s an important meeting.

For most of the time, it’s not as flexible as when I was in academia, where except for those dreaded weeks I could mostly work for home (or, in August, not at all). But now there are no times when I have to pull out 16 hours workdays with no weekends for two or three weeks in a row, which is considerably better for my mental sanity.

There also seems to be a little bit more care for everyone’s personal time. I’m not expected to work weekends, regardless of how pressing deadlines are. if I’m doing a particularly interesting thing, I sometimes pull two or three hours in a Saturday morning but that’s all. That wasn’t the case before — if the deadline was Monday, we would usually work frantically through all Saturday and most of Sunday.

I love my job flexibility. I think it has something to do with us being a satellite office and the boss not being on-site. Else, how can I ever take off in the middle of the day and drive my kids to a hockey tournament, shivering in the stands while temperatures outside is soaring in the mid-30s C (mid 90s F for you ‘mericans). Others at my office would leave at 3pm here and there to pick up their kids from something or rather. All guys here, and we all appreciate the flexibility.

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