Fancy a flexible working arrangement? Here's how to get it
‘Passionate’ is a word that’s bandied about a lot these days, but if it means feeling so strongly about something that it makes you want to cry at times, then I’m passionate about flexible working.
It seems to me that every parent I speak to has a story to tell.
Like my friend who was refused a four-day-week at work and reluctantly handed in her notice, because she couldn’t manage three small kids and a full-time job anymore.
Or my friend who is sticking with her full-time job because she feels she has no choice. She has three children and doesn’t want to work full-time, but her employer has refused all of her requests for part-time, and she can’t find anything in her industry that would be any different.
Or my friend whose youngest has just started school, meaning she is now free to work, but can’t find a job that’s mornings only – they all want full-timers.
Or like me, who, on being made redundant, was told by every agency I spoke to that I’d have to apply for full-time roles, then try to negotiate a four-day-week further down the line. No guarantees.
Because of course, unless you’re already in a job, it’s very difficult to find flexible work. And even if you are established in a role, asking for reduced hours doesn’t mean you’ll get them. Still no guarantees.
It’s frustrating. Yes, there are parents who want to work full-time and many who have to do so for financial reasons, but so many more desperately want some flexibility and just can’t get it.
And really, who decided we should work a five-day week anyway? Is it linked to the moon or the sun or the earth’s revolution? No – humans picked a five-day work week. It was established in the US at the beginning of the last century and has remained in place ever since.
But research suggests that working longer hours makes us less productive, and indeed in Sweden, some employers are trialling a six-hour-day for employees – in order to boost productivity.
There’s a bigger conversation than ever taking place about flexible working – proponents like Anne-Marie Slaughter are pushing employers to think about work in a new way.
In a recent interview, she said “Working part-time, flexibly or even taking some time away will, of course, put you on a slower track for promotion, but why should it take you off the rails entirely? It is assumed the fast track is the only option: it's up or out. So the scales are tilted in favour of those who see their careers as one-track races. Because of this, we miss out on huge amounts of talent. We lose the distance runners; those with the endurance, patience, fortitude and resilience to keep going over the long haul.”
It’s logical that flex working is good for business – anyone who works a three- or four-day week will attest to that – compressing work into shorter hours encourages productivity. When I switched to a four-day week, nobody took away 20% of my work – I just worked faster and smarter and got it all done. I wasn’t going to jeopardise my new-found flex.
Here in Ireland, we have the third highest rate of part-time workers in Europe – 23% of the total workforce work less than 30 hours a week. This is likely to be linked to the downturn, rather than any progressive, family-friendly workplace policy. But in spite of those statistics, there is no legal right to flexible working in Ireland. So if you want to ask for flex, you may have to negotiate. Here’s how:
Prepare for the conversation
Take time to think about what you want to say and when best to approach your boss. Make notes, do research; write a script. Stick to facts, not emotions. Treat it like any meeting or presentation at work through which you need to win your audience over to your point of view. You have a goal – convincing your boss to allow you to work flexibly, and like any goal in the work arena, you need to plan in advance how to achieve it.
What’s in it for your employer?
This can’t only be about how it benefits you. Yes, of course ultimately you’re doing it for your family but that’s not the best way to sell the idea to your boss. You need to show how it benefits your employer – you’ll be more productive because you have a better balance if you’re working fewer hours; you’ll get more done if you’re working from home; you’ll cost the company less if you’re working fewer days. Happy employees make good employees and every good manager knows that – you just need to phrase it in a way that makes it clear that the business benefits.
Ask for a trial run
This advice was given to me by a very wise colleague a number of years ago when I was considering asking to work from home once a week. She pointed out that it would be difficult for my boss to turn down a three-month trial – it would seem unreasonable. A test run was far less daunting for my boss, who knew she could rescind the agreement if it wasn’t working out, and happily for me, she said yes.
Look for arrangements that are good for your employer
You might want Friday off because it’s a nice day to be off, but if the weekly team meeting takes place that day or it’s usually busy with client visits, you need to pick another day. Just as you want your boss to compromise on the precedent of full-time work, you need to be ready to compromise too.
Do your homework
If you think your boss has out-dated views on flexible working, prepare some statistics and research.
Like this Forbes article, which says “Research… shows that employees are healthier, experience less stress, and are more productive and engaged when they effectively make choices about how, where and when they work.”
Or this Harvard Business Review piece, quoting a study on remote working that found “… in comparison with the employees who came into the office, the at-home workers were not only happier and less likely to quit but also more productive.”
Logically an employee who works fewer hours or from home saves the company money, but this employee is also likely to be happier as a result of having her needs met, and in turn, more loyal and more productive.
Don’t take no for an answer. There and then in the meeting, if your boss says no, you have no choice but to accept it at least temporarily and with good professional grace. But in six weeks or three months, ask again. And keep asking. If nothing else, she’ll see that you’re serious about this. And eventually you may just wear her down (and impress her with your tenacity and negotiating skills!).
In all my time as a working parent, I’ve only ever met one mother who said she prefers working full-time. Everyone else I’ve spoken to – in real life or online – has expressed a wish for something more balanced. Sometimes it’s a hypothetical ideal – a particular role may not be doable in less than five days or finances may be a blocking point, but for many, the only obstacle is lack of employer support.
To normalise it, we need men to look for flex, we need legislation that gives us the right to look for flex, and we need to keep asking and keep talking. So let’s keep the conversation going.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after her three kids, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.