July 07, 2021

How to ask for the flexibility you need at work

Much has been said about the moment in 2020 when work-from-home orders brought down the barriers between work and life. Suddenly, “the office” was mere steps away from the living room. On video calls, colleagues saw glimpses of each other’s homes, and kids made cameos. On the negative side of these changes, “work hours” bled ever further from “life hours,” and many people found themselves struggling to separate themselves from their work. On the positive side were two key realizations on the part of company leaders:

  1. “Leaving your personal life at the door” is a fallacy. (This became undeniable when the metaphorical door was down the hall from people’s bedrooms.)
  2. Many people can, will, and do stay remarkably productive and creative while working from home.

Flexibility in where, when, and how we work is normalized because global circumstances forced it to be. Still, old mindsets die hard, and your manager’s expectations may still default to the standard Monday-Friday 9-5. As a result, you’ll certainly find yourself in the position of asking for the flexibility you need. This isn’t a new concept — everyone’s needed to ask for a sick day, a work-from-home day, or a similar accommodation at one point or another. Still, the recent normalization of flexibility offers the perfect timing to refresh how you think about having this conversation.

When might you need flexibility?

Everyone needs to ask for flexibility at one time or another. For one, you have outside responsibilities demanding your energy and attention before, during, and after work hours. For parents, as one example, being stuck at a desk all day may not be feasible. Kids need to be fed, dressed, transported, and cared for, and some parents have more help than others to make it all happen.

And although the highly-structured workweek has some benefits, like ensuring that people are available to meet and collaborate, it’s fairly arbitrary. You might be more able to get your job done in the early morning or late evening, or with several short breaks.

Have the conversation.

Before you talk to your manager about needing more flexibility, be sure to understand these four steps.

Allow space.

No one likes to be put on the spot. If you’re planning to have a conversation with your manager about flexibility or accommodations, it’s helpful for all parties to give them a heads-up. (“At our next 1:1, I’d like to talk about how we can adjust my schedule so I can be the most productive.”)  When your manager can enter into the conversation with an idea of what’s coming, they’re more prepared to respond thoughtfully, rather than reacting in the moment.

Be specific.

“Flexibility” can mean a lot of different things, including when you work, where you work, and how you work. Take some time to think what you’re specifically asking for so you can give your manager a place to start from. Ask yourself what will make a difference for you. Depending on your needs, some flexible work arrangements you may want to consider are:

  • Telecommuting or remote work for all or part of the week.
  • Flexible timing, like starting and finishing your day an hour early.
  • A compressed week, such as one with four 10-hour days.
  • Restructuring deadlines and goals to allow for a more fluid workflow.
  • Designated times with no meetings.

Communicate the benefit.

Explain how additional flexibility benefits both you and your manager. Your manager has a vested interest in your ability to deliver and fulfill your potential. If the accommodation you’re asking for could be what you need to bring your best self to work and contribute even more fully, then it’s a win-win.

Discuss openly.

Be prepared to negotiate or advocate for yourself. Your manager may be bound by certain policies that don’t allow them to grant you exactly what you’re asking for and offer an alternative. For the sake of your working relationship, you may have to be willing to have a conversation about what is and isn’t possible, conditions under which the change can be made, or a “trial period” before the change is permanent. Still, you know best when it comes to what you need, what your limitations are, and under what conditions you can thrive. If you have a disability, be sure to brush up on your rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

One template you might use during this conversation is:

I’m committed to my work here, and the arrangement I’m asking for is what I need in order to continue doing it successfully while [caring for my own well-being / spending time with my family / something else].

Ultimately, there’s value in your manager just knowing that you have a circumstance requiring flexibility. Even if the conversation ends without a concrete next step, having this information can positively shape how your manager approaches your working relationship.

Build trust.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t end with a “yes” from your boss. Even if you’re getting work done, you still may have to be strategic about showing what you’re doing and why it matters. Raising your visibility at work is always important; it becomes even more prudent when you’re in a position of building trust. Some tips:

  • Share results often, tying them to larger company goals. Take opportunities to get others excited about your work.
  • Be generous with shout-outs for others. What goes around comes around..
  • Demonstrate expertise by weighing in where you’re able. Speaking up extemporaneously in meetings or in Slack threads may mean pushing past impostor syndrome, but if you feel you’re adding value and taking a collaborative approach, it’s a net positive.

You’ll also need to maintain boundaries around your flexible work arrangement. This includes giving the relevant information to stakeholders (for example, telling a peer that you’re rescheduling a standing meeting because it falls outside your working hours) and speaking up when those boundaries are violated.

Remember, asking for flexibility isn’t something to feel shame or guilt about. It’s about getting what you need to thrive at work, taking care of yourself, and having healthy boundaries.

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