How Parents Can Ask for Flexibility at Work Post-Pandemic

Maybe you enjoyed remote work throughout 2020 or are looking for a flexible job come the New Year. Locking in a work-from-home gig isn't a given (even in today's climate), but it's easier to make your case than you think. This is where experts say to start.

Flexible work isn't exactly a new idea, but throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it became far more "normal."

The work-from-home market exploded last year, according to the American Time Use Survey, which found that in 2019, about 22 percent of people regularly worked from home, whereas in 2020, that number almost doubled to about 42 percent of people. By the end of March 2020, at the peak of the pandemic, a Gallup poll found that 62 percent of American workers were working remotely.

And with companies such as Facebook extending remote work to nearly all of its employees post-pandemic, if you've gotten comfortable working from the confines of your home or being able to drop your child off at school because you no longer have to commute, it's only natural wonder: What about me—how can I continue to work from home in post-pandemic world?

It's a question Lauren Smith Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester, and a workplace consultant who aims to help companies retain employees and revolutionize workspaces, hears all the time. Just recently, she ran a full seminar on the topic for child care startup, Vivvi.

First-time parents, particularly, can sometimes feel marginalized—like they are the first or only ones to ask for a work-from-home environment, she says. "As a new parent, you can feel like, I need this for my personal life, or, it's really a selfish need on my part. So you have to start by unlearning some of what we've been conditioned to learn about the amount of support we should have as a human right," says Brody.

Fortunately, whether you're currently employed or not, there are practical ways to broach the topic of flexible work (which, by the way, doesn't always mean working remotely).

Here, the benefits of flexible work, what it is, how to ask for it, and why it matters so much in today's world.

An image of a woman working on a laptop at a dining table.
Getty Images.

Know the Benefits of Flexible Work

First things first: "Flexible work has been proven, since long before the pandemic, to help employees be more productive, more committed, more creative, and more satisfied in their work," says Brody.

So before you go about asking for flexibility, it's important to understand that. Brody points to research out of Stanford University that links flexible work to a 13 percent uptick in productivity. Other research finds that workers with flexibility are less likely to quit.

The other side of things, particularly if you're a mom: retaining women drives profits. "A recent Catalyst report showed a 35 percent higher return on equity and a 34 percent higher return to shareholders at Fortune 500 companies with high representation of women in their leadership teams," Brody points out.

Flexibility also doesn't have to be all or nothing: A recent Gallup report found that the highest engagement and focus comes from a partly remote schedule, says Brody.

Why all of this matters: "A company is more likely to agree to a flexible work setup if it is framed as a benefit to the employer," says Daphne Delvaux, a San Diego-based employment lawyer and founder of The Mama Attorney.

Think About What You Need

Flexibility can mean different things to different people. That's why Brody always suggests thinking about (or writing out) what kind of flexibility would be most beneficial to you as well as what's possible for your job. That way, you know what you're asking for.

Consider things such as total time spent working, when you work (hours), your location (where you work), who does what on the team, or how well your personal life is integrated into your professional life (i.e. picking up your child from school in the middle of the day or doing a workout mid-morning).

Another thing to keep in mind? Access to paid leave or how long a company's paid leave policy is, notes Brody. (For your conversation: Paid leave could increase the rate at which moms participate in the workforce the year after having a baby by 20 percent.)

Know the Laws

This is where things get a little bit tricky. "There is no straightforward teleworking right," says Delvaux. Simply put? That means that just because you've proved that you can and successfully did work remotely, you do not have the right to keep things going that way.

That said, teleworking rights are routinely granted in certain cases, she says, including if you have a disability, have a mental health condition, or even have pregnancy-related issues such as bed rest. But "accommodation rights" have to be specifically requested and require some legal understanding to be successful, Delvaux says. If you're considering going this route, touch base with an attorney.

Do More Research

Once you know the benefits of paid leave and the laws where you live, do your research. "Do a little sleuthing to see what rights you may already have, and how pushing for more will be beneficial to your organization's 3R's: recruiting, retention, and reputation," suggests Brody. Find out, for example, what the official flexibility policy at your employer is and what the flexibility plans of two or three top competitor companies are, she says.

Build a Plan

Next up is strategizing your plan. "Remember, you aren't creating a problem here; you're solving one," says Brody. "To make a case that will be mutually beneficial for you and your employer, understand the deliverables of your job description, anticipate management's concerns, and show how your plan will actually let you do better work."

Say you worked with flexibility during the pandemic, for example. Consider writing out the requirements of your job, three things that you do that go above and beyond that, and how, during the pandemic, you contributed to team morale and the company's evolving work culture, Brody suggests.

You could also write out how you anticipate your boss or team worrying about your plan and how you would go about solving that (include a backup plan, too!), she says.

You might propose a trial period for a certain amount of weeks or months so your boss and you can check in and tweak accordingly "because what you need may evolve over time," she says.

Recap and pay it forward if you got a 'Yes'

If your employer agrees to your plan, "recap the conversation in writing," suggests Brody. Delvaux notes that you may also want to include human resources on your communications, as HR is ultimately charged with protecting employee rights and preventing retaliation.

Then, consider paying it forward and advocating for colleagues who may have less privilege in the workplace, noting that they could benefit from flexible work, too, Brody says.

Pivot your strategy if you got a 'No'

Got a no? "You might consider contacting coworkers and asking for a collective request," suggests Delvaux. "An employer is less likely to deny a telework request if denying it would mean being left without any staff." Meet for coffee or on Zoom to compare notes and come up with a new approach, suggests Brody.

Alternatively, you could propose a counteroffer, such as a ramp-on option ("ramping up" to full time, in-person work), suggests Delvaux.

Also, consider what you could do for yourself to keep you from feeling resentful, Brody suggests. You might even reach out to a few people outside of your office for a networking chat.

Think Big Picture

No matter how your employer responds to you, think about the conversation about a flexible work setup not as a single conversation but rather an "ongoing career development conversation," suggests Brody.

If the door seems to be closed and the job simply isn't working for you? You will have to decide whether to return to the office or find another job, notes Delvaux. She also adds: "An employer may not retaliate against a worker for requesting an accommodation, whether or not it is granted," confirms Delvaux. "However, just because something is illegal does not mean it does not happen." (So if you find yourself out of a job simply because of an ask, consult with an attorney, she suggests.)

Ultimately, though? Most managers do want to retain you and they reap benefits from allowing flexible work, says Brody. So if you're itching to, it's worth a shot.

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