TIM STOUGH, a long-time data system architect, is currently the applied science program manager for JPL, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. JPL offers employees a 9/80 flex-time schedule. This means that in a two-week (ten day) work cycle, an employee can work nine hours per day for nine days and then take the tenth day off. This option was offered in response to wide requests for greater work flexibility. Some people like it because it provides a quiet day at work; some people like the extra day off. And everyone benefits from the option.



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Original transcript

Lisette: Great, and we’re live. So welcome everybody this remote interview. My name is Lisette and I’m interviewing people and companies doing great things remotely. And actually today I’m doing something a little bit different. I started to go down in my book. I started to talk about all the different types of remote working and the whole idea of flex time came up.

And there’s all these different types of flex times. There’s Compressed Hours where you’re working fulltime hours in less than 5 days. There’s Staggered Hours where you’re working different hours than your colleagues, you’re staggering the time and then there’s the thing called Annualized Hours so I’m still looking for someone for it where you get a certain number of hours per year and you have to use those up within a particular…I guess within the year is what it would be. But today I’ve got Tim Stough on the line and Tim, you worked for a research institute. A big research institute in California and I actually knew you from hype to gig so it’s totally fun to actually be on the line with you again.

And let’s just start with a short introduction about yourself to give people a little bit of context about who you are. And then we’ll talk about your flex time schedule.

Tim: Okay. So to begin and since my name is out there and anybody can find out where I work, I don’t speak for my institution but my institution does offer compressed work schedule, a 9/80 work schedule. So a little bit about me, I started as a computer and electrical engineer, I have a masters and PHD from Purdue University and I started out doing artificial intelligence and image analysis and computer vision. And overtime I moved from computer vision to data science and applications and at this point in my career I’m doing a little bit of technical work to keep my programming skill straight for my brain working in that area and a little bit of programming management work. Oversee a portfolio, research projects. And I then working on a 9/80 work schedule ever since they started offering almost a decade ago I think.

I know that it’s pretty good in 5 years must [inaudible – 0:02:17.7]. I’m not exactly sure when they started. I’ve been with my employer now for almost 18 years so it kind of…

Lisette: That’s actually very unusual these days for someone to be at the company for that long. So I think that’s super interesting to start with. But yeah it sounds like you love what you do.

Tim: I do but it’s still a job sometimes. It’s still something you’ve got to grind away. I didn’t even know it’s not a lot of occasion but yeah I like aspects of it and I like the flexibility. It’s a good place to work because there’s always new stuff to do. That’s one reason I’ve been here so long because it’s a certain place where you can do all kinds of different stuff.

Lisette: Right and I think every job has that job aspect to it. I mean, you love what you do, I mean, still have to do my invoices and the finances and the accounting, totally hate that past but you have to do it. So let’s talk about this 9/80 schedule. Formally in the definition I think it’s called a Compressed Schedule, it’s under the Flex Time Definition and you can just explain a little bit about what 9/80 is?

Tim: Sure. So what it is is you work 9 days in two weeks. So a normal work week would be 10 days and in those 9 days you work 80 hours. So Monday thru Thursday your schedule is 9 hours a day. One Friday you work 8 hours and the following Friday you have off. So every other Friday it’s called a Regular Day Off and you don’t have to come in for work.

Lisette: And does everybody take the same day off or does it vary amongst the colleague?

Tim: So we’re actually mixed. There are people who work a 5/40 which is the traditional schedule and people who are at 9/80. For everyone on 9/80 it’s exactly the same day. And that is important because for facilities management we’re a very large facility and they can actually scale down services. Cafeteria Service, I’m not sure what else they can do but I know that the lighting of the load on the facility is actually important to why they do it.

Lisette: Right. The whole scale thing makes it like it can’t be random otherwise you’re wasting money and people’s time when they did it right. That makes sense. Oh very interesting. And do you know why they…I mean, you said that it hasn’t always been 9/80. The 9/80 been offered to the last 5 to 10 years before that and do you why they started offering that?

Tim: Well in our little pre-interview conversation I mentioned that the industry that my institution work is in is very conservative. So I think it didn’t happen earlier because of accounting rules and that sort of thing and in fact the way that it’s accounted for is interesting. Like our work week starts at a very odd time such that it falls 40 hours in each work week even though that the week are split up the way they are. Like our work week starts in the middle of the day on Monday I think. So that when you add it all up you’ll end up with 40 hours in each week. But the reason that they started doing it I think was in response to an employee survey.

And you know, employee surveys are the sort of things that people get really scenical about like, I’m going to fill out this gigantic survey and nothing is going to happen. And in response to…I’m not sure even what the question was. I mean, I must have taken the survey myself as I was working here at that time. But in response to some question about flexibility and work hours, they instituted the 9/80 policy and let people choose.

Lisette: Okay. And with that choice, does…so everybody gets to choose whether they want a regular day or they want to do the 9/80?

Tim: Yes. More or less. I think that in areas where working is sort of acquired every week day, they may have a certain number of employees don’t or maybe they look for volunteers who don’t want to…I know that there’s some areas in which you’re simply not allowed to choose that schedule but that’s very uncommon. Just about everyone gets to choose. I think that you’re allowed to change it like any two week period. Like any…they certainly don’t want you to change it often but if you wanted to at the end of any sort of two-week period, you could choose to change the schedule as long as you informed.

Lisette: Okay.

Tim: Payroll and everything consider that, that’s a huge chain of things that you’ve got to do.

Lisette: Okay. And I would like why did you start doing the 9/80 schedule? What was it for you?

Tim: And we talked about this a little bit in our conversation too. I’ve always been a little bit confused about like as a solid mileage workers. Somebody who’s production is entirely digital. And the requirements of what I produce are set by the people that I’ve worked for and I’m sorry. So if we’re up against a deadline, you just work round the clock until it’s done. If you can. That’s always the way that solid employment has worked.

So in those sense it doesn’t represent much of a change. I actually still worked that Friday if I absolutely must. Just like I worked Saturdays and Sundays if I had to. But the reason I chose it was it guarantees a day when you will have no meeting schedule. When none of the people that you worked for will expect you to respond just like a regular week…just like most weekends. Where we actually…in my career I’ve been lucky to have people that don’t expect like people who are working round the clock.

So I gave this protected date day that you’d be guaranteed to have. And I made this choice before I was a parent and now that I’m a parent, it’s an actual day off. It’s a day where I have day care and no work. And so like, all that life maintenance stuff or just relaxing which is a sort of life maintenance as well can be done on that every other Friday.

Lisette: Interesting and I’m sure the reasons that other people do vary from…but I can imagine they’re actually quite similar to what you would say. You just need that one day to sort of…it’s like a breather somehow.

Tim: Some people are actually, they stay on the other schedule because they love that day when no one else comes in to work. Like 80% of the facility is shut down, they come to work and they like that.

Lisette: You know, it’s so interesting that…because I hear this a lot that actually work doesn’t happen at work sometimes that because it’s so busy and there are so many people and there are so many interruptions that people really crave work, I mean, I hear at least one people described why they want to work from home because they can actually get worked done because they have this sort of non-interrupted, non-distraction zone so I find that very interesting that it’s sort of across the board.

So I want to dip in a little bit into remote working just to ask about the remote working atmosphere there because it is really different with 9/80 schedule. To me like I said before, it’s like a dip into the remote working world only in that it gives flexibility from the standard 9 to 5 schedule that most of us grew up with and are used to and sort of that’s the standard norm for most of the world I would say. So is there remote working allowed or how does it…what is the stance of where you work?

Tim: Yeah there…as long as I can remember there’s always been an official telecommuting program where with agreement from your management you could worked from home for a couple of days a week. If I recall it correctly and I haven’t looked into it very deeply. It was just a few days a week. Most people who did it would say themselves a [inaudible – 0:10:53.7] this week. And I believe that that’s beginning to change. In a more recent survey there was a lot of interest from employees in remote work and increasing the amount of telecommuting. And so I’m not sure where that could go exactly but I’m hoping it will lead to more…to a wider remote work possibilities.

At this point of my career I’m not myself looking for it but I know that there are great people who would rather work elsewhere or being more productive elsewhere. As I said I’ve watched your interview with Theo and the idea of being able to travel and work at the same time. I’m sure that that appeals to a lot of people.

Lisette: Sure. Or just being able to maybe go to a new environment. I mean, he really promotes…he corrected me a lot of times during that interview where he said I don’t mean you have to travel and work. I mean, you should work where you’re most productive and if that’s in a cellar or if that’s in the beach or at the airport. Wherever it is that you need, he was all for that. So if he just happened to be sitting by a water hole in the middle of Africa, stuff like that. So I didn’t really…how I’ve explained that well, and is there a situation one in which you guys actually need to be together in the office because there are many businesses that are like that. They need to be together.

Tim: Well there are certain aspects that there are certain jobs…like you’ve said before there are certain jobs they require. One of the first indicate in mind is a machinist. A machinist can’t work remotely because their job require those machines. But for the most part it’s not required and I even mentioned earlier that people are starting to attend meetings remotely from their offices to save themselves the overhead of all the running around.

The facility that I work at is very large. So if you’ve got two meetings in a row, they could be a really quick 5 minute or more likely a 10 minute walk apart. And so we’re getting remote working on the facility. We done have to…because almost all meetings have call ends and screen shares.

Lisette: Right. Interesting. So do you guys use videos for your remote conference calls by chance? Out of curiosity?

Tim: So one of the projects I’ve worked on use Google Hangouts so that we have a combination of video and screen share but almost everything else I have worked on, they use tools like a Webex or Go To Meeting and although those do have video support, I see a large number of video cameras on people or video on people’s laptops or the post gets stuck over the camera and I’ve never seen…the only time I’ve ever seen people sharing video on those meetings, they’ve said that it’s accidental and they can’t figure out how to turn it off. I got to laugh at that one.

Lisette: You’re going to find a post to [inaudible – 0:14:10.0]

[Cross Talking -0:14:11.9]

Lisette: That’s funny. That’s really funny. So it sounds like that it’s open. The atmosphere is open for it but it’s just not traditionally has been done and because you’re a large organization, these things have implications and so it sort of needs to be or just needs to be managed…

Tim: Yeah they need to think about it. They need to think about it really hard and try to figure out if there could be any other consequences that they don’t know about. But all of those people who call into meetings, where are they calling in from? Like you’re not certain, I mean, I know a lot of people are calling from their desk but they’re being just as productive wherever it is that they’re calling in from.

Lisette: Right. If I can ask a sort of an off the wall question in a way but how do you guys now know of how you’re getting your work done. Is there a centralized system of task or, I mean I’m sure in a very…you’re a very large organization or kind of varies by department and management but maybe in just your team, how do you know what other people are doing?

Tim: We don’t. I mean I don’t…

Lisette: Everybody’s got the same thing.

Tim: In fact there are…so we also work with a lot of academics and you’re certain that they’re not sitting in their office all the time. So no we really don’t pay much attention to it either, how they’re getting their work done. It’s not a factor getting their work done, well that’s evaluated in the product or whatever it is they’re producing. If it’s a research task whether or not they’re system is being build or they’re publishing or their like, that’s for academic type projects. But yeah.

Lisette: Interesting. Yeah, no everybody said…well I asked this question more recently, more often and everybody just says we don’t know what each other are doing. We just know if the work is getting done if the result is there or not.

Tim: And then this is off the wall and it really has nothing I guess to do with the remote work thing but personally, at one point in time I had a hard time like being happy with my own productivity. Like I always felt I could have done better because nothing compares from myself to the productivity I can achieve when I’m against a deadline and I’ve been mulling over a problem for months and it like, all crystalizes and then when you’re not in that mode you’re like, well I’m not going to get anything done right now.  Don’t worry about that. And personally I had to come to the conclusion that the people that I worked for judge me by what I produce and as long as they’re giving me positive judgements when I communicate with them. I shouldn’t worry about my own productivity. I should have acquired that broadly. As long as the people that I’m working with are doing the things they need to do, I’m not going to worry about how they it done.

Lisette: Right. Interesting. Yeah that’s true because there’s time and there are productivity is not a turn on off kind of thing. There are dips and flows and times. I mean, there is a time where like for a couple of months when I was just on fire, that everything was coming and riding and ideas were flowing, it was awesome and then you kind of face down a bit. You have to rest for a little while and you think, okay no it’s a start. I mean, it just seems that that’s normal. For once I’m normal.

Tim: Well right, but I think that if you’re trying to sort of track productivity and how people work and you weren’t…you were judging others that you might say like, this big dips represents lost possibilities.  You need to have…I think that’s another reason that it’s not tracked too carefully. I mean, honestly I’m not in this position in management but I can imagine that if everything is working you don’t want to look kind of…like, if it’s all going okay and you know that ethically things are sound. You just don’t want to disturb the process because it’s working.

Lisette: Right and it is a process and it’s different for people and sometimes it comes together because of a weird band-aid or maybe you make a mistake and  you think, hey that worked or I can…yeah I can see that as well. It’s very interesting. So then if we get back to the 9/80 just to sort of wrap things up a little bit. Is there anything in particular about the 9/80 that works for people or doesn’t work for people or is it even an issue or a topic?

Tim: No actually, after almost 10 years it’s not much of a topic. What I see not working for people is for people who’ve…personally I organized my choice of where I lived like a hard limit of a 10 mile community. I didn’t want to drive more than 10 miles to get to work. But because it’s Southern California and because of the way that housing prices in school districts, none of that good stuff works. There are people who drive a long way and when they have children, they put their children in daycare in their work or they put their children in schools in your work and then they’re required to work on this 5/40 schedule or…so it interacts with having children I think. I don’t know whether it’s good or bad.

I think everybody has to manage it a little differently. I’ve heard people say different things about it like some people hypothesize that you get lost productivity because that day goes away and how do you know that anybody work harder on those days that are like, 1/8 longer. But I heard the opposite which is…when their deadline, people work on that Friday anyways. You’re getting free time for that. I think ultimately for myself I find it’s just a terrific thing because it’s a protected day.

You can try to think one day off in a week by using your vacation time. It’s really hard to clear that day. And even if you clear at meetings, there’s going to be email and stuff and when you go for two or three weeks or even just a week on vacation, sending out [inaudible – 0:20:51.3] totally makes sense. But trying to notify all the people you work with, that you want to take a day off is difficult. So it’s nice to have that extra day that’s officially protected.

Lisette: Right and it sounds like in an organization of your size then it’s very useful to have it all on the same day like everybody is not bothering each other or on that day or you just know that this owe to 9/80 day, like, okay we know with no notification needed.

Tim: Something else interesting that’s happened is that…and this happened all over America. You heard about Wasted Vacation Hours, people who have maxed their vacation and won’t use it. So the other Friday, the none already, the working Friday has started to…attendance has started to fade on that day because people are taking…are using 8 hours of vacation on that day. And because of the rate that most people are in vacation, like taking that day off cost you…you net lose 2 hours of vacation for every two vacation period or something.

So if you can very slowly your vacations, you don’t go over, you don’t waste hours and then have 3/80 weekends every week. I even know people or a number of people who take on pay leave or take on that day off of their schedule entirely. So it is work 36hours a week, they take whatever that is, a 10% pay cut essentially and have three day weekends all the time.

Lisette: Interesting. It goes to show that people…okay I’m s bias. It’s so hard for me to get my biased out of it but it does show that people are willing to take a pay cut for the flexibility and I hear that a lot in the remote working world too. That they rather have more flexibility and make less money or that shows…so it’s hard for me not to put my bias, I try not to but that’s impossible. Interesting. I can imagine that in places where to commute is an issue where Southern California that is true.

The commute is actually an issue and also housing prices. I mean, it is limiting for a lot of people on where they can live. Especially if you have children, either that’s just…I can imagine that those are big issues that would really go into driving sort of a flex time aspect.

Tim: I think honestly it should drive more working to, I mean these folks who lives in…who have chosen to live further away in order to get a combination of lower house or housing prices in better school districts. I mean, how will they live…they got plenty of room in their house for an extra friend in office because the house is out there are much less expensive. But then they have this hour long drive to get into the metropolitan area and it would make terrific sense, they’ve already got great den without them, they’ve already got enough space to have a home office but people are [inaudible – 0:23:51.5] to take the most advantage of the telecommuting at process as it exists are people like that. People who would ordinarily face an hour long drive in traffic. You’d rather just stay out and work from home

Lisette: Right. They were…the commute is significant and I know…you mentioned this before in the pre-interview conversation but I know in another lens, the government is starting to really promote working or incentivizing businesses because of the carpooling in general because of the traffic jams that are happening during the day. So it seems like…it seems like a serious issue that remote working could help.

Tim: I mean, at the moment I don’t know how they perform with this. Part of my personal…the way that I’d like to work, I’m energized by meetings, I’m energized by interacting with people. And so I think if I work completely remotely I might not get that and as the video technologies and other things come along and screen share type meetings, that’s fading and my current job I work about half my time with folks around the other side of the country. And so…and I’m adjusting to it overtime but now we’ve got a pretty good rhythm and we have interactions that energized me even though we’re not meeting physically.

I would love the ability to move like the North Woods,  Michigan or just to get out and hearing about these places around the US where this little towns that have very little to offer in terms of like a metropolitan area, they’re fairly [inaudible – 0:25:37.6]will invest in infrastructure for bandwidth and they’ll get people moving in. I’d love to see that happen in the long run to be able to be a little bit more defused. To be able to live out in the woods or something.

Lisette: Or even like what I’ve been doing is I call them Work Holidays, going somewhere for month than just renting an Air BnB and exploring Switzerland for a month or Paris or something and just working more than 40 hours a week but just being in a different city somehow. So there is a decrease in productivity. Everybody will say that. I mean, you have to get stuff set up and the bandwidth and the internet but once you’ve got it going, if you get right then possibilities are endless and that’s a lovely way to change your frame of reference or maybe you just need to get in a different place to just change the thought pattern. I don’t know what it is.

Tim: Well it’s funny. I find that the only other type of work I have to get done…I’m really good at tuning out environmental noise and so sometimes I will actually be more productive in a coffee shop because the sort of wall of sound around me keeps me focus in on what I’m doing. I’m decent at tuning it out so I’m not distracted by it. But being in a quiet place I tend to cast around more.

Lisette: Oh interesting. Like what was that?

Tim: Like, somebody two offices away has left their phone while I’m on, so let me go fix that.

Lisette: Right, right, right. Super interesting. Well I think this is really showing…I think this is an area which I think I’ll continue to explore, the flex time area because it is on the edge and it’s interesting to see how big organizations are rising to the challenge of commutes and expense and just people wanting more flexibility because they can and technology increasing. So I really appreciate the conversation and the insight. But if people have questions now or in the future, I’ll out up, just go to #remoteinterview on Twitter and you can ask those questions. You can also email me if you don’t have a Twitter account but Tim if people want to learn more and get in touch, they’re going to have to look for you on the internet because where are they [inaudible – 0:28:01.0].

Tim: I think I said it in the beginning but if I didn’t, I do not represent my institution or could they contract you or any of that. This is all my…

Lisette: Right. It’s just Tim.

Tim: Yup.

Lisette: Just Tim, yeah. No, this is good. I’m looking for the opinions of real people, not the marketing, branding of an institution. I just want how is it working for you. So that’s what I was going for. Alright, well then, until next time everybody, be powerful.



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