Flexibility at work is important to many employees, but perhaps to no group more so than parents. An arrangement that lets a commuting mother work from home so she can actually see her kids at night, or flexible hours that let a father scale back to four days a week instead of five can mean the difference between a family thriving and hanging on by a thin, thin thread.
The benefits extend to employers as well: As CBS has reported, companies that offer flexibility are far more likely to retain their employees, to ensure that those employees are happy and even to save on healthcare costs tied to burnout and stress. Studies also suggest that many employees are more productive when they work remotely.
But given the lack of clarity around what flextime is -- "It's really a very broad umbrella that a lot of things fall under," according to Melissa Fairman, a human resources manager and blogger who runs the site HR reMix -- and the fact that work-related negotiations can induce agita, knowing what to ask for and how is a challenge. Here are six guidelines to consider:
1) Lead with the company, not your personal life.
"You really need to go into the conversation [with your boss] with the mindset of, 'How will this work for my company? That's the opposite of saying 'I need Mondays and Wednesdays off so I can do whatever [that thing is]," Fairman advised. Yes, your desire to cut back your hours may have everything to do with your child's schedule, but it also has very real implications for your job. Those are what you want to emphasize.
"For example, someone might say 'I have a brutal commute, it takes me an hour and a half to get in, and if I could work from home I wouldn't be so stressed out, I could be more productive,'" Fairman said. If you want to change your hours so you can pick up your child from daycare, explain that the new arrangement would prevent you spending the last 30 minutes of every day fretting over whether you'll make it in time, which is wasted time as far as your company is concerned. Don't lie about why you're seeking flexibility -- it can absolutely be appropriate to bring up your children if you work for a company where that's part of the culture, Fairman said -- just be mindful of what you emphasize.
2) Be ready with specifics.
"When you go in and say 'I would like flextime' or a flexible work program, you should be able to say how the job is going to get done," said Christopher Metzler, Ph.D., senior associate dean of the division of applied management at Georgetown University. That might sound obvious, but he said that employees are often surprised by how much back-and-forth goes into establishing a flexible arrangement, and that's often because they didn't discuss many of the details up-front.
So, what does it mean to be armed with specifics? Think about your work week, then make a case for how every aspect of it will be handled. "Say, 'If there are meetings we decided I must attend, then I will absolutely be there," Metzler offered by way of example. "'I will still meet my deadlines, and I will meet them using the electronic resources we have put together. I will be on email, and I will be available for video chats as that becomes necessary.'" Then be open to the fact that your plan might change.
3) Ask early.
"It's better to talk [to your manager] as soon as possible," Metzler said. "If you wait until closer to the deadline, they might feel blindsided." If you know you're going to need to make a change when your son or daughter starts a new school year, or after you go on family leave, don't risk upsetting your boss by waiting until a few weeks before to ask. It can be a nerve-wracking conversation, but that's no reason to put it off.
"I would do it as far in advance as possible," Metzler said.
4) Don't shy away from talking money or advancement.
"It's a very difficult question, but you have to be prepared to ask, 'If I were doing this, would it affect my ability to be promoted?'" Metzler said. That is important information for you to have when you think about your future with your current employer.
Likewise, you shouldn't shy away from discussing how a more flexible arrangement will affect your salary. Working remotely shouldn't necessarily change it -- in fact, many companies offer bonuses to employees who work remotely, because it trims overhead, Metzler said -- but it's very likely that your earnings will change if you cut back your hours, or establish a work-share arrangement with a colleague. Look into whether your company's HR department already has an established policy that calculates compensation in more flexible situations, Metzler said, because many do. Be very clear with yourself about what you're willing to give up from a compensation standpoint before you approach your manager.
5) Consider the counter.
"If you bring a reasonable proposal to your manager's attention, and he or she turns it down, you could try counter proposing," Fairman said. "It depends ... I don't want to give broad advice and say 'keep countering.' What I would say, is always be prepared with a back-up plan." If Plan A is rejected, Plan B might get through. (Fortunately, a few places like Vermont and San Francisco have established laws and ordinances to protect employees' right to ask for flextime without consequences.)
But Metzler said that your options are pretty limited if your boss says no. If there's an established HR policy that supports your proposal, you should absolutely reach out to the appropriate people, but understand that may well complicate your relationship with your current manager. "I would ask yourself, 'Is this the organization I want to work in?" Metzler said.
There are certain types of leave that are protected by the United States Department of Labor. But both HR experts emphasized that flextime remains a benefit, not a right.
6) Follow-up -- in person.
If you're approved to change your hours or work from home (yay you!), then remember that is essential to be available to your boss and your colleagues, so cutting out during a slow moment to go to the grocery store is a bad idea, Metzler said. And touch-base regularly.
"I would send weekly updates, but then I would also set a dedicated time to talk to your manager -- in the office -- about how it's going. What's working? What's not working so well? What could be improved?" he said. "I would be very clear to make sure you're back in the office when you do this, rather than doing it via video chat, because it brings you back full-circle into the organization."
You don't want to be seen as absent, and you want to make it abundantly clear that you're continuing to perform at or above your previous levels.