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TL;DR:

I work in an academic-like environment with free working hours. Everyone including my boss have a hectic schedule for work hours; and her plans for meeting me often clash with my plans for leaving time. I'm often only informed about this when she arrives. This is my first job and I have no experience regarding time management. How could I manage my working hours 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 employees are academics - many being among the best in their fields. Correspondingly, the environment is somewhere between academia and industry - the workers are given maximal possible freedom, and the results are more important than 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, but I struggle with keeping up my work-life balance and limiting my worktime. Sometimes I start early and work 8-9 hours, between say 6am-3pm. Or I work 12 hours one day, so the next day would need only about 4h work.

The problem is that my planned working hours often clash with my boss-supervisor's plans for that day. Often in the morning, when she arrives (e.g. 8am), she wants to schedule a meeting after my planned end time (e.g. at 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 if I do it often, it paints a bad picture. 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 working much more than 40h per week. At the same time, due to the special nature of the working environment, this isn't against law company rules - 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. Sometimes she leaves at 2pm, other times at 9pm.

  • This could be said about my "teammates" as well...

  • ... but actually there's no "team" as it 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.

  • Based on discussions with colleagues from different divisions, my working hour plans aren't 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 unpredictability is also typical.

  • My relationship with my boss is very friendly. We already collaborated before I joined this institution, and we are friends in our private life. Even so, professionalism regarding work is kept between us.

  • as a new employee, I do have some stress regarding my performance, leading to lengthened working hours, and I would like to sort this out as well.

  • The institution is in the EU, but my team, including my boss, is fully Indian. I'm the only one from my country. The whole institution is very inter- and multinational; more than 2/3 of the scientific divisions are foreigners from multiple countries around the word.

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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, 2020 at 22:32

5 Answers 5

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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, 2020 at 0:51
  • Some workplaces have core business hours, e.g. "Make sure you're here between 10 and 3 PM."
    – zmike
    Sep 2, 2021 at 17:28
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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.

9

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, 2020 at 6:18
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Hm, are you still looking for new answers to this question? I see that it's over a year old, however since the OP updated the wording and bumped the question, let me try and chip in with a suggestion.

I come primarily from a "fluent" (or, as you say, hectic and unpredictable) academic environment. And what you describe is true: a researcher has a fair freedom of which topics to work on, and advancements and ideas don't always happen at the same speed. As such, weekly meetings might sometimes not make sense (or, alternatively, a researcher might need a technician intensively for a while, and then not at all while they're working on theory again).

I doubt that this "fluency" or the work schedule will ever go away, as that would have a major impact on the productivity of many academics. Fortunately I have increasingly seen research teams doing their best to be more inclusive towards the people who prefer (or require, e.g. because of family responsibilities) a more rigid schedule.

One of the simplest, cleanest solutions I've seen was to implement the idea of "core working hours". I've seen it implemented as an institute-wide policy (everybody's expected to be in between 11am and 3pm), but even then it wasn't too rigid. But, I think it would be sufficient to define "your core working hours" directly with your boss, especially if you say you're on quite good terms. Just something like:

I tend to leave the office by 4PM on most days. If you need to discuss something outside of our regular meetings, could we do it sometime between 10 and 4, as I notice both of us tend to be in regularly at those times.

As you say you are expected to be in charge of your flexible working hours, there's really no need to qualify any of the statements above, especially if nobody is complaining about your productivity. Tho in an academic environment, I would often expect to be on friendly enough terms with colleagues that I wouldn't mind explaining it (be it "I work better in the mornings" or "I have to pick up my kid from school" or "The last train leaves at 5").

And remember that most academics leading research teams and institutions usually have a background in -- research, not management. Not realising their impact on somebody else's schedule is rarely malice, and more often due to them being absorbed in their nerdy work.

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  • I just went through my list of questions with unaccepted answers, saw this one, and decided to edit out unrelated chatter. I kind of sorted stuff out by now by getting used to each other, but it's still relevant of course! Thanks for the good suggestions, having core working hours is a great idea.
    – Neinstein
    Sep 2, 2021 at 11:21
  • @Neinstein In my case, the same conversation usually goes the opposite: could we please not schedule meetings before 10am, as I'd prefer to be able to follow what you're saying (with really friendly colleagues, this exact wording was sometimes used, tho I wouldn't recommend it for your boss :) ).
    – penelope
    Sep 2, 2021 at 12:09
  • Basically this. In OP's case, does not need to be strict "core hours", just indicate if you have preference on your end. Also, not uncommon to do work-related activities for well over 40 hours specified by the contract because that's how academics roll. Also not malice but gets other people roped in a similar schedule.
    – Lodinn
    Sep 6, 2021 at 23:33

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