How to ask for flexible work
Submitting a flexible work request can be incredibly daunting. Particularly as it’s likely to follow a significant life changing event, such as having children, so you may not be feeling one hundred per cent yourself. I have done this on more than one occasion after giving birth and felt barely able to have a conversation, never mind argue with my boss about why I should only be in the office for half the time I used to be. So, here are my top tips on how to ask for flexible working – confidently – and hopefully get what you want…
Don’t commit before you are ready
Before going on maternity leave, or any other leave, don’t commit to anything! If you are drawn into a conversation on future working arrangements, only ever talk outlines based on how you are currently feeling. Stress that this may change. Commit to nothing more than a milestone such as ‘I’ll check in 3 months after I’ve had the baby’. Even then you don’t have to. Specifically in relation to maternity and adoption leave, you have the right to return to your existing job if you take up to 26 weeks of maternity leave. If you take the full 12 months you are entitled to return to a similar role. Read more here for advice from ACAS.
Work out what you want to do
We would all love our work hours to halve and our salaries to double but sadly, most businesses cannot and will not support this (if you do find one then let us know!). So it’s down to you to figure out what you want and what you can afford.
I suggest starting with a good old piece of paper with two columns – ‘must have’ and ‘nice to have.’ Next comes the financials – what can you afford and for how long? Figure out If the change in your life means you are dependent on other people such as carers or nurseries, make sure you speak to them about cost, availability and hours. There’s no point asking for Friday’s off if it’s the only day your carer is available. And there’s no point halving your salary if you also have to pay for carers or nursery. That stuff is expensive, so do your numbers!
Consider all types of flexible working
Make sure you consider all the different types – homeworking, job sharing, flexitime, part time – and don’t get too wed to your wants ahead of submitting your request. Remember that you need to be flexible too. This is a two way conversation and if you can demonstrate flexibility you are far more likely to end up with a positive result.
Work out what they want
Speak to your HR team if there is one and find out what your company’s flexible working policies are and whether there are people already using flexible working practices. Find out what their process is – do they need to see the request in writing? When? How long will they take to respond?
Understand all the tools available to you – do they offer phase back (a staggered return to work during which you gradually increase your hours) for example? How do trial periods work?
Finally find out whether anything has changed while you have been off that may help or hinder your request. It might be a good idea to use a keep-in-touch day to see it first hand. Even if you don’t feel like it, keeping in touch is important if you want to remain front of mind.
Know what you need to do legally
Whilst it might not matter now, whether you have followed the required process could matter a lot if your request or relationship goes sour. Being victim to something without being able to seek justice because you didn’t follow a process is the worst feeling. So do it properly. It’s not that complicated – submit your request in writing, state when and why you are requesting it and include a good business justification. Double check you have met the legal requirements with ACAS and if your request is due to maternity leave, then Pregnant Then Screwed is an amazing organisation to consult with for help.
How to ask for flexible working in writing
Now you know what you want and what you need to do legally, write your request.
- Start with the basics – name, employee reference, date, current conditions, the change requested and when you would like the change to take effect
- Build a case and say why you need this. Whether you’re asking because you need to care for your Mum more, or because you now have three different school runs to fit in, be personable and explain the situation well. Outline what cannot be changed (e.g. school hours) and what you can be more flexible on (e.g. days of the week).
- Detail why your request makes sense. What are the positives? Will it make you a better or more productive employee?
- Think about your request from your company’s perspective. Why is this good for them? How will they benefit? What issues does it cause them and how could they overcome them?
- If you have a team, how will you support them? What will they do when you’re not there? Is there anyone you can upskill to help when you’re not around? Will this benefit succession planning in the long term?
Once it’s written down, read it, read it and read it again. On different days of the week at varying degrees of tiredness. Before you send it, ask an intelligent and eloquent friend to read it for you too.
Timing is everything
The timing of your request is critical. Whatever life change you have experienced, you need to be ready for a potentially tough conversation. Before I went on my first maternity leave I was insistent that I only wanted a couple of months off and I didn’t want anyone covering my job. I thought I would be bored and desperate to get back within weeks. I wasn’t. I severely under-estimated motherhood in general! It couldn’t be learnt from a book and was physically, emotionally and mentally draining. I needed at least a year to try and get to grips with it. You may be like me and still feel like you have been run over by multiple buses 6 months on, or you may be like my friend who ran the Great South Run ten days after giving birth. Just don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself and give yourself the headspace you need to start feeling yourself again. You don’t have to let your work know straight away.
When you’re ready to send your flexible work request in, be prepared for a conversation to follow fairly quickly afterwards. There doesn’t have to be a conversation but ACAS recommend this as best practice.
Prepare for all outcomes
When my boss and I organised a call to discuss my request a few months after I had my first daughter, I simply wasn’t prepared. When things didn’t go as I thought they would, I was devastated and cried with the phone on mute. I couldn’t think straight or defend myself because I hadn’t slept or had an adult conversation for a while, never mind a challenging one where I needed to construct an argument. It left me feeling hugely upset and even more confused about life than I was when I started. Don’t do this to yourself!
Whilst you should maintain a positive attitude, you need to consider what will happen if your request is refused or circumstances have changed. Again, don’t be forced into making any decisions. Hear what your employer has to say and if needs be, request some time to think about things and arrange a follow-up meeting.
Know your legal obligations
Know what your employer can and cannot do. You don’t need to put these in your written request but it’s important to know these ahead of any conversations. Don’t be put off or intimidated by them, but do know them. If you need to talk to someone there are lots of organisations out there that can give you advice – ACAS, Citizens Advice and Pregnant Then Screwed to name a few. You need to be aware of what is and is not acceptable and be prepared to defend yourself if these are challenged.
Put your Super Hero pants on and own that meeting
When it comes to “the conversation” be prepared for a tough one. It would be lovely if “what suits you?” was the mantra of all employers but sadly, it isn’t – so you need to think about practicalities that ensure you are in the best possible position you can be for when that meeting takes place. These tips are most relevant to a new parent, but may be applied in other circumstances too:
- Arrange to be away from your baby where you can’t hear them crying. Any new mother will tell you that when that baby makes a noise, that’s all you can hear!
- Is there an emerging pattern that means your baby is often asleep at a particular time? Can your Mum / partner / sister or friend take your baby out for a walk? Half an hour won’t hurt them and you need to concentrate.
- If a face to face meeting isn’t vital, do a phone call not a video call. Remember that if they can’t see you they don’t know that you haven’t slept for 72 hours, have baby sick in your hair and are still wearing yesterdays’ clothes.
- Take notes or, even better, record the conversation. This is imperative if you later need to recall the details. If you can’t do it on the call, do it immediately afterwards before you go back to your baby and while you are still in the work frame of mind.
- Finally, during the conversation don’t commit to anything and don’t make promises. Take your time. It’s OK to take something away and think about it. I know so many women who have been caught off guard and agreed to something they’re not happy with. Or aren’t told about something like phase back which could have changed their life. This is a big decision for you and your family and it deserves to be given the appropriate time and thought. Don’t be pressured into making a decision you will later regret.
Act quickly on the outcome
If it’s positive, get it in writing! Don’t go along with a verbal agreement that isn’t captured formally in case it all goes wrong. Again, you have rights. If it’s negative, you will need to appeal and potentially engage ACAS. The timelines are incredibly stringent so it’s important you act quickly. Do your research and find out the next steps. Don’t let this go just because you are having a bad day or are tired. And definitely don’t procrastinate, these things take time and you may have more letters to write.
Stay positive and don’t be afraid to ask for help
No one ever said that getting the things we want was easy but it can be done. Remember that you are legally entitled to submit a flexible work request and it is increasingly common. Seek help where you need it and don’t be afraid.
Good luck soldier!