How to ask your boss for a more flexible work schedule

Being a working parent is all about that elusive balance, but if you can create a more flexible work schedule, it's actually possible to achieve.

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It’s 6 p.m. and you’re still 10 minutes away from your toddler’s childcare centre—again.

For a working parent, there are few things more stressful than arriving late to pick-up: Not only can you feel the dollars fly by as the cost doubles (triples?) after deadline, but you worry that you’ve just annoyed your child’s caregivers as well. Oh, and your kid may be well aware that you are late, too!

In my case, it only took a few of these missed deadlines for me to realize that leaving 15 minutes earlier would translate into big time savings for me as I beat my fellow rush hour travelers. Indeed, any day I could shift my hours just a little bit saved me so much stress (and money) that I felt like I’d won the working mom lottery that day.

This was long before anyone I knew talked openly about flexible work. I didn’t know my options and honestly, I was too nervous to ask my boss—a single man without kids—for help. (I had good reason to worry. They don’t call it the “Mommy Track” for nothing.) Instead, I’d look daily for chances to slip out unnoticed, and scramble on days I couldn’t.

Talk about stressful.

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Ten years later, having since led Working Mother magazine and founded the Working Mother Research Institute, which challenges companies to compete on offering family friendly benefits to their employees, I think back to myself as a very new mom and wish I could tell myself: You’re a valuable part of the team. Just ask for what you need.

And too, that everyone needs a little flex.

Women, men, parents, pet owners, people with doctor’s appointments, people with aging parents, people with international calls, people with class after work, people trying to make a morning Pilates class, people living anywhere it snows, rains or blows. We all need some flexibility to integrate our personal lives with our work demands.

And it’s not just us worker bees. Smart employers know that flex works, helping to increase productivity, morale and motivation—which is why I wasn’t all that surprised to learn that a new study by Werk, a flexible work consultancy and job search service, found that a 80 percent of the employers it surveyed offer a flexible work policy.

If you’re skeptical, that makes sense, because that same survey also found that only 12 percent of employees would say they have a flexible schedule. Meaning there’s still a lot of hesitancy on both the manager and employee sides for making flex work in the real world.

Thinking of asking your boss for some flexibility in your hours? To make it easy for them say yes to flex, here are a few things to consider before you ask:

Know what you’re asking for. Flex comes in many varieties and what works best for your office mate may not work for you. Are you looking at shifting your hours? Working from home as needed? Going full-time remote? A combination of options? Like you would for any new project, map out what you want and what you’ll need to make it happen.

Know the stigmas. For too many managers, the phrase “flexible work” immediately conjures up worries that you’ll be hard to reach, you’ll never come to the office again, you no longer care about your career and most commonly, you’ll never get dressed for work again. (“Work in your PJs!” is a common flexible work myth for everyone who doesn’t do it.) Think through your boss’ concerns and be ready to counter them.

View your request through your employer’s eyes. Remember that flexible work involves give and take. As much as this new schedule will help your life run better, consider how a flexible schedule might help your team’s needs. Will saving on your commuting time a few days a week allow you to start work earlier? Will getting home earlier allow you to be ready to take a late night call from another time zone? Remember to call out the benefits your boss will see from your flexible work as well.

Prove it can work. As a long-time manager, I understand how bosses worry that every accommodation is a permanent one, even if it doesn’t work well for everyone. To help you over this stress point, suggest your new schedule as a 90-day trial, at which point you can both reassess whether it works for both of you.

Be transparent as possible. Just recently, the president of an international nonprofit told me about a remote staffer who had been usually hard to reach all week. On Friday the staffer reemerged, explaining that her basement had flooded days earlier.

She hadn’t requested time off for home repairs—and in her mind, didn’t take time off, because she was home when she should have been anyway. But now her boss was annoyed and resentful. Don’t be that person. If you need to be away from work, request time off just as you would from the office. You’ll be less stressed, and so will your boss and coworkers.

In the end, flexible work is fueled by trust and transparency on both sides. Having written about flexible work for more than a decade, judged companies on how they offer flex, and managed flexible and remote teams, I know that flex works. Teams with the autonomy to get work done in a way that works for them are happier, stay together longer and get the job done.

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