Q: I work for a large corporation. Over the last five weeks, while we’re all working remotely during the stay-at-home orders, the number of meetings scheduled outside normal business hours has increased. It’s as if people just assume everyone is always “in” and available for a call. I am accustomed to having a call at 7 a.m. or 7 p.m. with international colleagues maybe once a month, but lately I’ll frequently have both a 7 a.m. call and a 6 p.m. call on the same day.
I also teach twice-weekly online evening fitness classes, and I block my class times off on my work calendar. When a co-worker recently scheduled a two-hour meeting at 4:30 p.m. with one day’s notice, I asked if I could present my topic early in the meeting so I could make my class. She refused, calling it a “conflict of interest.”
Is there an acceptable way to refuse invites for these meetings outside normal business hours? Or is this the new Monday–Friday? And is teaching a fitness class after work really a “conflict of interest?”
A: For anyone lucky enough to be working from home, the concept of “normal business hours” — more accurately, “pre-pandemic business hours” — has been upended. Before I get into how you deal with that, some reasons it’s happening:
— Parents whose card-house schedules have been flattened and scattered to the winds are having to shuffle work hours with managing their kids’ education and care.
— Employees living in isolation may be struggling to keep themselves on task without the guide rails of a busy workplace — or may be actively seeking more work to occupy themselves.
— People whose “golden hours” of productivity naturally skew earlier or later than the typical business day may find it less exhausting to stop fighting their internal clock.
— Regardless of family status, most of us are experiencing some mix of wakeful anxiety, crushing depression and numbing fear that demolishes the nine-to-five mindset.
We’re not robots. We can’t perform as normal during not-normal times. But unlike robots, we can adapt, and working remotely gives us the flexibility to adapt so we can stay as balanced and productive as possible. The problem arises when one person’s option to be flexible begets an expectation that everyone else will bend in the same direction, at the same time, to the same degree.
Bosses are allowed those expectations. But good bosses try to base their expectations on broad principles and priorities, accommodate individuals’ challenges in meeting those expectations, and grant employees autonomy to set reasonable boundaries for themselves within those expectations.
All of which is to say, start by checking whether your “normal business hours” need to be adjusted to fit mid-pandemic reality. Talk to your boss about establishing core hours of availability within flexible shifts (for example, core hours 10 to 2 daily, with early starts on specific days and late ends on others).
Once you have your boss’s support, and you have communicated your availability clearly via your online calendar/auto-reply/voice mail greeting, here are some tips on defending your schedule so you’re not having to cover every time zone.
When someone schedules a meeting last-minute with seemingly no regard for the invitees’ availability, that creates a “conflict,” full stop — regardless whether you’re using that time to teach Zumba, talk to your therapist on Zoom or just zone out. And that’s all you need to say, although you can soften your RSVP by offering an alternative:
— “I’m sorry, I have a conflict that day. Can we try later in the week?”
— “I can attend the first part of the meeting, but I have a hard stop at 6.”
— “I’m not available Tuesdays after 5, but any other evening will work for me.”
Yes, aligning with other people’s frayed edges takes extra effort. But we will get through this with less damage if we all extend some grace and accept some misalignments as part of the new design.