Only a few decades ago, having a career while balancing personal commitments was an enormous challenge. The options were limited: secure a part-time position and find a way to make it work or don’t work at all.

These days, those wanting to combine work with parenthood or other significant personal commitments do have more choices – albeit they can sometimes be tricky to set up. Flexible working was on the radar of many forward-thinking organisations long before the word “pandemic” became part of our everyday vocabulary back in 2020. But this event has forced the issue for businesses globally. The benefits – for businesses and employees – are clear. Flexible working offers a practical solution for employees who want to manage work and family life without sacrificing the quality and longevity of either.

So, what are the options for those who want to pursue flexible work?

This article will cover the various kinds of flexible work on offer, the key things to think about concerning which possibility might work for you, and how to approach your employer to ask for it.

Flexible Working: What It Could Look Like

Flexible work, or hybrid work, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. The definition may look different from business to business or even role to role. You and your family’s needs are unique; therefore, the ideal flexible working description for you will not necessarily be the same as for someone else within your organisation or elsewhere.

Naturally, not all industries or businesses can accommodate the same flexible working roles either. But there are plenty of variations that you and your manager/employer can consider, such as:

Part-time working – an organisation contracts with an employee to work fewer than the typical full-time hours.

Term-time working – an employee works regular hours during the school term but can take leave (paid or unpaid) during school holidays.

Job-sharing – like part-time roles, only two (or more) people share a single position, splitting the hours between them.

Flextime – employees can choose when to start and end work – within specific parameters.

Compressed hours – the same number of hours are worked in a week or fortnight but compresses these hours into longer days, i.e., four ten-hour days instead of five eight-hour days.

Annual hours – the total hours worked in a year are set, but the employee can choose (within parameters) the length of the working day or week.

Remote work – an employee works some (or all) of their hours outside of the workplace (from home or an agreed-upon location).

Career breaks – also known as sabbaticals, allow an employee to take extended leave periods (usually without pay).

Commissioned outcomes – an employee doesn’t have fixed hours but output targets (goals and milestones).

Zero-hours contracts – an employee has no guaranteed hours, and their employer can call them to work as and when needed.

Flexible working arrangements can resemble those from the list above, be a combination of them, or be entirely different, depending on what you and your employer agree upon together. Agreements can be formal or informal.

COVID-19 and Flexible Working

Few businesses on the planet, if any, have remained unchanged by COVID-19. For example, around 20 million people worked from home in the UK during the height of lockdown compared to pre-COVID times when only 1.7 million UK employees classified as home workers.

How has your organisation responded? Many had little choice other than introducing remote hybrid work/flexible work models to allow employees to keep working while supporting social distancing and following lockdown rules.

Has your employer been supportive of staff’s adjustments to cope with the changes to their work routine? What has been successful, and what has been a struggle? Have they offered support to employees forced to manage homeschooling without childcare provision with an at-home job?

Suppose the transition to flexible working brought about by the pandemic has been a positive one. In that case, the chances are that the business will be more open to discussing a flexible schedule long-term. If it has been a bumpy ride, you may need to address some of the issues that came up during the pandemic first.

Either way, there has never been a better time to address the subject and find a way to make the flexible work model work for you and your employer.

What Kind of Flexible Work is Right for Me?

Before approaching your manager, you should have a clear idea of precisely what kind of flexible working arrangement you are looking to arrange. Give thought to those outlined above and tie them in with your personal needs. Asking yourself the following questions can help give clarity:

  1. What is the reason you want or need flexible working? The most common cause is childcare, but it could be for assorted reasons, including care for elderly parents or the pursuit of outside interests.
  2. What, specifically, are the commitments you need to accommodate?
  3. If the reason is childcare, are you co-parenting and both seeking to adjust, or have you agreed that one of you seeks more flexibility? Have you discussed how this might work in practice? Take a look here for advice on getting childcare right.
  4. What will you need to be in place to enable you to perform your work to a high standard?
  5. What’s your ideal arrangement – and why is this ideal for you?
  6. What’s your non-negotiable – and where can you compromise?
  7. Do you need to make material changes to the responsibilities of the role? If so, how would this work in practice

Perhaps there are other employees in the organisation working in flexible roles that you’d like to emulate. A chat with them can help you understand if a similar arrangement will work for you. It’s important to hear about the downsides as well as the benefits.

Know Your Rights

Your rights will differ depending on your jurisdiction. For example, the UK Government introduced the “right to request flexible working” legislation in 2003. At the time, this was aimed more towards parents and caregivers. Now, the legislation includes any employee with at least 26 weeks of continuous employment, whether they have parental or caring responsibilities or not.

Currently, the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) is lobbying for this right to be extended to employees with less than 26 weeks’ service.

In the UK, all employers must consider a request reasonably. They are not obliged to grant it; however, they must show that specific grounds apply if they refuse it.

You can find more information about the legality of flexible work and your rights here. If outside of the UK, we encourage you to check out the legislation in your part of the world.

How to Ask Your Employer About Flexible Working

If you seek a flexible work arrangement, you have decided that there are plenty of benefits for you. But you will need more than a list of personal pros before you approach your manager.

Putting together some compelling evidence of how the arrangement can help the business, the team, and your manager will help frame the request correctly.

While a more flexible role may make aspects of life better in some ways, it will come with associated challenges. Spend time considering what these might be and how you and your manager could address some of these drawbacks.

When talking about the positive aspects of flexible working, try to show how they will help the business and you.

For many, the biggest attraction is the work/life balance afforded to us by a less rigid work arrangement. Your employer’s benefits are that you will be less stressed, more energised, and able to focus better. It will increase your productivity and reduce the amount of time-off you may need due to burnout or illness.

Questions to Consider When Building Your Case

Here are a few more questions to consider to help you put together a case for your manager:

  • What aspects of the job would we need to manage differently?
  • What might go wrong, and how can we avoid this?
  • How will it affect the wider team?
  • How will it affect your manager?
  • How can we keep a positive team culture?
  • What IT support will be needed?
  • How can we keep boundaries?
  • How can we keep communication flowing?

How to Have the Conversation

Depending upon your relationship with your manager, you may feel comfortable chatting informally with them as you start to formulate the flexible working approach that you think you want to take. Where you have a high degree of openness and trust, involving them in this way can help you explore and reach an agreed solution with ease. For others, you may need to contact HR first. In any event, before you approach your manager, check if your company has a flex policy and what it involves. Do some research into your rights and find out if it’s already happening within the company.

Schedule a time to talk to your manager about your proposal. It helps to have everything in writing so you can refer to it during the meeting.

It might help to present a few different options rather than an all or nothing approach. Your manager will need to have a thorough understanding of how it works and have input into the feasibility of moving forward.

Remember to stay focused on the employer’s benefits, not just on how it will make your life easier. Supply specific examples of how a flexible schedule can help the company.

Could you put it on paper? Some things can get lost in translation, so present the gist of what you’re proposing in writing, so your manager has time to go through the details later.

The world is changing rapidly and the 9-5 workday is becoming obsolete – the pandemic just sped up the process. Technology has changed the work landscape, allowing people to work in more diverse ways and places than before. Having flexible working aspirations no longer means sacrificing career aspirations. If you think flexible working can help you and your employer, don’t be shy about pushing the process along; the rest of the workforce may not be far behind you!