by Amy Gallo
Management experts have long predicted the demise of the standard 9-to-5 workday. Thanks to internet and mobile technology, we can now work where and when we want, they argue. So, why are so many people still sticking to those traditional hours, or more likely an extended version of them? The reality is that while flexible work arrangements have become more popular, few companies have an official policy or program. And even fewer managers are open to or equipped to handle employees with alternative schedules. But this doesn’t mean you should give up on the idea of work flexibility. It just means the onus is on you to propose a plan that works for you, your boss and your company.
What the Experts Say
Before you pursue a flexible schedule, recognize that you are likely to be bucking long-held conventions. “Traditionally, managers were reluctant to have people work remotely because of lack of trust: Are you really working or are you eating bonbons with your friend?” explains Stewart D. Friedman, professor of management at the Wharton School and the founding director of the Wharton School’s Leadership Program and Wharton’s Work/Life Integration Project. Even those bosses who trust their employees worry about appearing to favor certain people or allowing productivity to decline.
Still, more managers and organizations are seeing the benefits of non-traditional schedules. Research from Lotte Bailyn, professor of management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and co-author of Beyond Work-Family Balance: Advancing Gender Equity and Workplace Performance has shown that when people are given the flexibility they need, they meet goals more easily, they’re absent or tardy less often, and their morale goes up. By focusing on these upsides and framing your request correctly, 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 are trying to accomplish. Is your goal to spend more time with family? Reduce the amount of time you spend at the office? Or do you want to remove distractions in order to be able to focus on bigger, more long-term projects? Once you’re clear on your goal, decide what arrangement will best help you achieve it — options include a compressed work week, a job share, reduced hours, working from home, taking a month-long sabbatical, even something as simple as turning off your Blackberry in the evenings — and consider whether you could still do your job effectively. Of course, not every job is suited for flexibility. Before you make a proposal, be sure to understand the impact your wished-for schedule will have on your boss, your team and your performance.
Next, investigate what policies, if any, your company has and whether there is a precedent for flexibility; there’s no need to blaze a trail that’s already been blazed. If your company doesn’t have a formal policy, you’ll need to create a proposal yourself.
Design it as an experiment
Many managers will be hesitant especially if your organization does not have established protocols. You can allay their fears by positioning your proposal as an experiment. “Include a trial period so that the boss doesn’t worry that things will fall apart. He or she needs to be able to see the new way of working, and, in our experience, it quickly becomes evident that it is superior,” says Bailyn. In Friedman’s book, Total Leadership: Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life, he talks about nine different types of experiments — everything from working remotely to delegating — you can use to gently introduce flexibility into your work life. Most importantly, provide an out for you and your boss. Explain that if it doesn’t work, you are willing to try a different arrangement or go back to the way things were. “If things go wrong, one can always go back to the original plan, but most such experiments work out very well,” says Bailyn.
Ask for team input and support
“Lots of our research has shown that flexibility only works when it’s done collectively, not one-on-one between employee and employer,” says Bailyn. Remember that your team — peers and direct reports — is affected by your work schedule, so you need everyone’s support to make your new arrangement a success. Explain what you are trying to achieve and ask for their input. “Engage them in the planning and proposal,” Bailyn says, and be sure to let your boss know that your proposal includes your colleagues’ suggestions.
Involving your team can help head off another common concern of bosses. Some 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 everyone the same thing because they don’t want they same thing,” he says.
Highlight the benefits to the organization
Your proposal needs to 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 what you propose needs to 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 schedule 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 experiment has been in place three or four months, evaluate its success. Are you reaching your goals? Is the schedule causing problems for anyone? Because you’ve designed the arrangement as a trial, you will 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 adjustments.
Principles to Remember
- Know what you are trying to accomplish with flexibility before proposing an alternative schedule.
- Acknowledge the impact your arrangement will have on your boss, your team, and your productivity.
- Start with an experiment, and be open to adjustments if it doesn’t work out.
- Focus exclusively on the benefits to you and your family.
- Assume your team will be behind you; you must incorporate their input and suggestions.
- Propose anything as a permanent solution without testing it first.
Case Study #1: Creating a unique job share
Julie Rocco was working as a program manager at Ford Motor Co when had she her first baby. She knew she wanted to return after her maternity leave but she didn’t see how she could work a 12-hour-a-day job and also be a hands-on mom. So she asked a mentor at Ford for advice. The answer was simple: take advantage of the company’s commitment to flexible work by crafting a job that suited her. The mentor suggested she talk to another Julie at Ford, Julie Levine, about job-sharing. Levine, a mother of two, had shared a job before and wanted to try it again, not least because it would give her an opportunity to move into mainstream project development.
“It’s very much like picking a spouse,” Levine says of choosing the right job-share partner. “That person is your eyes and ears when you’re not there.” After checking each other out in what they now refer to as “a blind date,” they agreed to pitch themselves as a pair to Ford’s management. The plan was this: Each would work three days a week overlapping one day — Rocco on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; Levine on Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. They deliberately opted against splitting the week in half in order to avoid “losing momentum” during long stretches away. Each evening, save Wednesday, the person who’d been in the office would spend an hour and a half on the phone “downloading” the day’s events to the one who’d been home. And on their days in common, they would either work together or, when things were exceptionally busy, divide and conquer. “It’s our job to be seamless,” they told their bosses. “We have the same outlook, the same goal, the same vision, the same work ethic. And you’ll get more from us than one person could give.”
“We said we would be a pilot,” Levine recalls. Not only did Ford’s management agree, they put the duo in charge of one of their most high-profile 2011 launches — the new Ford Explorer. The experiment was a success: they’re now known throughout the company as “the two Julies,” twin dynamos.
Both say the job share has made them happier at home and work, and also more effective. “One person might work a 12-hour day, go home and collapse, then have to do it all again the next day,” Levine explains. With us, “because you have to analyze your day and share it with another brain, you show up the next day you’re in ready to run.”
Case Study #2: Taking time off for personal development
Amit Desai had been working at Bayer Healthcare for 11 years when he decided he wanted to apply to Wharton’s top-rated executive MBA program. However, his enrollment would mean attending a full day of school on Friday every other week and on an occasional Thursday for two years — more than 60 days away from his job as an automation project manager.
While Bayer has official policies on telecommuting and flex-time, special requests like Amit’s are decided on a case-by-case basis and so he was told to make a formal proposal. He started by looking into a similar request a previous employee had made and talking to his boss, who supported the plan with one stipulation: if a conflict ever arose, Amit would give priority to work over school. Amit agreed and created a pitch, including a detailed explanation of the MBA program and his goals in applying, a calendar of days he would be in school and how they tied into his work schedule, and a list of benefits to Bayer. “I have the ability to apply knowledge gained at school over the weekend to work on Monday,” he told them. The VP approved his request and wrote a letter endorsing his Wharton application.
Amit is now in his fifth semester. “I honestly feel that the MBA challenge has rejuvenated me and I am more energized [at work],” he says.
Case Study #3: Setting the precedent
Like many young parents, Hope O’Reilly and her husband, Troy, were shocked to discover how prohibitively expensive full-time childcare was, especially in New York City. After having their first child, Hope wanted to return to her job as director of development at the American Craft Council, but she and Troy weren’t sure how they could swing it financially. Toward the end of her maternity leave, the couple came up with a plan that would allow them both to continue working full-time while reducing their need for childcare: both would work from home one day a week, so they would only need a sitter on three days. They would be available for calls and meetings at most hours, work while the baby napped and make up for any missed time on their four days in the office.
Troy was a vice president in technology at JP Morgan Chase, and because the bank had flexible work policies in place, he was able to get approval to work from home most Mondays rather easily. Hope asked her boss at the ACC if she could work from home on Fridays, but faced a bigger challenge since no one at the organization had done that before. “There was absolutely no precedent,” she says. Her boss was concerned about whether the mother of a newborn could really work at home, but Hope reassured her she could and promised to put in extra hours on nights and weekends. She acknowledged that it would be challenging and suggested they try the arrangement for three months, after which they could re-evaluate.
Hope stayed in the job, working from home on Fridays, for two years before moving on to the Bogliasco Foundation, where she has a similar arrangement working a compressed workweek. She believes that flexibility garners loyalty in employees. “When you have flexibility, you let a lot of other things slide, such as not getting raises. What’s more valuable than time?” she says.
See original article here.