The manager’s manual: Supporting flexible schedules

A global crisis means a 9-to-5 schedule may no longer work for employees. Here are tips from Slack managers on how to best support your teams

A person suspended from a clock tower, erasing the numbers on the clock face
Image Credit: Pete Ryan

This story is part of an ongoing series to help managers navigate remote work during the Covid-19 crisis.

Life is unpredictable right now, and so are our schedules. Working a strict 9 to 5 is unrealistic when you’re delivering groceries to elderly parents, learning how to homeschool on the fly, avoiding high-traffic supermarket hours, or caring for someone who is immunocompromised. Giving employees the freedom to adjust their hours, however, comes with understandable concerns, like dealing with rocky communication or loss of productivity.

We spoke with a few of Slack’s most seasoned managers on why flexible schedules are essential and asked for their insights into how managers can make flexible work schedules a reality.

The case for flexible schedules

While telecommuting is no doubt an enormous privilege, it comes with its own set of burdens during a pandemic. Productivity pitfalls abound at home, and caregivers are suddenly juggling multiple obligations.

headshot of Shannon Burns, engineering manager at Slack

“If employees can’t meet their basic needs because their schedules are not flexible enough to allow them to do so, it’s going to have a massive impact on their productivity.”

Shannon Burns
Engineering Manager at Slack

“If employees can’t meet their basic needs because their schedules are not flexible enough to allow them to do so, it’s going to have a massive impact on their productivity,” says Shannon Burns, an engineering manager at Slack.

A study by the University of Minnesota revealed that employees with flexible schedules suffered less emotional exhaustion, psychological distress and work-family conflict. Not only that, but employees seemed to get physically healthier too. And with a mental health crisis on the horizon, prioritizing well-being is more important than ever.

“When people feel their company has their best interests at heart, they are more engaged, which leads to better productivity during the times they are working,” Burns says.

Below are three tips to help your team thrive during the hours that work best for their circumstances.

1. Evaluate performance with results, not time

Remote management often requires a mindset shift from focusing on employees’ time (activity-based work) to focusing on outcomes (results-based work). The 9-to-5 workday is not one size fits all, and plenty of people are more productive at a certain time of day than another.

“Before the pandemic began, I encouraged my team to work the optimal hours for their productivity, with the flexibility to meet for difficult-to-schedule meetings,” Burns says.

Here are two ways to make the transition simpler:

Document everything

Results are easier to track with written records. Daily update standups don’t require meetings and serve as great reference points throughout the week. Get granular about tracking progress with detailed plans, so employees maintain a clear sense of structure. Katie Ryan O’Connor, senior director of Slack’s content marketing team, asks her team to set a plan for the week, execute on that plan, and then check back in at the end of the week to document the status of their work and surface any potential opportunities or blockers.

Daily standup UI

Up your asynchronous communication skills

Asynchronous communication is a fancy way of saying that you’re not expecting an immediate response, something we don’t often experience in the office. Developing this skill is crucial when working with international teams in different time zones or remote teams with different work hours.

Set the expectation that not every request needs an immediate response, and encourage your team to snooze notifications when they’re offline. If you have to send a message after work hours, Burns recommends letting your employees know that they don’t need to reply right away.

2. Communicate your schedule ahead of time (if possible)

Sharing schedules helps your team respect and support your working hours. As a manager, building transparency around your own schedule grows trust and encourages your team to be more intentional about communicating availability.

Encourage your employees to block their hours on their calendar as they change, and place any recurring obligations on a shared team calendar.

How to share your schedule in Slack

Sharing your schedule helps your coworkers respect your time. This is how Chaitanya Ravula, senior engineering manager, does it in Slack. 

  1. Update your status: If your hours change daily or weekly, update your status so everyone can see. For example, your status for the day might be: Availability this week: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  2. Post in the team channel: Share your schedule at the beginning of the week to set expectations, and encourage team members to let everyone know when they’re hopping back online or logging off for the day. 
  3. Customize Do Not Disturb: Working from home blurs the lines between work and home, so snoozing notifications becomes an important boundary-setting tool. Encourage your employees to mute notifications when they’re going offline for the day or taking breaks. 

3. Have better meetings, much less often

If everyone on your team is working slightly varied hours, it’s a given that scheduling meetings will be much harder to do. However, you can use this as an opportunity to make your meetings more efficient and effective with some auditing techniques, Burns says. What’s more, she coaches healthy meeting habits, which we’ve listed below.

Audit your meetings

  • Eliminate low value meetings. If attendance is low, people are distracted, or leaving meetings with ambiguity and questions, those are all symptoms of meetings that can be cut or reconsidered.
  • Encourage every team member to propose cutting or revising recurring team meetings.
  • Be willing to make mistakes. If you cut a meeting that was actually needed, it’ll find its way back into the calendar.
  • Classify your meetings: Are they informational, or does decision-making take place? Informational meetings can largely be converted into Slack announcements or discussions in channel.

Healthy meeting habits

  1. Plan ahead for when meetings are needed

    Identifying any blockers in a project early on can help nail down a meeting time in advance.

  2. Set expectations that every meeting has a clear goal

    You can do this by setting an agenda and sharing it a day or two in advance so folks can come prepared to discuss.

  3. Appoint a meeting facilitator

    A meeting facilitator keeps an eye on the time and ensures that all attendees are given the opportunity to contribute. Facilitators should feel comfortable interjecting, occasionally cutting off people who are derailing the conversation, and encouraging more soft-spoken individuals to share their perspective. Good facilitators are like shepherds keeping people focused on the task at hand by protecting the boundaries of the meeting.

  4. End on time

    If time runs out, that’s OK. Schedule more time that works for the team, or try moving the conversation into a Slack channel. Ending on time helps your team respect one another’s time and supports individual working hours.

Pandemics don’t come with perfect playbooks and we’re all experiencing this learning curve together. We hope these guidelines can help your teammates bring their best selves to work, wherever they are, and whenever they can.

About Slack

Slack has transformed business communication. It's the leading channel-based messaging platform, used by millions to align their teams, unify their systems, and drive their businesses forward. Only Slack offers a secure, enterprise-grade environment that can scale with the largest companies in the world. It is a new layer of the business technology stack where people can work together more effectively, connect all their other software tools and services, and find the information they need to do their best work. Slack is where work happens.