How to Negotiate a Flexible Work Schedule

To get your boss to agree to such an arrangement, your proposal should spell out exactly how the arrangement will work, the value it will bring to your employer, and how your performance will be measured.

Whether you are a working parent stressed out from balancing the conflicting demands of work and family, a young professional who'd rather hang out with friends than put in overtime or a baby boomer who's not quite ready for full-time retirement, a more flexible work arrangement can give you the time you need to manage and enjoy your personal life and achieve that ever-elusive goal of work-life balance.

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While today's competitive corporate landscape puts tremendous pressure on professionals to work long days, more and more companies are waking up to the fact that 50-plus-hour workweeks lead to burnout. They're also beginning to see the benefits of offering their employees flexible work arrangements, such as part-time work, job sharing, telecommuting, compressed workweeks (full-time work in fewer days each week) and flexible schedules. According to the National Study of Employers, more than 68 percent of organizations offer at least some of their employees the option to work an alternate schedule. Companies that embrace job flexibility, such as Best Buy, McGraw-Hill, Cisco and Deloitte, witness higher productivity rates and lower employee turnover.

Best Buy's corporate headquarters has implemented what might be considered the ultimate flexible work environment, an initiative it calls the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), and it is paying off for the company. With ROWE, employees work when and where they want, and all meetings are optional. Departments that have implemented ROWE have seen up to a 35 percent increase in productivity and up to a 90 percent reduction in turnover, according to a report in the June 2007 issue of HR Magazine.

HRFocus reported in February 2007 that 91 percent of McGraw-Hill employees who have flexible work arrangements say that those arrangements have a positive impact on their productivity. Cisco's tele-work program resulted in $195 million in increased productivity, according to research conducted by Boston College's Sloan Work and Family Research Network. And Deloitte estimates it has saved $41.5 million in turnover costs since implementing flexible work options, according to Corporate Voices for Working Families.

Unfortunately, not all companies are as progressive as Best Buy, McGraw-Hill, Cisco and Deloitte when it comes to telecommuting, job sharing and compressed schedules. Flexible work arrangements are even harder for IT professionals to negotiate due to the nature of their work. After all, when the network goes down at 2 a.m., someone has to get it back up. And when a customer-facing system needs to be updated, the pressure on developers, testers and project managers to finish the enhancements on time and under budget often requires them to put in crazy hours.

If your company doesn't offer flexible work options, don't let that stop you from requesting it. You could be the first to forge a flexible work arrangement at your company, but you won't get anything unless you ask. You'll increase your chances of getting what you want if you heed the following advice on how to negotiate a flexible work arrangement and what to include in your proposal.

The Elements of a Winning Proposal

The best approach to take when asking your boss for a more flexible work arrangement is to keep your company's interests in mind. Think about how your request could benefit your company. Could your altered schedule or work arrangement be a solution to a problem your company is facing? For example, could reducing your hours help cut costs in a department facing budget constraints? Could shifting your schedule so that you come in earlier or stay later than usual allow your company to extend the hours that it provides service to clients? Could working from home help free up space in a growing company with a shortage of offices? Could allowing someone else to take over some of your responsibilities provide a developmental opportunity to a less experienced coworker? These are just a few examples; many possibilities exist.

Once you've built a business case for flexibility, you need to put your proposal in writing. A well-written proposal should spell out exactly how the arrangement will work, how you will succeed in the arrangement and thus should answer any concerns your boss may have. Your proposal should include the following key components:

  • Your proposed arrangement. Provide an outline of the work arrangement you want. Note which days and/or hours you will work and whether any of that work will be completed at home. You should also indicate how you will complete your work in this arrangement and describe your plan for transitioning work to others if necessary. For example, you may need to plan on spending some time with a transitioning client or colleague to acquaint them with their new contact.

  • Contingency plans. You need to address how you will manage any fluctuations in your workload. For example, if your company has a sudden increase in business, you need to explain how you will adjust your new schedule accordingly. Also indicate how you will accommodate any meetings or other events that occur on the days you work from home or on days when you are off.

  • Compensation. If you plan to continue in a full-time position, indicate no changes in your pay or benefits. If applicable, you should note any change in the structure of your paid time off allowance. For example, if you move to a compressed work week where you are only working four days each week, your ten-day vacation allowance would become an eight-day vacation allowance. If you request a reduction in your hours, you need to address your suggested changes in pay, benefits and paid time off allowances. When cutting your hours, your pay and benefit allowances should be adjusted proportionally. For instance, if you are moving from a 40-hour workweek to a 30-hour workweek, your pay should only be reduced by 25 percent.

  • Company's gain. Highlight your research on how this arrangement will benefit your company. Don't hesitate to point out that your productivity will increase as a result of being less stressed, having more control over when and how you do your work and from being more committed to the company. If you're a highly valued worker, note that too.

  • Support resources. List any support or resources you'll need to work in this new environment, such as network access from your home or additional administrative support in the office to address daily matters such as incoming mail.

  • Trial period. Recommend a trial period to test the new arrangement. A trial period will help assure your employer that you will do what it takes to make the arrangement work. Further, it will indicate your willingness to change if the arrangement doesn't initially work.

  • Evaluation. Indicate how you will determine if the arrangement works. Will you look at productivity reports? Will both you and your boss sit down and discuss it? When? Will you collect responses from your customers and/or coworkers?

A well-thought out proposal will receive more serious consideration than a desperate request for a change. Present your proposal in person to your boss when the timing is right. While there is no perfect time, you should avoid approaching your boss when she's facing an important deadline or another source of stress. Also, you don't want to ask your boss about a flexible work schedule after she's announced a shortage of staff for an upcoming project.

Assess Your Boss's Response

Prepare yourself for a lukewarm response to your proposal. Very rarely will a manager quickly accept all of the terms of a request for an alternate work arrangement.

More often, a manager may be open to granting your request but will have some reservations. At this point, you must take the lead in easing her concerns. For example, if your boss is worried that you won't be able to meet your clients' needs, remind her of the trial period during which you and your boss can collect feedback from clients on your quality of service and availability.

If you are the first to request a flexible schedule, your boss may be concerned that others will want a similar arrangement. She may worry that if she lets you work from home, she'll have to let everyone work from home, or that she'll be put in the uncomfortable position of having to say no to others who might ask for the same privilege. This is a fair concern as your request may indeed spark other people's interests in an alternate schedule. If this is the case, remind your boss of the promised pay-off of flexible work. If your arrangement does indeed work out, offering flexibility to others could help your boss improve the overall productivity of her department, which makes her look good.

Keep in mind that supervising flexible workers is a challenge for most managers. Managers are paid to manage people and become uncomfortable if they cannot see their employees working. Therefore, it is important to emphasize how your performance will be measured in this new arrangement. Let your boss know what you will be accountable for accomplishing and how she will know you are getting your job done.

Other common concerns include the quality and quantity of the work you will provide in your new arrangement. Think creatively of any alternative you can offer to help alleviate this roadblock. For example, if you request a part-time schedule, can you work an extra day at home to cover some of your responsibilities? If you want to work a compressed schedule, can you be on-call on your day off? Whatever you propose, be cautious with what you promise. If you believe an offer of being on-call will turn into working all day on your off day, then hold off on such a suggestion. To ensure that you don't get in over your head, make sure your boss is open to regular check-ins when she and you evaluate whether the new arrangement is working.

If your boss responds with a flat out no to your proposal, don't give up. This is just the beginning of the negotiation process. Find out exactly what she is hung up on. Is it the number of hours you want to work? Is it your proposed work coverage? Does she think you won't be committed to your job? Is she worried about the management challenges? Find out what further information you need to provide by identifying the weaknesses in your request. Also consider what else you can offer in your negotiation process that would benefit the company. For example, if you receive bonuses from your company, offer to take time off instead of the cash. Maybe you can take on a responsibility that no one else wants if your boss grants your request.

If after repeated attempts to sway your boss you still get a no, consider scaling back your request to just a small change in your schedule. For example, if you want to work at home a few days each week, ask your boss if you could just try a few hours one day a week. After a trial period during which you have demonstrated that your work quality and quantity hasn't been affected, you can try to negotiate for more.

You may also want to consider aligning yourself with others who want flexibility. A group appeal may carry more weight than your individual one. Or, you can ask for help from an ally in your company. Is there someone higher up in the organization who can help you work with your boss? Do you have a good relationship with a former boss or a boss's peer who might be able to help you? Is there a human resources representative who can support you?

It will take some work but, in most cases, a well-thought out and negotiated flexible work arrangement will be given serious consideration. However, if you really need the flexibility and your boss won't allow it, you may need to look for a new position within your company or at a new company. Flexible work arrangements will become more commonplace when managers and companies realize that they must provide flexibility in order to attract and retain talented professionals and as more and more valuable employees like yourself begin making good business cases for flexible work.

Dr. Lori K. Long is the author of The Parent's Guide to Family Friendly Work (Career Press, 2007), a career-planning guide for parents. She is the President of LK Consulting and is also an adjunct professor of management at Baldwin Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. With more than 15 years of human resource management and career counseling experience, she provides realistic advice on how to create a work arrangement that works with your family.

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