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TL;DR:

I work in an academic-like environment with free working hours. Everyone including my boss have a hectic seclude for work hours; and her plans for meeting me often clash with my plans for leaving time. This is my first job and I have no experience regarding time management. How could I manage this better?

Details:

I'm a recent graduate in my first workplace, where I started 3 months ago. This is a highly scientific physics research institution, where workers are academics - many being among the bests in their fields. Correspondingly, the whole environment is somewhere between academia and industry - the workers are given maximal possible freedom, and the results are more important than actual working hours.

In practice, this means that everyone, including me, has totally free working hours. These working hours are usually pretty hectic and unpredictable also. The contract only specifies that on average, 40 hours per week should be spent working; when this happens is up to the employee.

Now, this sounds amazingly convenient at first, but I struggle with keeping up my work-life balance and limiting my worktime. Often I plan to start early - sometimes as early as 6am - and spend 8, even 9 hours with working, to be free by 3pm. Or I work 12 hours one day, so the next day theoretically would need only about 4h work, maybe between 8-12. The work is purely computer-based, so I can do the remaining tasks at home also if needed.

The problem is that my working hours often clash with my boss-supervisor's planned discussion times for that day, which she usually tells me in the morning. Often at the morning, when she arrives (e.g. 6am), she wants to meet me after my planned end time, say, 4pm-6pm - not being aware that I've been working since 7am, and would finish already by 4. Of course, occasionally we can discuss this and postpone the meeting, but that's to something to do often. And though we're on excellent terms and she's very friendly, as a fresh worker I'm very reluctant to refuse a meeting time.

This results in that my plans for working hours rarely work, and I end up spending in office much more than 40h per week. At the same time, due to the special nature of the working environment, this isn't something that's against company rule or even law - I'm responsible for managing working hours, not the institution.

How could I manage to take full advantage of the free working hours without hurting my reputation, reliability, and relationship with my superior? To what extent should I keep up regularity?

Things to consider:

  • The working hours of my boss are as hectic as mine. Sometimes she arrives at 7am, sometimes at 11am or even 2pm only. Sometimes she leaves at 2pm, sometimes at 9pm. She even skips some days 1-2 times per month and fills her duties (== researching) from home - this is accepted. (Even more since the company had a 3-months home office period due to COVID-19).

  • This can be told about my "teammates" as well...

  • ... but actually there's no "team" as is. We are more like a group of PhD/postdoc researchers with a common supervisor (my boss and her husband, who is a higher-ranking leader of a different division than her), working on their semi-independent project fitting in the big scheme of research done by the group. Occasionally they help me of course, but our work does not depend on each other.

  • I discussed with colleagues of different divisions, and my working hour plans don't seem to be out of line. Some even work on Saturday in exchange for shorter working hours during the week. (OTOH, Some PhD guys spend 12 hours in the office regularly.) The unpredictableness is also typical.

  • I would prefer to arrive and leave early. I'm in a long-distance relationship with my SO being 6 hours ahead of me. If I would work normal working hours (say, 8-17, with 1h lunch break included), the first time we would be able to meet at my home would be her midnight. And this is assuming my workday actually ends at 17. Actually, we are already having a hard time keeping up the balance between work and my relationship. (Her working hours are fixed and end at my 2pm.) I do realize that up to working hours work should be prioritized over love, but at the same time, some balancing is needed to maintain a healthy and happy relationship.

  • My relationship with my boss is very friendly. She even invited me for lunch with her family and friends. Before I started working here, I was already collaborating with her husband, and we often met at their place, lunch occasionally included, and had long and friendly talks. Even so, professionalism regarding work is kept between us.

  • I do have some stress about the new work and my performance, contributing to enlengthened working hours, and I would like to sort this out as well. My worst day was 6am-10pm...

  • The institution is in EU, but my team, including my boss, is fully Indian (somewhat surprisingly). I'm the only one native to my country. The whole institution is very inter- and multinational; more than 2/3 of the scientific divisions are foreigners. As such, the default communication is English. I'm fluent in it, but it does impose some limits on the clarity of my communication skills.

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    Why not plan and make a timetable your boss can refer to to see when you're actually going to be at work? – Kilisi Aug 13 '20 at 22:32
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You could ask your boss if they would be able to gives more than a days notice for meetings - which would be good etiquette from them anyway, especially if they're as long as you say.

If meetings are scheduled in through a calendar, just block out your time you're planning on not being at work as unavailable

If these meetings are setup verbally, just say that you've already been in since 6am and had planned to be away at 3pm. Ask if they wouldn't mind meeting earlier or even postpone to tomorrow so you can plan your day better around the meeting.

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  • Whenever it comes to "free form" hours, it's somewhat important to understand that the system doesn't work unless you're set up for full asynchronous work. It's suggested that most people keep "core hours" that they are consistently around for, and then leave the rest as more ad hoc. OP doesn't have to work more than 40h, but instead elects to because of these meetings, etc. In the end, your job is to make the lab, and the boss, look good and provide excellent research. Maybe the best way to do that is to sacrifice your preference for a 3pm end time. – Malisbad Aug 19 '20 at 0:51
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I suggest you create a set time when you meet with your boss on a recurring schedule (e.g. Thursdays at 10am). You'd only have to negotiate the scheduling once, rather than each time that you are to meet. Knowing what time you need to keep free well in advance means you don't have the hassle of trying to find time or move things around to accommodate each other's schedules. Try to set it for when your boss comes in first thing. Fewer distractions, less likelihood of cancelling/rescheduling, and it allows you to leave when you see fit.

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From what you have said, it sounds like you have a good and well-established relationship with your boss. In this case, you should respond to their invitations to meet outside your schedule simply by saying something like

I don't plan on being at work at that time. Would 1:30 work instead?

If your relationship with your boss weren't as great, I would recommend asking them to give more notice for scheduled meetings.

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Stop doing the extra hours.

The meetings are a distraction/excuse/strawman. The problem is not that you start at 7am then get roped into working until 7pm... the problem is that you don't take those hours back the next day (or a few days after).

Start recording the hours and making a clear plan to take them back.

The meetings might be a problem for other reasons. e.g. maybe they clash with social arrangements you've made? If this is the case then you need to book any important social arrangements into your work calendar and defend them if people try to book over them. But don't try to "fix" the meetings if they aren't a big issue. Focus on solving on the real problem.

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    Why is this downvoted? It seems to be as reasonable as other answers... if you could tell, you'd help me as well as the writer. – Neinstein Aug 14 '20 at 6:18

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