Flexible work: how to ask for what you want

Flexible working is so central to both Alice and I. Emotional and practical shifts along the way caused us both to think our daily structure and since then we’ve each had schedules that flex in different ways. Sometimes that flexibility has worked brilliantly: case in point, right now, when we have a flexible structure that can accommodate our growing business, need for mental clarity and childcare needs. Sometimes we’ve been less successful at keeping all the plates spinning and our brains have been have been almost as confused as our diaries.

Every day we see women for whom the flexibility is working beautifully but so many more who need and want their work schedules to change.

Now don’t get us wrong, this isn’t just a women’s issue. According to a recent Timewise study, men are just as likely to long for flexibility in their working lives. Digital Mums meanwhile found that 7 in 10 UK employees (and even more millennials), want flexibility but only 12% have asked for it. Why? Because of the huge fear of a backlash from work.

It’s ironic that although flexible working has so many benefits – happier employees, better engagement and higher productivity for starters – many employers remain so unwilling to engage. So if you’re in the same boat as I once was: needing flexibility but scared to ask or getting the push back when you do, what can make the difference? What would you say if you had just 10 Minutes in front of your boss to ask for some flex? I’m often asked whether you should just put in a flexible working request or have the conversation first. I’d advise the conversation every time. So here’s my Step Up guide to getting the flexibility you need, want and deserve:

  1. Define flexibility

As humans we’re bias and flexibility is one of those words that engages biases the most. When you say bias, many employers hear something different according to their own assumptions: perhaps less committed, perhaps very part time. So the first step in your quest is to be very clear about what you want. Do you want the digital freedom to work from home? Or do you want to leave at a certain time each day to pick up your kids or pursue a hobby (NOTE: we generally don’t advise promising to log back on every night, which comes at a huge cost to our relationships and mental wellbeing)? Or do you want to go part-time? Then make sure you articulate that early on in the conversation.

If you’re unsure or have several ideas that might work, be open. But see point 5 below to make sure you don’t get bulldozed out of the idea completely.

  1. Use the stats

We’ve started you off with some great research into flexible work but there’s loads more out there into the benefits of flexible workers. Evidence is powerful stuff.

You also need to know what other companies in your industry are doing. Peer pressure is powerful too.

Finally, what’s going on in your company and team? Who else works flexibly? Does your boss? In one recent session, a client’s boss was actually leaving at 3 several times each week to collect his kids from school but didn’t acknowledge that HE worked flexibly. He did. She pointed out. Her flexible work request was suddenly acceptable.

  1. Exploit your performance

You’re brilliant at your job, that’s not in doubt. So if you delivered full time at your desk then that’s powerful evidence that you’ll deliver remotely or flexibly too. So before heading into the discussion, collate evidence of your wins: your brag file. The more concrete you can be the better – “I brought in £X of new business and completed the Y project ahead of schedule” beats “you know I’ve done well this year” every time. Remind them why they need you and why you’ll continue to provide what they need.

  1. Be prepared

In our Step Up book, we often talk about the importance of written prep and this is no different. Write down the points you want to make. This will ensure you don’t forget anything important as well as strengthening your resolve on what you want to achieve.

You know your boss so you know what their objections might be. Anticipate these and make sure you have some pithy (and, yes, evidence based) counters ready to go.

  1. Know your fall-back

Again pen and paper comes in useful when ensuring you stick to your guns. Knowing the absolute least flexibility you’re willing to have is important, because it allows you some room for negotiation without worrying you’ll cave altogether. Having that fall-back written down and perhaps stashed in a pocket somewhere, will make it that much less likely you’ll give in.

  1. Go on Trial

It doesn’t excuse archaic practices, but as an explanation of their reluctance to embrace flexible working, bosses often cite concerns that it just won’t work. They are worried that the status quo will change and they won’t be able to go back. So reassure them with a trial period. Make sure it’s long enough for initial hiccups to be resolved: around 6 months, say, is ideal. This removes the fear of a permanent change whilst allowing  you to demonstrate that the arrangement you know will work, works. At the end of this time, suggest a review meeting at which both sides discuss how things are working. At this point, if the arrangement has gone well, any objections should be easy to quash.

Armed with this plan, you should feel better able to approach the conversation. I’d love to know how you get on below. And if there’s anything else you want to know about flexible working, comment below. We always promise to answer every one.

And watch out in a column soon for our guide to maintaining  that flexibility & clarity if you work for yourself.

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