Winning Support for Flexible Work

by Amy Gallo

Quick Takes

  • Ask yourself what you want to accomplish
  • Propose it as an experiment
  • Consult with your team
  • Highlight professional impact

Many working parents seek flexible work arrangements to accommodate lives that don’t mesh with being present in an office on a traditional schedule, five days a week. And research from Lotte Bailyn, MIT management professor and coauthor of Beyond Work-Family Balance, shows that when employees have the flexibility they need, they meet goals more easily, they’re absent or tardy less often, and their morale goes up. Yet not every company has an official policy or program for alternative arrangements—and not every manager is willing or equipped to provide them for members of their teams. This doesn’t mean you should give up on the idea of flextime if it would help you feel less harried, cut down a lengthy commute, be more present with your kids, or avoid burnout. It just means that the onus is on you to propose a plan that works for you, your boss, and your company. By focusing your proposal on the benefits research has shown and thoughtfully framing your request around them, you greatly increase your chances of getting approval for an alternative work arrangement.

Define What You Want

The first step is to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish. Is your goal to spend more time with family? Less time at the office? Or do you want to remove distractions so that you can focus on bigger, longer-term projects? Once you’re clear on your goal, decide how you can achieve it while still doing your job effectively. Options include having a compressed workweek, job sharing, working remotely, and taking a sabbatical. Of course, not every job is suited for a flexible arrangement. Before you make a proposal, think about the impact your wished-for scenario will have on your boss, your team, and your performance.

Next, investigate what policies, if any, your company has and whether there’s a precedent for flexibility. You won’t need to blaze a trail if one already exists.

Design It as an Experiment

Some managers will hesitate to approve a flexible work arrangement, especially if your organization lacks established protocols. Allay their fears by positioning your proposal as an experiment. “Include a trial period so your boss doesn’t worry that things will fall apart,” says Bailyn. “He or she needs to be able to see the new way of working.”

In his book Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, Stewart D. Friedman talks about nine types of experiments you can do to gently introduce flexibility—everything from working remotely to delegating. Whatever you propose, provide an out. Explain that if it doesn’t work, you’re willing to try a different arrangement or resume your former routine. “One can always go back to the original plan, but most such experiments work out very well,” says Bailyn.

Ask for Team Input

“Our research has shown that flexibility only works when it’s done collectively, not one-on-one between employee and employer,” says Bailyn. Your team is affected by your work schedule, so you need everyone’s support to make your new arrangement a success. Explain what you’re trying to achieve and ask for their input. “Engage them in the planning,” Bailyn says, and let your boss know that you’ve incorporated your colleagues’ suggestions into your proposal.

Involving your team can help head off another common concern: Some bosses worry that if they grant one person flexibility, the floodgates will open and everyone will want the same arrangement. This is often an unfounded fear. Friedman points out that there’s a difference between equality and equity, and, in fact, many people prefer a traditional schedule. “You don’t give every one the same thing because they don’t want the same thing,” he says.

Highlight the Benefits to the Organization

Emphasize the organizational benefits over the personal ones. “Whatever you try has to be designed very consciously to not just be about you or your family,” Friedman says. “Instead, have the clear goal of improving your performance at work and making your boss successful.” Demonstrate that you have considered the company’s needs, that your new arrangement will not be disruptive, and that it will actually have positive benefits, such as improving your productivity or increasing your relevant knowledge.

Reassess and Make Adjustments

Once your flexible work arrangement has been in place for three or four months, evaluate its success. Are you reaching your goals? Is the arrangement causing problems for anyone? Because you’ve designed it as a trial, you’ll want to report back to your boss. “Get the data to support your productivity. Show that it’s working,” says Friedman. And if it’s not, be prepared to suggest changes.

Adapted from content posted on hbr.org, December 1, 2010 (product #H006JJ).

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