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It's important to me to work in an environment where I get to choose my own break times and have some say in my schedule (within reason). I strongly dislike the notion of an employee needs to be sitting at their desk from 9 to 5 and if they're not, they're not doing their job.

If there isn't really any work to do at a moment, then I think it's OK to take a small break and maybe grab coffee from across the street. If I'm fatigued, I think it's also OK to take a small break. Conversely, if there's a need to stay late, I'm OK with this too. I had a job where the manager wanted everyone to take their break from noon to one. I really didn't like this and I wasn't even hungry at this time anyway.

I have an interview coming up. How can I ascertain this information about the workplace? What questions can I ask and how exactly should I phrase them? In general, I'd like to work at workplace that is more concerned with output than input, so to speak.

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  • 11
    Why not ask exactly the thing you've asked in 1st paragraph?
    – Aida Paul
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 18:04
  • 5
    For most knowledge workers what you're saying you want is the norm
    – keshlam
    Commented Nov 2, 2023 at 18:25
  • Are you talking about a break with or without signing out of working time or catching up time you lost in the break? That should make a big difference. Even if it's obvious to you, you should communicate that clearly.
    – puck
    Commented Nov 4, 2023 at 20:13
  • I believe everybody finds it normal having a coffee break. But why do you need to leave your employer and cross the street for that? :-)
    – Dominique
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 10:06

8 Answers 8

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How can I ascertain this information about the workplace? What questions can I ask and how exactly should I phrase them?

I think you already phrased it in a good way in your question, so my answer is "Just ask them" when prompted for questions or clarifications :)

And go along the lines you said like:

It's important to me to work in an environment where I get to choose my own break times and have some flexibility in my schedule, if possible and within reason. What's the stance of the company regarding breaks and schedules?

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How can I ascertain this information about the workplace?

You ask. Be specific.

  • "If there isn't really any work to do at a moment, is it OK to take a small break and maybe grab coffee from across the street?"
  • "If I'm fatigued, is it OK to take a small break?"
  • "Is everyone required to take a break at the same time, even if I'm not hungry?"

Obviously, this will limit the offers you will get. But that's what you want with requirements that are important to you.

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  • "If I'm fatigued, is it OK to take a small break?" This could be perceived as being related to medical conditions, so I would not recommend using the word fatigued.
    – Gertsen
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 7:42
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If you're trying to determine whether your working day will have an unreasonably regimented schedule, the most straightforward question is: "do I have to take dinner at a fixed time, or can I choose when it starts and ends?".

You can explain the context for asking by mentioning how in the past you've encountered a very rigid schedule, where once the bell rang you couldn't even complete a task you were working on - you were expected to break immediately, and be back at your station when the bell rang again.

It's better to cast the problem as an interruption to the work you'd prefer to be getting on with at that moment, rather than a lack of hunger - even though, obviously, your preferred time is likely to be governed somewhat by hunger.

It's not uncommon to have that regimentation for the workforce in factories, although it's equally common to put staff out of the way where different practices won't rankle, and for the staff to behave sensitively at the interface, if they happen to be on the shop floor.

You don't need to be overly specific about every eventuality in the interview. What you're trying to solicit is the general attitude to timekeeping and whether staff have a reasonable amount of trust and autonomy.

Don't over-egg the questions to the point that they seem strange or suspicious in their own right.

As surely as employers vary in their attitudes to regimenting working time, employees vary in their competence and responsibility in managing their own time, and even the most tolerant employer usually wants some backbone of habit and predictability about the individual.

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There are sometimes answers I infer from questions which are relevant to the topic, but not directly discussing the information I'm genuinely interested in; This topic is an example for me.

Instead of asking directly what I'm looking for, I instead ask questions which are related like:

"What is the work culture like here?"

or

"What kind of management style does the current manager use?"

These questions elude to the answer you're seeking without directly asking it. These kinds of questions also provide further, more in-depth information about the company too, which I tend to prefer.

This technique saves quite a bit of face but does come with a trade-off; you sometimes have to assume or even give up entirely on finding out the information before taking on the job. For this reason, I only use this method of inquiry if the relevant information isn't a make-or-break for me choosing the job. (like taking unofficial breaks).

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When interviewing, I have found that I would generally interview with the hiring manager as well as some potential coworkers. I will ask them to give me a rundown of the team/company culture and an example of a typical workday. Many times, that will cover these sorts of questions. For example, it is important to me to find out of the company expects people to work on the weekends as that is a non-starter for me. I'll also ask if people socialize after work or go to lunch together, etc. Again, this usually answers my questions but when it isn't explicitly answered, I will be direct and ask.

Something like your question of running across the street for coffee might be better asked of the coworkers than the boss though. As a former engineering manager, I might find this to be an odd question and be concerned that you'd disappear for 20 to 30 minutes a day running to get coffee when we had a Keurig in the office with free K-cups.

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I think there are several separate topics which all should have regulations on the company level:

  • Is there flextime and how is flextime counted?
  • is there a core time model or is a fixed attendance required?
  • If there is downtime in a project, is it usual to take flextime spontaneously/is there a formal process?
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I find it's best to be direct in terms of getting the information you want without actually saying what you want. Something along the lines of.

'How do the breaks times work in this company?'

And let the interviewer describe how flexible or inflexible they will be.

There is no point letting them know this is a major point for you and you want to slope off for a hot chocolate or some window shopping anytime you feel like it. It's just another factor in your questioning, don't make it a big issue, just let them inform you while you make your judgements quietly to yourself.

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I would also jokingly add some context to the question, so it doesn't come across as an overly weird question to your interviewers.

"I'm only asking because I had a boss that insisted that everyone take a 7.25-minute break at 10:37am and 2:14pm. What a weirdo, right? Haha!"

Everyone has probably had "that guy" as a manager before, so it's not that unusual of a situation, but better to spell it out, so they don't think something is wrong with you specifically.

You could even phrase it like, "When there isn't an urgent issue, I sometimes like to take a short walk away from my desk to clear my head. Do you guys have any issues with me grabbing a coffee or taking a short walk around the building?"

In any case, you can see how adding a little context to the question helps guide their line of thought into a harmless one.

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    A) Don't badmouth your past managers: your new manager will assume you will do the same about them. B) Sorry, but that feels like a very insecure and awkward way to pose the questions.
    – Hilmar
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 1:19
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    Also,making stuff up just to be funny might not be the best move in general. No matter how innocent they are,lies can always come back and bite you. Perhaps your boss-to-be is a good friend of your last boss,or something.
    – TooTea
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 7:23
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    Downvotes were not deserved, at all, it was pretty solid advice. All he has to do is instead of saying "my LAST boss" saying "a boss I worked with in the past", problem solved and this is a good awnser xD
    – Or4ng3h4t
    Commented Nov 3, 2023 at 17:48
  • @Or4ng3h4t I fail to see how that improves the advice. Badmouthing a past boss in an interview reflects poorly on you no matter what. Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 6:42
  • @ChristianLegge Does it ? Are bad bosses impossible ? I'm also curious, how would you tell that in your previous job you had fixed hours for breaks, without making your boss look like an ass ? He has the ultimate say in everything, and if he is unaware, he is a bad boss.
    – Or4ng3h4t
    Commented Nov 7, 2023 at 9:35

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