Can you ever have plenty of time to care for your kids, yet earn enough money to pay the bills, manage a household and still find professional satisfaction? Creating this balance is a challenge for most families. Work and child-related responsibilities often seem to conflict. For many mothers and fathers, the solution is a non-standard work schedule.
By Sarah Bennett-Astesano
When Lee Graham’s second son was born, she resigned from a job she loved.
“I didn’t think that I had any options to balance work and demands from home,” says Graham, whose sons are now 9 and 7. But her boss refused to accept her resignation.
“I was frustrated and infuriated,” she recalls. “I know that she had good intentions, but being exhausted at home and at work I could not anticipate that there could be a middle ground.”
4 Steps to a Flexible Work Schedule
But after spending several hours with her boss and a human resources representative and doing some research of her own, Graham made a case for restructuring her job to fit a part-week work schedule, a proposal that at first met resistance but eventually won approval.
Have plenty of time to care for your kids, yet earn enough money to pay the bills, manage a household and still find professional satisfaction – can you ever do it all? Creating this balance is a challenge for most families. Work and child-related responsibilities often seem to conflict. For many mothers and fathers, the solution is a non-standard work schedule.
“The important work of parenting doesn’t fit tidily around the 9-to-5 day,” says Linda Mason, chairman and cofounder of Bright Horizons Family Solutions, a provider of employer-based childcare, and author of The Working Mother’s Guide to Life: Strategies, Secrets and Solutions. “Feeling that you have some flexibility and control around the time and place that work gets done can help parents feel that they can be responsive engaged parents and responsive engaged workers,” she says.
“Families need food on the table, but they also need time,” says Jessica DeGroot, founder and president of The ThirdPath Institute, which helps people redesign work to create more time for family. “They need time for basics – dentist appointments and grocery shopping – but also for the joy in family life.”
The benefits don’t belong to parents alone. Businesses have begun to understand that flexible work arrangements can be in their interest. “Employers look to an important body of research that shows you get more productivity out of people – that they go the extra mile – when you allow flextime options,” says Mason.
What the research has begun to show, parents experience firsthand. As part-timers, they say they waste less time around the office, so employers get their best work hours, without the least-productive hours.
So how do you land a non-standard schedule in a workplace that still considers a 40-hour-plus workweek the norm?
Deciding what to ask for and how to ask comes from a combination of factors, says Pat Katepoo, founder of WorkOptions.com, which helps people restructure their jobs to fit non-standard schedules. “Careful consideration of your priorities in your personal, financial and professional life will help guide your choice of the best work option for you,” she says.
Experts advise spending some time thinking about what combination of the options will work best for you (see “Scheduling Options”) considering your family’s scheduling, transportation and benefits needs. Then, weigh these against the realities of your job. If you are a bank teller, you obviously cannot telecommute, but a compressed workweek might work. If you do much of your business on the telephone with people on the other side of the country, don’t ask for a part-time schedule that has you working when your clients are sleeping.
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Do Your Research: Know the Organization
Begin by gaining a thorough understanding of your employer’s policies, as well as its real-world culture. Experts recommend these research strategies:
• Review the employee manual. “Check for flexible work policies and review their provisions thoroughly,” Katepoo advises. If you want to reduce your hours, make sure you understand the implications for health insurance, paid vacation, retirement savings and other benefits.
• Read other company literature, such as annual reports. Katepoo recommends reading and quoting the company’s mission statement and other language used in these documents and in your proposal. Does the company state that it wants to be “an employer of choice?” Repeating this back “can be a powerful method for blocking objections or rejections,” she says. “Use their words to build your case.”
• Get a read on the culture. The reality of a company’s culture doesn’t always match its stated policies. To get a sense of the company’s attitude toward flexible work arrangements, talk to people who have successfully negotiated them. However, don’t assume that because no one has ever done it before, or your company is generally old-fashioned in tone, that you will be refused, or that the “no” will be definitive. “The world is full of groundbreakers who were the first to win a ‘yes’ from their companies,” Katepoo says.
• Know your negotiating position. The industry you are in, the kind of training you have and whether you are junior or senior in your company all contribute to how well you are positioned to make a request. In a slow economy, some employers react by trying to squeeze the most out of every employee, but others see the advantage of real cost-savings while keeping valued employees in place for better economic times.
When Graham began negotiating her part-time schedule, she found that retention was the deciding factor in her employer’s decision to grant her request. Her employer worried about the high cost of her benefits, which wouldn’t be reduced on a part-time schedule. “But the company had a history of losing well-trained employees and they needed to find a way to retain employees who were leaving because of family-related issues,” Graham says. “There is a huge cost associated with training people.”
• Know your supervisor. As important as company policies are, how your request will be perceived depends in large part on your supervisor’s attitude. Whomever the final decision lies with in your company, you will likely need to begin by winning your supervisor’s approval.
“The key to success – apart from the employer culture and policies – is the relationship with your immediate supervisor,” says Katepoo. “It’s important to make your pitch directly to that individual and to know what arguments are going to be compelling to him or her.”
Work-life experts suggest that you will have the most success if you have been with your company long enough to have a track record. If possible, lay the groundwork for negotiating a non-standard schedule long before you request it, Mason advises. “Make yourself indispensable,” she says. “Your chances are always better if you’ve done a great job.”
When Hope Kelley was pregnant with her first child, she made a case to her supervisor to return to work three days a week. “The fact that I knew my boss and the job very well were crucial,” she says. “He could trust that I would get my job done, regardless of the hours I was in the office, and that I knew what needed to be done with no supervision.”
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The Written Proposal
Experts emphasize the importance of submitting a written proposal to your supervisor. Changing your schedule is not something that you should bring up casually in the hall. They also stress that your written proposal should present a very detailed case for the schedule you are requesting.
“Think your case through,” advises Donna Klein, vice president of diversity and workplace effectiveness for Marriott International, an employer recognized for its commitment to work-life balance.
Your proposal should:
mso-bidi-font-weight: normal">Address the employer’s perspective. “Don’t hide the reason for the request,” says Klein, a nationally recognized authority on work-life issues. “If it is so you can take a class, pick up a child after school or drive a parent to physical therapy, say so.”
Make sure you write the proposal so that the “win” for the employer is clear. “Write the proposal to benefit the supervisor,” Mason advises. “Don’t ask for concessions or favors for yourself.”
Potential benefits to employers could include:
– reduced salary costs when you work part-time and eliminate low-value work. “If you can identify and eliminate 20 percent of your workload and are willing to take a 20 percent reduction in pay, the choice is pretty easy,” says Klein.
– improved productivity when you telecommute, due to fewer interruptions and eliminated commute time.
– better coverage during extended hours of certain days, when you work a compressed workweek.
– saved physical space when you and someone else share a desk and telecommute or work part-time on opposite days.
– savings on recruiting costs when the employer retains valued employees.
• Show how the work will get done. “Don’t just detail the benefits in a broad sense,” Mason says. “Detail how the work will get done.” This means restructuring your job on paper. Katepoo, who offers detailed exercises and blueprints for doing this at WorkOptions.com, says that this is a crucial step. “It’s best if you use job-specific descriptions related to your role to highlight your critical contributions. Don’t skimp on the details,” she says.
“Make a proposal about what the work schedule would be, what the compensation and benefits arrangement would be, and what flexibility you are willing to show in return for the employer’s flexibility with you,” Klein adds.
• Suggest a trial period. Experts recommend suggesting a trial period of three to six months, after which you and your supervisor can review the arrangement and make adjustments if needed.
• Be just a “proposal.” Be clear that you are open to your employer’s reactions to your suggestions. “Don’t ever imply that it is non-negotiable or that you are unwilling to negotiate,” says Klein. “The employer is more likely to respect you and your request if you are respectful to the needs of the employer.”
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Making It Work
Once you’ve landed your ideal schedule, making it work requires ongoing commitment.
“I wish I could say that when you reduce your work hours you immediately get ease, joy and peace of mind,” says DeGroot. “But the truth is, it isn’t suddenly easy. There will be days when work and life collide.”
To make it work:
• Do what you said you were going to do. “Don’t complain about how busy you are,” Klein advises. “The employee-employer relationship is a partnership. Don’t expect a new work arrangement to be an entitlement.”
• Have a plan for staying on top of things. This might mean being available by cell phone for emergencies or it might mean making a point of walking around and talking to people in the office to get a sense of what went on in your absence.
Beyond the logistics, going to a non-standard schedule can carry with it lifelong challenges. Missing out on promotions, choice assignments and earnings potential are still realities many non-standard workers have to grapple with over the course of their working lives.
“Professionally, I really lost out,” admits Kelley, describing how her three-day workweek changed her colleagues’ perception of her.
Yet, despite the challenges, many parents report satisfaction with flexible work arrangements because of what it gives them – time with their kids.
“I would not do it any differently,” Kelley concludes. “The time with my sons is essential.”
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More on Work & Family Balance:
More on Work & Family Balance:
Sarah Bennett-Astesano is national associate editor for United Parenting Publications and the mother of two boys, ages 6 and 4. She works three-quarter time.