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Maria Shriver

Life Ed: How To Negotiate Workplace Flexibility

Workplace flexibility is not just an issue that impacts working women; working men are also eager for solutions that help them balance work and home, and a new survey from Working Mother Media shows just how eager: 77% of men said they are using flexible work arrangements.

And work-life balance matters to more than working parents: it’s important for caregivers, employees who are delaying retirement but want to scale back their hours at the office, as well as millennials.

Here to provide expert guidance on how to negotiate workplace flexibility is Sara Sutton Fell, the founder of 1 Million for Work Flexibility, and the CEO and founder of FlexJobs.

Image: James Cowen says goodbye to his daughter Samantha Cowen, 2, after dropping her off at daycare in Washington, on May 16, 2008.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP, file

Flexible work is a priority for more workers than ever before. This past summer, the White House Summit on Working Families put a national spotlight on this issue, bringing together business leaders, policy makers, advocates, academics, economists, and workers to discuss the need for greater access to work flexibility and paid leave.

Options like working from home, having a more flexible schedule, switching to part-time hours, or compressing the workweek into four days are being sought by professionals every day. Vermont, San Francisco, and the United Kingdom have all enacted “Right to Request” legislation that gives employees in those locations a legal right to request flexible work options from their employers, and a Flexible Work Time Initiative will be part of the ballot in Berkeley, California, this November.

Regardless of location, it is always possible to request your own flexible work arrangement from your employer, although it can still be tricky. The key is to know how to negotiate for work flexibility in a way that demonstrates the benefits of such an arrangement for the company, and not just for you.

Decide Which Flexible Work Option(s) You Are Open To

First, start off by asking yourself some honest questions. What are your goals for work flexibility? Which flexible work options do you want, and which do you need? Do you want more time with your family, a shorter commute, more time for hobbies or healthy activities? With these considerations in mind, choose the options that could work for you as well as which are most important to you. Some examples include:

  • Working from home a couple of days a week, potentially shifting to all of the time
  • Having a flexible schedule that you set yourself
  • Working alternative hours to avoid rush hour commuting (for example, from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m)
  • Working four days a week for 10 hours a day, with three-day weekends (a compressed workweek)
  • Shifting to a part-time schedule or reduced hours

Evaluate What Parts of Your Job are Compatible with Work Flexibility

You’ll also need to consider which of these options realistically work best with your job and career track. Are you in a customer-facing role? Then working from home 100% of the time may simply not be viable. But if a good portion of your work is done over the phone or by computer, remote work can make more sense. How much is your job reliant on the specific hours you work? If it’s not, a flexible or alternative schedule is a good option.

It’s a wise idea to take inventory of how your time is spent in a given week or month, and to compile a list of the parts of your job that could be done well within the parameters of the type of work flexibility you want. Then create a time estimate of how much time you spend doing those tasks. Is it 20 hours a week or only 5? What you find can help you ensure your proposal is realistic, and also provide you with specific information to present to your manager on how your job will or will not be impacted.

Do Your Research

Check with your human resources department to find out if the company has any flexible work policies in place. Also, look around within your company to see if you have any colleagues who currently have a flexible work option, ideally (but not necessarily) finding people who have the type of work flexibility that you want. Invite them out for coffee, and then talk with them about their flexible arrangement. How did they get it? Were they hired with it, or did they negotiate it? And if they negotiated it, do they have any tips for you? And how is it working out?

Also look into more broad research, and compile related statistics that might help your case. Many studies have been done in recent years proving the benefits of flexible work options. For example, look at reports from the University of Illinois, Stanford, Purdue, and the University of Minnesota. These studies show that people with flexible work options -- like flexible hours and the option to work from home -- are actually better coworkers, better employees, more productive, and less expensive for a company. These will help you build a repository of knowledge and expertise to draw from as you negotiate flexible work options.

Create a Flexible Work Arrangement Proposal

Asking your employer for work flexibility should not be taken lightly. Especially if your company is not known for its flexibility, they may assume that your request benefits only yourself. A proposal will help you identify the key benefits that your request brings to your company. Your proposal should include:

  • The type(s) of flexibility you want or need
  • The tools and resources you’ll use to stay connected
  • A summary of how you’ll still be able to do your job, and most likely be more productive
  • Information on how the arrangement will benefit the company
  • An implementation strategy that is reasonable and includes a trial phase (see below for details)

Any connections to the bottom line that you can produce will certainly help. And be sure to anticipate your boss’s worst fears about a flexible arrangement -- such as that you’re unhappy in your job, that you’ll be less productive, that you won’t be a team player anymore, or that your home office will be less secure or more expensive to maintain, etc. If you can respond positively and responsibly to those concerns, you’ve got a much better chance at getting approval.

Set Up a Meeting with Your Boss

If your company does have formal work flexibility policy and request process in place, follow their protocol. Otherwise, once you have your proposal in place, speak with your boss about setting up a time to discuss the structure of your work arrangements. Strategically, try to time your meeting when you’ve been performing well in your job, rather than after a big mistake or lackluster performance review. Also, request the meeting for a time when your boss’ schedules isn’t too overloaded or stressful.

In your discussion, don’t focus on how the proposal will benefit you or why you need work flexibility. From the company's perspective, it’s an obvious benefit to you, but it’s crucial to let them know that your proposal is not being presented on whim or taken lightly. Show them you’re serious, while also emphasizing the benefits it will provide the company.

Paint a Picture of What This Proposal Looks Like in Practice

How will you communicate with your team if you’re working different hours or from home? How will you stay focused and productive? Are there key times of the business calendar when you’ll be able to forgo flexibility to attend to pressing deadlines? If you want to work from home, what is your home office set up like? The more your manager can picture you working in this flexible environment, the more “real” it will become for them.

Propose a Trial Run

Of course, any manager who hasn’t supervised flexible workers before will be skeptical. A great way to overcome any doubt is to suggest a trial run. Negotiate for at least a two to three month trial to give you a chance to work out the kinks and truly shine as a flexible employee. At a bare minimum, your trial should never be less than four weeks. Plan to regroup at the end of the trial period to discuss successes and areas for improvement.

And during your trial period, commit to being at your absolute best. This is your chance to demonstrate your ability to meet or exceed expectations as a flexible worker.

Know Your Resources

  • 1 Million for Work Flexibility: A place for workers to sign up and show their support for flexible work, and find expert resources on topics related topics.
  • WorkOptions: Tips for requesting flexibility, as well as flex work proposal template packages.
  • Work+Life Fit: How-to books for finding the flexibility you need.
  • Ask4Flex: Especially for San Francisco-based workers looking for help navigating the new "Right to Request" law.
  • ThirdPath: Resources for integrating work and family.
  • Workplace Flexibility Toolkit by the U.S. Department of Labor.
  • FlexJobs: A job service specializing in jobs with flexible work options, they offer comprehensive information on current job listings, employers who hire for flexible jobs, and supporting tips.

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