At a game developer conference last month, one of the speakers talked about the work culture at the studio they founded, and it seemed great. Their philosophy boasted flexible work hours, a month of vacation, and good pay. Seems like the perfect setup right?

Not quite. Today I’m going to make an argument about why fixed work hours may provide more freedom than free hours, however counter-intuitive it may sound. When I say “fixed”, by the way, I imply set hours but respecting your employees such that if they have an emergency, they won’t be penalized for coming in late.

The studio head giving the talk went on to say how they have flexible work hours… but everyone works super late anyway. Oh and the month of vacation is an amazing employee benefit too… except no one actually takes it, he said. “They all love their work too much to go home early or take their full vacation time”.

Really? I mean this as no slight to the speaker, as they’re a great person who I respect and like quite a lot. But, really?

Social pressure doesn’t come from official documents, regimented structures or micro-managing bosses.

No, social pressure is something that can come from all sides and can come in many forms. Let’s take the theoretical stereotypical Silicon Valley tech startup. Company has some founders who work 80 hours per week, killing themselves to build and grow (this is bad too but I’ll save that for another time). They hire, and those employees see this behaviour. They have some interest in the company and its success, so they push themselves as well. All of the sudden, you’ve got a team of 50 people who are working hard… great. Except that it becomes competitive. Who’s the next head of department? Who’s going to be attending the next conference? It will likely be the hardest workers, or rather the employees who appear work the most. See where I’m going with this?

It can be hard to see how well someone is performing in a tech startup, so it’s extremely easy to believe fall into the trap that the people who are coming in early and leaving late are the ones producing the most. While you may have built a great company, along the way you’ve taught people that over-working is the way to succeed.

Not only is this bad because it promotes behaviour that’s unhealthy for the employees, but it’s also bad because it promotes behaviour that can be detrimental to your company’s success. The mentality of “I should stay at my desk for another 20 minutes because Jane left five minutes ago” is awful, and all too common. Often the issue isn’t even over-working (that is, actually working more), rather a feeling of pressure from other employees to show that they’re working harder.

So how do you solve this culture problem, and get people to enjoy their work without the pressure of feeling like they need to out-do or out-stay the person next to them? How do you create a meritocracy that’s actually based on merit and not on apparent dedication to the team?

So, here are my 4 arguments as to why working fixed hours actually results in a feeling of increased freedom:

No pressure to work overtime or skip vacation: This is essentially what I’ve talked about up to now in this article. If you know when you’re going home, you’re not being judged on some sort of potentially superficial quality like how long you stayed at the office.

Easier to separate work and life: If you can plan your life with a predictable schedule, you will have more time to do things like go on dates with your significant other, take your kids to a hockey game, or see friends regularly. You’re ‘on’ at work, and ‘off’ at home.

Forced vacation is good for the employees and the company: If you take vacation, it will give you time to recharge. The feeling of “oh I should really be working now”, when you’re unwrapping Christmas (or Hannukah!) presents with your family is something that should never exist, ever. It will exist if you feel beholden to your work, but forcing vacation time means that you couldn’t work even if you wanted to.

Everyone is at the office at the same time, and off at the same time: This one is definitely the most subjective, but I feel that knowing that your employees are either ‘on’ or ‘off’ at the same time as you can be empowering. Knowing that you’re not expected to respond to that email at 9pm feels better when you know that no one is responding to their email at 9pm.

But going too far in that direction can be detrimental as well. Being so rigid in your timing is detrimental to freedom because employees feel that they MUST be in the office by exactly X:00am, and that leads to stress. My proposal to solve this is the following:

Respect for your employees and for their lives leads to work hours that are flexible enough to reduce stress, but rigid enough to avoid unwanted social pressure.

Don’t penalize someone for coming in 10 minutes late, or leaving early for their daughter’s dentist appointment. But do create the expectation that an employee will be at work between the hours of X and Y, and that will avoid the social pressure I’ve been talking about.

So far, this is the kind of culture we’ve been building, and with the exception of emergencies (a server crashes, a horrible bug appears, etc.), we’ve managed to stick to it. My partners and I believe in respecting one another, respecting our employees, and respecting our own lives as they exist outside of work, and I think this mentality will lead to the continuation of a healthy work culture.