5 Reasons Why Bosses Resist Flexible Work (and what you can do about it)

06/16/2015 02:14 pm ET | Updated Jun 15, 2016

This article is adapted from Chapter 5, "Negotiating for Work Flexibility," of the new book, The Working Dad's Survival Guide: How to Succeed at Work and at Home.

Lots of working parents benefit from working alternative work schedules, such as telecommuting a day or two a week or shifting hours around family responsibilities. However, for the most part, companies will not come to us to ask us about our needs for flexibility. We have to take the first step. This can be difficult, but most good things in life are.

To increase our chances of success, it is important that we understand the concerns our supervisors may have before we start our negotiation. This way, we can focus our communications so that we dispel most of their concerns and show them how they will also benefit. If you take away their reasons to say no, they are more likely to say yes. With that, here are five common reasons why supervisors may be resistant to supporting flexible work, followed by ways to address each.

  1. You haven't yet built up your credibility
  2. They fear they will no longer be able to monitor your performance
  3. They are afraid of the risks of trying something unconventional
  4. They believe that to be fair, they have to treat all employees the same
  5. They don't believe in work-family balance

1. Build Credibility and Sell Yourself Gracefully

To be successful in negotiating for a more flexible work arrangement, you first need to build a solid track record of valuable performance, earn the trust of those you work with, and make sure to "sell" yourself gracefully as a valued part of the team. Be sure to keep records of your performance, and ask satisfied clients and grateful colleagues for "thank you" letters. Managers and companies are often desperate to hold onto their most valuable employees and are far more likely to allow for flexibility to keep one of their "rock stars" happy.

2. Help Them Measure Your Performance

Most managers are pretty bad at measuring actual job performance and, instead, default to basing their evaluations on "face time" or "chair time." This, of course, is silly, and easily gamed. The opportunists work slow and stay late, while the best employees work hard and go home.

If I were to ask to work from home two days a week, I would be sure to present my supervisor with documents and plans so that we can mutually set short and long-term performance goals, identifying how and when progress against goals will be measured. I'd also volunteer time diaries and weekly progress reports, and agree that if the boss feels that my performance, in any way, declines they can cut back on the flexibility. In this way, we give our bosses the tools to actually do a far better job in evaluating all employees going forward.

3. Show Them the Upside

Many managers see their primary role as preventing problems and potential problems, as opposed to taking risks to maximize performance. Many don't want to stick out as defying convention or traditional office culture. We need to convince managers that appropriate work flexibility is all upside and no downside.

One way to do this is to provide a plan for how we will maintain or increase performance while working flexibly and for how we will remain connected with colleagues and clients through both personal contact and technology. We also need to propose that our flexible work begin as a 3-month trial arrangement, and, if the boss isn't happy or if there is a work emergency, that they can put the arrangement on hold. Finally, we need to show that flexible work is increasingly common even among employers in the most competitive industries (for example, 83 of the Fortune 100 make frequent use of flexibility), and has been shown to be at worst revenue-neutral, and, at best, a win-win for employees and employers. This article can help arm you with facts.

4. A Better Way to Think of Fairness

Some managers believe the best way to be fair is to treat everyone the same, and they are concerned that if they accommodate you, they will have to do the same for everyone.

To combat this, you need to make sure your request is framed as a business request, not as a personal favor or family accommodation. For example, you can explain that working from home on Fridays would save a two-hour commute that you could otherwise spend working, and that working from home would allow more uninterrupted time to work on tasks that require long stretches of concentration (as opposed to being distracted by the comings and goings of the busy office). This is a better request than saying how telecommuting will help you go to more soccer games.

You should also document all the aspects of your request. By doing so, you are providing your supervisor a format by which they can decide whether or not to grant requests from other employees by applying the same decision-making rules. You're helping them make more fair and consistent decisions.

5. Avoiding the Aggressively Old-School Boss

In my experience, most managers are well-meaning people who try to do the right thing for their employees. If so, actions 1-4 above should help you address their concerns and be more successful in negotiating for flexibility. However, there are jerk bosses out there as well. Some don't believe that "family stuff" and workplace flexibility are legitimate concerns. Some feel as if they paid their dues by sacrificing their personal lives for career success and they'll be damned if others won't have to do the same. Some see "involved parent" or "family man" as derisive terms.

Honestly, it will be very difficult to negotiate with someone as openly hostile to flexibility. Worse, working for a boss like this makes for a stressful worklife that also spills over into our home and personal lives, hurting our mental and physical health. So, my unsatisfying advice for those in this situation is to keep your head down for now, do a great job, network widely, and fire off resumes to other employers. If you have the opportunity to leave an aggressively unpleasant boss, please do.

In most circumstances, your manager will want to do right by you by allowing more flexible work - as long as we address their main concerns. We need to help our bosses understand how they will also benefit from these arrangements, and give them the tools so they feel more comfortable.

What do you think about negotiating for workflex? Let's discuss in the comments.

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