The Not-Always-On Manager

Sunset over Etosha national park

When I started my first job I had a colleague who only worked 4 days a week and I knew, this is something I want to try too. So when I interviewed in my current company, a 36-hour workweek was one of the first conditions we agreed on. Working in Germany, this used to be a regular week length, but for over a decade 40 hours have become the norm. It was a agreed. As a developer, this never posed an issue. As I switched into Product and Project Management, I resisted the expectation to go full-time. What this decision meant for my work, I’d like to share with you.

Reduced time as a developer

Doing a 36 workweek as a developer was easy, because you can work quite independently. As long as everyone could retrace where I am, it was no topic. So I created my “Availability calendar” and put any home office or off hours at least a week in advance in there.

Getting asked if I want to extend my working hours became an annual ritual with my bosses with everyone knowing I wouldn’t do it. Everyone was happy with the arrangement, so why change what’s working.

When I became a Senior Developer I was cautioned — moving into a position of higher responsibility would also mean having to go full-time. We would talk about it when it becomes necessary.

It never happened. I became a Product manager on my 36 hour work schedule. Granted, I’m new to Product management with only 2 years experience at this point, and it was a gradual switch from engineering — no one questioned the existing setup. Eventually, before anyone could ask again, I’d shown the job can be done with my established time management.

Mini vacation once a week

I usually take my four free hours as a block. It’s easier to switch off for me and also for the company to track my work hours. The timing switched over the years though, it was Wednesday, then Thursday, now Friday. It depends on the sprint rituals and other recurring meetings I have to consider.

And of course it also depends on my hobbies. Or when I want to get a good sleep in. Or when I really need to do some household activities, or administrative duties. Being able to manage my private life’s necessities in the 4 hour I take “off” from work, means I have much less disruptions in my work schedule than the average colleague.

The effect of having a mini vacation should also not be forgotten or understated for that matter. I realize after working in this setup for years now, I feel much more refreshed and can perform better over the duration of the whole week compared to when I put in overtime and end up working the 40-hours. It makes a noticeable difference to me, and my company benefits from it too. Burnouts and keeping good mental health in creative jobs are recurring topic nowadays, and having shorter weeks can really help with this too. Everyone wins, yay!

What about my manager job?

It’s important for me that my personal values are reflected in my workplace and my position. Independence is one of those — for my own work and also my colleagues working proficient and autonomous.

As a manager I see myself as the one who enables other people to build awesome things. My task is removing any road blocks my colleagues may have. Being unavailable for a few hours every week, requires them to foster this independence. My colleagues can rely that I’m available on the given times. Outside of work, I leave my phone and Slack off.
If something is blocking them, they know when they can get their answers, or they are creative to work around it and find their own solution that they check with me later on.

This off-time actually helps to find these blockers and eliminate them, thereby growing independence and autonomy in the team.

Another aspec is Parkinson’s law. If you have a work and a given time slot, the work will expand into the time available. Working slightly less hours, forces me to do the job in shorter time and thereby focus on the priorities. And don’t even get me started on the negative effects of working beyond 40 hours.

Crunch time

This all sounds nice and well, but what about deadlines and launch dates? The usual craziness that can be product — I hear you asking.

Let me tell you about the flexibility that comes with a 36 hour arrangement. It’s actually like having a load balancer — when a big release is coming up, of course I pull my part and go 40 hours. I log these as overtime that I take off when times are calmer again. Again, this is about transparency, expectation and supporting the team the right amount at the right time.

From a company point of view, this load balancing has another effect: they have me as a quality employee slightly cheaper, since they pay less hours in total.

Studies have shown, that extra hours per week do not increase the actual valuable output. So I get paid for my working time and not for the additional hours, that creep in during a week. Meanwhile reducing time actually shows many welcomed side effects from health, productivity to traffic.

When does it end?

My current setup is comfortable and privileged. I’m aware that with rising responsibilities it may not hold up forever. At a certain management level, you are expected to be always on and as you care for your projects, you may want to be. Something is always in need of support and you do want to provide that. My goal is to keep on working on strategies to keep my arrangement for as long as possible.

Is this a privilege? Hell yes!

In my working live I inspired at least three colleagues to reduce and be more flexible about their working hours. I have two more Product management colleagues who work only four days.

When I’m talking with Engineering students and mention this, I can see their eyes lighten up. They never considered this option for themselves before. I know for most people in many industries it is not so easy to negotiate their hours. I hope by being transparent about it, I can help make it become a new normal.

So consider this as a topic for your next negotiation. It’s not always about the money, your time is valuable too!

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