Flexible Working – How, Why and Why Not?

Flexible working, the holy grail of workers. The reason to move jobs. The most sought after benefit. Working when and where  suits you, getting the job done, being judged not on time spent sitting at a desk but work produced.

The dream. 

It’s the thing (you tell yourself) that will make your life easier, and give you that impeccable work-life balance that you so badly want. Your kids will like you more, you’ll feel less of the dreaded guilt, your employer will benefit from your new va-va-voom. Your floors will be cleaner, your laundry folded, you’ll lose two stone.

It’s win-win.

Right?

I’ve written before how I moved from a permanent job in one company for a twelve month contract in another which offered me a reduced hours (not parental leave but permanently) contract and one day a week from home as standard. For me, at the time, it was a no brainer. I was commuting 4 hours a day, 4 days a week. Remote working wasn’t allowed except in extreme circumstances. I had 3 children under 6. Something was going to give, I saw an opportunity and pursued it and there started my flexible working dream.

Over three years later I’m still working my 28 hours, now on a permanent contract and I’m singing from the rooftops about flexibility to anyone who will listen. (Sorry)

So why doesn’t everyone do it? 

Because, like most things, it’s not quite that simple.

Flexible working, when you read about it in magazines and reports of people availing of it doesn’t mean working when and where you like just like that. It can encompass all sorts of work arrangements, from working from home to let the plumber in occasionally, to changing your working hours to 7am – 3pm to bring the kids to swimming lessons.

It doesn’t suit every role – but who’s to say some element of flexibility can’t be built in to every role? The chef can’t cook my lunch from home, but perhaps shifts could change, the retail assistant can’t do flexi-time and shut the shop early. It’s not that simple.

In Ireland, flexible working is all down to individual arrangements. To many employees read this as “begging your employer”. It’s different in the UK where our neighbours have a legal right to apply for it, and their employer has to deal with requests in a reasonable manner or they can appeal. Because there’s a legal right, employers are more likely (In my view anyway, no science here) to be aware of it and not treat it as a request from an employee to, well, doss. Until work culture changes that’s going to be the way things are. (At this point I’ll remind everyone that culture can change as a result of the law, remember free plastic bags and smoking in pubs?

Why the reluctance?

Employees can be reluctant to apply as often it’s perceived as being a signal that you are no longer interested in your career. This doesn’t have to be the case, and I’ve heard some really inspirational stories about people who only got time to think about their careers when they actually started their flexible arrangement. Their stories are not mine to tell. However, I think the “career” reason is overstated. I think we forget that genuinely some people, at certain times in their lives, just want to turn up and do their day’s work and get paid regularly. Not everyone wants a career, for some a job is a means to an end and no number of development goals chats will change that. And that’s OK.

Also, money. Reducing hours means less salary. Your budget might not allow it. Sums.

Flexible working seems to be something that’s attributed just to parents too, and let’s be honest, specifically mothers who have indicated off into the slow moving carriageway that is “the mommy track”, or as someone suggested to me “park in the parenting layby for a while”. That’s an employee’s choice if they want to, but let them make the decision whether working from home on a Thursday really means that their ambition and career is on hold. We need to be honest about things too, who is really deciding that the “hold” light is shining? Are we attributing decisions that may not have been made?

Parents can’t be the only ones to benefit from flexible working. This shouldn’t and can’t be the case. Everyone should look at the benefits that working remotely one day a week and not sitting in traffic, or going in early on Tuesdays to get out earlier on Fridays can bring and see how it could work for them.

But won’t it affect my career?

Let’s be straight up about this. You’re unlikely to be CEO if you only work Monday – Wednesday 9am – 2pm during term time. But not everyone wants to be CEO. There are many examples of successful people who are career focussed and have made flexible working work for them. However, exercise caution in reading these tales, flexible working has a lot of options, and can simply mean working from home occasionally or starting work waaay earlier than everyone else to get your hours done.

Challenges

Nobody wants to be the first person leaving the office. Actually, that’s not true. Everybody wants to be that person skipping out the door before everyone else, but we tend to skulk out, embarrassed by the fact that we are leaving to go to the other part of our lives. It doesn’t have to be children that drive it, it could be a hobby for example (I once worked with a lady who changed her hours to suit her golfing, I always thought she was  legend, she had great work life balance and treasured her time) or a travel requirement. No reason is less valid in a situation where the job can be done in a flexible manner. For it to work you can’t be shy about having to leave at 3.30 to bring your dog to the vet, or your mother to the physiotherapist. If you are you’re ashamed of it. Own it. Be proud that you have the flexibility to be able to do it.

Remote workers can be seen as chancers, who are probably at the gym or watching Judge Judy repeats rather than working. Only one thing is needed to get over this, and without it remote working can never work, in fact any work relationship can’t work. What is it ? T R U S T. Trust your team to do the work.

Switching off. If you take time off to bring a child to a medical appointment you may be trying to work up the hours after everyone is in bed. You’re exhausted. Or you take a half day every week to do a library visit and homework with your child but you’re answering emails and calls from work all afternoon. It’s hard to switch off and with emails on blackberrys and remote access the temptation to log back on is always there. (If you’re going to succumb to temptation don’t let it be to check your email out of hours. go big or go home-  have a tub of Ben & Jerry’s, buy that dress you really want from Zara, make it count)

How do I ask for flexible working?

Just ask, but do your research first. Put yourself in your employer’s shoes. Figure out yourself how your current role can be done differently? Since there’s no legal right to flexible working in Ireland  it’s up to you to come up with a way that it can be done in a way that doesn’t negatively impact the role that you perform. Think of all the options. Maybe you do need to be on site at work every day but could you compress your hours and go in early 3 days to get out earlier another day? Would annualised hours or term time work, if it’s quieter in the summer? What about remote working some of the time? Assess what you believe will work for everyone involved, you, your employer and your customers. Ask with the plan ready, and have a plan B if Plan A just isn’t a runner.  Believe in yourself, and your ability to get the job done and use this belief to power the request.

How to make it work for everyone

Be honest about your time and how you spend it both at work and at home.

Be flexible when needed, ie the big boss/very important customer is visiting your office on your day off, can you try switch days that week?

Keep reviewing your arrangements. What works when you have very young children or one childcare solution may evolve over time, or your role may change at work so that you do in fact need to be present on Tuesday mornings. You might be surprised, your employer might like your proposed solution.

 

If you’re a working mum you might enjoy a hashtag I’ve started on http://instagram.com/bumblesofrice  #workstyleme where we share work outfits and inspiration. Preferably wipe clean, forgiving, cheap as chips, hard wearing and very flattering. Do join in and look at my instagram stories for inspiration

2 Comments

  1. This is a great post Sinéad. I can only reiterate what you have said. I like and work in Germany as you know and I have flexible working hours. I do a 30 hour week over 4 days and can come and go as I please. My role is mainly based around appointments so as long as I arrange them to suit my schedule I can work the hours I choose. I do have to be flexible about my day off and will often have to make a decision to miss something important or work on my day off. All in all though I wouldn’t go back to 9 to 5 five days a week.

  2. Brilliant advice here Sinéad. I’m also flexible working alongside self employment. I work approx 21 hours a week which is entirely flexible to school hours. Some of that can be done working remotely but it is down to having a very flexible and willing employer. I don’t think i could ever go back to a conventional working week either!

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