How to Ask for Flex Time

Many employers are agreeing to flexible work schedules. Here's what you can do to increase the odds of "yes."

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Flex time

Chris Gallo

When Dawn Corrado was out taking her maternity leave from her full-time sales-support job at Office Resources, in Boston, she assumed she'd seen the last of her office since the company offered no part-time options. But while Corrado was out, her coworker Susan Taft approached her about doing a job share, which would allow both of them to work part-time. The two women took the proposal to their manager. "We had job performance backing us up," Corrado says. "And the company saw it as a chance to retain two of its employees instead of losing both." Now Corrado works in the office on Mondays and Fridays, while Taft works Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays.

Flexible work situations such as part-time, job sharing, a compressed workweek, telecommuting, or extended maternity leave are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Flexibility is as important to today's workers as salary and benefits packages are. But what if this great enlightenment hasn't yet reached your company or your manager? "Sometimes it has to be that one person who makes the change," says Adria Alpert-Romm, senior executive vice president of human resources for Discovery Communications, in Silver Spring, Maryland. Getting what you want isn't a matter of asking nicely; rather, it's a matter of crafting a smart proposal that makes a compelling argument by looking at the situation through the eyes of the human resources department.

Know What You Want

Before you can determine what kind of flexibility you need, you first have to assess what it is you're after, says Karol Rose, chief marketing officer of FlexPaths.com, a site devoted to educating employees and companies about flexibility. Evaluate, for example, what financial trade-offs you're willing to make, whether a new work scenario will slow down your ability to advance (and how important that is to you), and if it's feasible to work at home without having additional childcare.

Draft a Proposal

After you figure out what you need, it is time to negotiate for it -- and the most effective way to do that is with a written proposal, says Pat Katepoo, founder of WorkOptions.com and creator of a proposal template called FlexSuccess. Aim to present your proposal as something that will have tangible benefits for the company.

When Cara Reeves, a copywriter at the Cincinnati-based design firm Bridge Worldwide, returned to work after her second child was born, she realized that 55 percent of her net pay was going to daycare; not only that, but juggling two children and a full-time work schedule was proving difficult. "My husband and I crunched the numbers and figured out that the best option was for me to stay home at least two days a week," Reeves says. Bridge required employees to put in 30 hours per week to retain benefits, which Reeves needed, so she proposed working Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays in the office, with Thursdays working from home and Fridays off. In exchange, she'd take a 25 percent cut in salary. She included a summary of how much the company would save in salary and reduced 401(k) contributions, as well as excerpts of positive feedback from past reviews. She pointed out that flex time was the wave of the future, in keeping with Bridge's desire to be innovative and retain talent. And finally, she proposed all this on a three-month trial basis.

Katepoo cites three key criteria for getting the flexible job situation you want: You've worked for the same manager for two years or longer, your job performance is continually rated high, and you have a written proposal. Reeves had all those things going for her, and her manager and the HR department signed off on the plan.

Expect Objections

A key part of composing your proposal is being ready to address all the questions and concerns your manager may throw at you, such as: "If I let you do this, everyone else will want flex time," "We've never done this before," "Your job can't be part-time," and "How will I know you're really working when you're at home?" Katepoo says you have to expect some objections and should rehearse replies to them. Have a few alternative ideas waiting in the wings if your managers don't initially go for what you're proposing. If your proposal was to work from home two days a week, your fallback may be only one day at home. Ask your manager for a list of concerns, and take a few weeks to rework the proposal to address them. "It's frustrating to start again, but it's better than giving up," Katepoo says. If all of your suggestions are met with a no from your manager, you may have to bide your time until management changes, look into switching departments, or consider moving on.

If you're lucky, it won't come to that, and you and your boss will reach an agreement that works for everyone. And who knows, by blazing a trail and finding a solution, perhaps you'll pave the way for other new moms looking for a work-life balance.

Assess Yourself and Your Job

Here are the questions our experts advise asking yourself before negotiating for a flexible schedule.

  1. What is the primary thing you need to accomplish? More time at home? Less time commuting? Spending less on daycare?
  2. Is your job knowledge-based, meaning that you can do the work without having to be in your office?
  3. What benefits (health insurance, 401(k), vacation, bonuses, etc.) do you absolutely need to keep, and will a flex-time arrangement allow you to keep them?
  4. Do you tend to be more productive when you have only a limited amount of time to get a task finished, or does that stress you out? Can you stay focused?
  5. Are you willing to trade money for time? In other words, is it worth taking a 25 or 50 percent cut in salary for 25 or 50 percent more time with family? Will it work out to be equal?
  6. Can you stop "work creep" before your 75 percent salary and 30-hour workweek become a 75 percent salary and 40-hour workweek?
  7. Do you have a situation in place, (e.g., help with childcare) that will allow you to be productive working from home? If you wind up working late at night or early in the morning, can you handle that?
  8. If you're proposing a compressed workweek (such as four 10-hour days), are you disciplined enough to keep up with a schedule that has you coming in earlier or leaving later than the other employees?
  9. If cutting back hours or taking an extended maternity leave requires delegating responsibilities, can you do that without micromanaging?
  10. Will a reduction in hours reduce your potential to advance, and if so, how important is that to you right now?

What Every Proposal Needs

  • An Introduction: Briefly summarize your plan and explain why it's a good idea for the company. If you can include a few words about the company's mission or vision (especially phrases about innovation and work-life balance), all the better.
  • Logistics: Lay out your proposed schedule and compensation and how the arrangement will fit in with your particular department, including who it will affect and how you will handle any issues that arise as a result. List specific projects you're responsible for, and how that work will get done with your new schedule.
  • Evaluation: Suggest guidelines for evaluating the new work situation, such as a three-month trial.
  • Praise from Managers: Include excerpts from employee reviews, particularly anything that highlights your productivity.
  • Highlights of Benefits: Reiterate why this scenario will benefit the company (such as the fact that it would pay out less salary or save money and time by not training a new employee).
  • Reassurance: List the projects you plan to complete before starting maternity leave; let your manager know if you'll be available to answer questions.

Judi Ketteler, a mother of one, is a writer based in Cincinnati.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of American Baby magazine.

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