Flexible Working: When the 9 to 5 is 100% wrong for your family
Working nine to five, as immortalised in Dolly’s words, is the default setting for office-workers everywhere.
And indeed, when most of us finish school or college and dip a toe into the world of grown-up work, it’s an all-day, all-week gig. If there’s no reason to look for anything less than full-time work, we accept the five-day week as standard.
Then along comes baby. And suddenly nine to five, Monday to Friday, isn’t so appealing. Especially if there’s more than one baby. Holding down a full-time job becomes harder with each subsequent child and there’s often a tipping point. For me it was when my third child was on the way. I’d just finished up a four-month project that was hugely demanding and I’d hardly seen the kids. I was stressed and exhausted and I couldn’t stop counting the hours they were spending out of the house every week. With number three on the way, and the project at an end, I braced myself and finally asked my boss for a four-day-week.
He was very understanding about it and within a fortnight, I knew I never wanted to work full-time again. It was just one extra day at home but the difference it made was incredible. It was like releasing a pressure valve. Over the years, I gradually requested other changes – one day a week working from home, and then a 4pm finish. With each tweak, life got easier, and I am eternally grateful to my various managers for their kindness.
Because that’s what it came down to – kindness. Generosity. Goodwill. There was never a legal entitlement to any of it – they could have said no and they could have taken it back at any time. I was just lucky that they didn’t.
In Ireland, when it comes to flexible working, we have very few rights.
“Flexible working is something that can be negotiated into a contract of employment, such as accepting a contract for a three-day week or mornings only. Or flexibility can be based on availing of individual company policies and practices,” says HR manager Lucy O’Connor. “There is very little entitlement to flexible working.”
The one area that is covered by legislation is parental leave, but even then, what’s granted by law is limited. For example, only block leave is legally facilitated – taking one day per week is completely at employer discretion.
“There is no entitlement to take parental leave one day a week or in smaller periods like a week or a month,” says O’Connor, who blogs at LearnerMama.com. “But the Act does allow for the employers and employees to agree mutually acceptable terms between them. So it really is in the hands of the employer to allow flexible working.”
If you are lucky enough to be granted flexibility, what kind of options should you request, and how do they work?
Three-day or four-day week
Some employees do this contractually and some use parental leave, which means no change to your contract (but be aware that parental leave eventually runs out.) This is hugely popular with parents of small children who are trying to shift the balance in favour of being with the kids.
Working five mornings a week, with every afternoon off, can be a great option for parents with children at school. It means working while the kids are in class, and being there for school collection and homework in the afternoon. However it can be challenging for the parent, who is always rushing from work to school and is always “on”.
Some employers allow staff to start early and finish early (or start late and finish late) – usually there are core hours during which everyone should be in the office, to facilitate meetings or client calls. This is a great option for people with kids – if one parent can start early and one can start late, it reduces the number of hours per day that children are in childcare.
Literally, two people share one job. This can be done week-on, week-off, or with each person working two to three days each week, or splitting mornings and afternoons. This option depends on two people working really well together, and usually, you have to find a job-share partner yourself.
Work from home
Some jobs are specifically designated as work from home, but many office-based jobs can be done remotely once or twice a week – a great option for parents who want to cut the commute and have some extra time with the kids.
This means compressing a full week into a shorter timeframe, for example, working four long days to cover a full thirty-five hour week. So there’s one less commute, a day off with the kids, and no reduction in salary – it can work well for people in positions that are seen as not compatible with “part-time”.
Term-time is specifically tailored for parents – it means working while kids are in school and taking time off during school holidays. Often salary is spread out over the full year so that the employee is not effectively taking unpaid leave, therefore making it easier to budget.
And what about career breaks?
“Career breaks are not a legal entitlement,” says O’Connor. “It’s very much up to individual employers to either allow a staff member to take one or to introduce a specific policy around them.”
The public sector is more likely to have formal policies in place for handling career break requests. “Private businesses are often smaller and rely on more ad hoc decisions or a case by case approach,” explains O’Connor.
If you’re thinking about looking for flexible work, it’s a good idea to take note of what’s already on offer in your workplace, formally or informally. If someone in a similar role is working a four-day-week or working remotely, it makes it harder for your manager to say no (and of course “opening the door” and setting precedent is precisely the reason that so many managers do say no).
Asking for a trial run is a good idea – prove it will run smoothly for three months and your boss might make it a permanent agreement.
Be considerate of business needs in your request – choose a quiet day for your parental leave day (one reason so many people pick Friday) and offer to be flexible in return – to come into the office if needed.
In all of this, the big downside is that many flex arrangements are informal and can be changed at management discretion. It means that parents are often bending over backwards to get extra work done, to maintain the equilibrium.
It’s far from ideal, but for now, it’s all we’ve got. And if you can successfully negotiate some flex, it makes working parenthood a whole lot easier.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working or looking after the kids, Elissa, 7, Nia, 5 and Matthew, 3, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog.