Make your job family friendly

How to make the case for an unconventional work schedule

During a work-life balance workshop held earlier this year at one of Canada’s largest accounting firms, a woman we’ll call Susan bemoaned her inability to spend the summer with her children. The room immediately came alive with her colleagues’ voices: Haven’t you heard that Joe down the hall took three months off? Do you know Jane in marketing, who started working flexible hours? Susan had no idea such options were available at her company.

“We negotiate ourselves out of things before we even ask,” says Lisa Martin, the Vancouver consultant and career coach who led the seminar. That’s particularly true of women, she adds. “This happens a lot when we want to ask for a raise, but in this case it’s asking for time rather than money.” Once armed with the knowledge that other parents’ requests had been granted, Martin says, Susan approached her employer and, without trouble, arranged to take six weeks off the following summer.

If you’re thinking of making a similar pitch to your boss, this may be a good time to do it. Despite a slowing economy, many employers are finding it hard to recruit and keep qualified, talented staff, and are more willing than ever to consider alternative work arrangements — especially if it doesn’t cost them anything. And whether it’s dropping to part-time for a while, keeping full-time hours but on a different schedule, arranging a job-share or even taking a leave of absence, parents who want to adapt the demands of work to fit their individual family needs are a growing group — and that gives them power.

But if your company has no formal policies on flexible work arrangements, you’ll need to present a well-reasoned argument to the right person and in the right light. Here’s how.

Suss out the culture

Look around you and see if what you want to do has been done before. Is your workplace full of young parents, suggesting a family-friendly environment, or are you one of the few people with kids? Are there lots of part-timers? Does anyone’s voice mail say they’re at the office only during certain hours? These are signs your company may be open to arrangements outside the standard nine-to-five, and supports the needs of families. You may need to keep your ears open, though — these arrangements could be the best-kept secret at the office, since the HR department may not know about informal agreements made between managers and parents who report to them.

Fortunately for Marilyn Stenson,* those kinds of quiet, off-the-books arrangements are common at the publishing firm where she works. The Toronto mom found herself in a bind last fall when the daycare spot she’d been expecting wasn’t available in time for the start of kindergarten. Stenson asked her boss to let her leave early for a week so she could pick up her son after school, and he agreed. When the week turned into a month, Stenson knew her boss was extending her “quite a favour” — but as a parent himself, he was empathetic. “At my workplace, managers have a significant amount of discretion regarding employee hours,” she says.

Can’t find any evidence of job flexibility at your company? Don’t give up yet. The next step, Martin suggests, is investigating whether other companies in your industry offer flexible schedules or leaves. “It’s similar to research you’d do if you were asking for a promotion or raise to see whether what you’re requesting is in alignment with your industry.” For example, a workplace steeped in mobile technologies may be more amenable to non-standard hours than a brokerage where face time counts.

*Name changed by request.

Have an answer for every objection

There’s a general rule for getting what you want at work, according to Claude Balthazard, director of HR excellence at Ontario’s Human Resources Professionals Association: “The less burden or inconvenience the request is to the employer, the easier it is to get.” Take a proposal for job-sharing: If your employer doesn’t have experience with that type of arrangement, you should go in with the deal already figured out, including the colleague who’d share a job with you, and the way you’d split the hours and workload. Then propose a trial period of one or two months, during which you commit to overcoming any problems that arise.

Your pitch needs to show that you understand how the company works and what it needs, says Balthazard. So if your firm has peak hours or days, or needs the whole team present at certain times, offer assurance that moving to flextime won’t interfere with your ability to participate.

Sometimes, showing there’s no downside to your proposed arrangement isn’t enough — you’ll have to show an upside to get your boss to bend the rules. So you might suggest that working from home most afternoons will allow the new intern to use your desk. This way, you’re not creating a problem, but solving one. If you want to job-share, note that you and your partner can fill in for each other on sick days, thus lowering absenteeism.

Dropping to a four-day workweek has been of great benefit to both Michele Matthews and her employer, AG Hair Cosmetics in Vancouver. Granting her request for flextime has earned the company a loyal employee who made the effort to stay plugged in to her job during both of her mat leaves. “I was never out of touch. When my youngest daughter was eight weeks old, she went to her first strategic planning session,” recalls Matthews, who has worked for the company for 15 years. “By allowing me to keep some balance, they got somebody who’s connected and dedicated and passionate about the organization.” And her bosses know it: Matthews has since been promoted to vice-president and is now back to a five-day workweek.

Know what you want — and what you would accept

Before you voice an interest in flextime, figure out what you’re looking for. “You may want to have the ability to come and go without punching the clock, or you may want something more formal, like an 80 percent workweek — or an 80 percent year, with the summer off,” Martin says. If it’s a leave of absence to take care of a chronically sick child or to continue your education, know how much time you’ll need and whether you can remain involved with work. Presenting a concrete plan makes it clear you’re serious and you’ve thought through the implications.

A pitch for flextime — which typically means full-time hours but packed into fewer days or with different start or end times — could be easier to make than one for a part-time arrangement because it doesn’t require your employer to fill a staffing gap. Either way, you should have what’s known in negotiation lingo as BATNA: best alternative to a negotiated agreement. In other words, if you can’t strike the deal you want, what’s your fallback position? Are you ready to quit or would you accept a different arrangement? “Ask the employer what they could accommodate,” Martin advises.

Show your worth

You’ll boost your negotiating power by proving yourself to be a valuable commodity. Martin tells the story of a woman who was headhunted with an offer of a 20 percent raise. When she told her bosses she was thinking of leaving to work for the competition, her bosses asked what it would take to make her stay. “She said, ‘I want the summer off with my kids’ and, boom, they gave it to her,” Martin says.

As the woman in Martin’s story discovered, you never have more power than when you’re willing to leave. But it isn’t necessary to go that far to get what you want at work. In industries facing skilled-worker shortages, such as law enforcement, technology and academics, an accomplished, talented and, importantly, proven employee is an asset that companies will loosen rules to keep. Case in point: At one major US accounting firm where more than 500 staffers have flexible work arrangements, a survey found that 81 percent of them would have quit were they not given that opportunity. Keep in mind, too, that replacing you would be a costly endeavour for your employer. “When I was going part-time, [the HR department] told me that I could work part-time for five years before it would start to cost them more [in lost work time and recruitment expenses] than just replacing me,” notes one woman on the website Working Moms Refuge (momsrefuge.com).

To boost your chances of success even more, try to make your pitch when you look particularly accomplished — after you make a major sale or get an industry award. And when presenting your case, point out the skills you have that no one else does in the department, or other strengths that could serve as leverage.

If part-time and flextime are new concepts at your workplace, convincing your manager or HR department to let you give it a shot may take some doing. Don’t let that discourage you. “As organizations change, the policy manuals do get revised and often the impetus for change is somebody who asked,” Balthazard says. “There’s no penalty for asking.”

Working parents can win

Flextime and variations of it
What it is A change in your regular work hours, during which you perform the same workload.
When you might consider it To deal with a child care gap or to go to regular medical appointments or therapy sessions with your child.
One parent who did it Toronto mom Marilyn Stenson (see Suss Out the Culture, to find out how).

80 percent workweek
What it is Downshifting to fewer hours on the job — for example, switching to a four-day workweek
When you might consider it To save money on child care or fill a gap in your care situation; to lower work-related stress levels; to spend more time with your kids or volunteer at school.
One parent who did it Vancouver mom Michele Matthews.