To say the COVID-19 pandemic upended the workplace would be an understatement. As society reopened, it seemed like “work from home” (WFH) was here to stay. But now, three years later, it seems like each day another major employer makes headlines by mandating a “return to office” (RTO). So what can you do if you don’t want to lose the flexibility of WFH? You can explore alternative work arrangements, either with your current employer, a new employer, or even multiple new employers, making the most of the gig economy.
What is a “flexible work arrangement”?
In HR terms, a “flexible work arrangement” is any agreed-upon employee schedule or location that deviates from the standard Monday through Friday, eight hours a day, 40 hours per week, at a designated worksite, with set hours (a “9 to 5”). In practice, a flexible work arrangement can take many forms:
- One of the most common is flex time, which retains the requirement to work eight hours a day but allows the employee to begin and end the day either earlier or later. Employees must typically cover core business hours, and they’re generally required to select and maintain a set schedule (i.e., you can’t be an early bird most days but then randomly decide to sleep in).
- Another standard flexible work arrangement is telecommuting or WFH. As employers negotiate the end of full-time WFH following the COVID-19 pandemic, many are offering hybrid work environments that allow for WFH two or three days a week.
- Part-time work/reduced hours, either temporarily or permanently, is something employees often explore. Before taking this type of arrangement, confirm how it would affect your eligibility for key benefits, such as health insurance and retirement plans. (Also worth noting: Companies sometimes attempt to avoid layoffs by reducing hours for some employee groups.)
- A compressed work week, offered either seasonally or year-round, allows an employee to work more than eight hours a day in exchange for additional days off. For example, you might work four 10-hour days and take Fridays off. This is a popular option during the summertime.
- More common outside the United States are annualized hours, which allow workers to “bank” hours during busy periods and work less when business is slow. In the U.S., where employment contracts are rare and the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) strictly regulates overtime pay, this type of arrangement would be rare and difficult to achieve.
- Job sharing involves two or more employees sharing one full-time employee (FTE) position. Employers benefit by not underemploying an FTE, and you can benefit from having a part-time position. If you want a true “gig economy” experience—where you’re perhaps pairing a part-time job with freelancing—this can be a great arrangement. But, again, before taking a job-sharing position, be sure to understand whether you will be eligible for benefits.
- If you simply need an extended break, it’s worth exploring the possibility of a leave or sabbatical, whether paid or unpaid. This would allow you to take an extended vacation or pursue an interest beyond your usual vacation time but still have a job when it’s over. (This is different from needing family or medical leave, which you may be entitled to under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA.)
- If you’re at the end of your career, gradual retirement—a phased reduction in hours—can benefit your employer by allowing you to train your replacement.
Pros and cons of flexible work arrangements
At first glance, it’s hard to see any downsides to flexible work arrangements, but no work situation is perfect. If you’re exploring any of these options with your current employer, be advised that 1) you could be told no; 2) your flexible work arrangement could end at any point; and 3) it will change the way you interact with your colleagues. A part-time employee has much different standing in office culture than an FTE. Similarly, if you’re the only one on your team working remotely, you’ll miss inside jokes and organic conversations.
If you’re exploring these options with a new employer, be wary of a bait and switch. In the world of at-will employment, six months of a remote arrangement where you choose your own hours can legally turn into a 9 to 5, in-office position overnight. Your option would be to adhere to the new arrangement or find another job. In the gig economy, you might be OK with hopping around. Just be sure to do so with your eyes wide open.