Millions of us have been WFH for nearly a year – and while having a desk in our living room might make us feel like we work “flexibly”, we probably don’t.
Our guess is you get up at the same time each day, sit at your desk solidly for several hours until lunch, take 20 mins to eat, then sit back down until the end of the day. It’s the office, just with a change of scenery.
Forcing flexibility into our days – that is, bending and shaping them in ways to suit us – could be the key to happier working lives. That’s according to Annie Auerbach, author of Flex: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life. She wants more people to take up the ‘Flex’ lifestyle.
The concept has been bubbling up for decades, says Auerbach. “It felt like flex was reaching a tipping point – and then the pandemic happened,” she tells HuffPost UK. “Suddenly we were working from home, flex was in the mainstream, and understanding how to make it work became more urgent than ever.”
Auerbach, who has worked flexibly for two decades, says she had a lot to learn. “Flex is about looking at routines like the nine to five... and bending and re-shaping them,” she says. “When we learn how to flex, we become more creative, more strategic with our time and more engaged with our lives. We invent our own template, according to our own needs – often without precedent on a truly blank slate.”
What’s the opposite of a ‘flex’ lifestyle, then? “Our toxic work culture of presenteeism, time-pressure, and ultimately burnout,” Auerbach answers. “When you feel like you are trying to do everything, but following a rulebook you didn’t write – or when you feel like you’re adding more strings to your bow, and it’s making you tense and ready to snap.”
We need boundaries, says Auerbach. “It’s more important than ever that we look after ourselves and ask key questions about how we want to live our life.”
Invent your day from scratch.
Auerbach says you should “shed the rhythms that don’t suit you”. If you no longer have a commute, use that time for ourselves. That could mean “exercising, reading, calling friends and family for a chat, shifting our days earlier or later to harmonise with circadian rhythms,” she suggests.
“If you’re a night owl, embrace the evenings and let morning be slow. If you’re a morning lark (and are waking even earlier with angst) work while the kids are watching TV. Because of these flexed schedules, I’ve seen more email signatures saying something like: ‘my working hours may not be the same as yours, so please don’t feel you need to respond until you are back online’.”
“Don’t be tempted to swap the nine to five with the 24/7,” says Auerbach. “It can feel hard to compartmentalise work when it’s happening on the kitchen table, in bed or on the sofa. Your flex needs to have hard edges. We can consciously do simple things like closing the laptop and going for a walk before coming back to work; or refusing to eat ‘al desko’ and taking a proper lunch break. Or digitally intervening and putting time limits on social media.”
Empathy trumps productivity.
If you don’t learn a language, write a novel or pivot your whole business, you are not a failure. “We have been forced to press the pause button and whilst it’s frustrating, it’s also a gift,” says Auerbach. “Our working culture fetishes speed, churn and efficiency. It neglects empathy, listening and considered thought. Now is the time for the latter, so revel in it.”
Block out time for non-work.
Fight against always-on availability and protect time, not just for yourself, but for childcare, hospital appointments, volunteering, or food shopping for neighbours – “this is all part of life at the moment and we shouldn’t have to apologise for it.”
Know that it’s not all on you.
Of course, the key to a ‘Flex’ lifestyle isn’t all about us. “We need employers to create systems which discourage digital presenteeism”, adds Auerbach, who cites some signs of progress.
The European Parliament has approved the ‘right to disconnect’ – a measure to cut out-of-hours emailing without facing negative career repercussions, she notes, while Channel 4 has a daily, company-wide lunch break from 12.30-2pm and meeting-free Fridays.
“We can only do our best but we need help from our employers to create systemic change,” she says.
FLEX: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life by Annie Auerbach is published by HQ on March 18.