• Wed, Nov 2 2011

Is Asking For Work Flexibility Career Suicide?

According to a new survey from More Magazine, 92% of women say they value workplace flexibility, but a third consider it career suicide to ask for more flexibility in their jobs. But does just asking about the possibility of a flexible schedule indicate to their employer that they are not willing to work as hard as their colleagues, their male colleagues and childless female colleagues, or that they expect special treatment?

According to a new survey from 85 Broads, a global women’s network, and Microsoft remote work is common among 85 Broads members, working half the week (2.8 days) away from the office on average. Additionally, nearly everyone would prefer a regular remote working schedule. While only a few (9%) would work remotely every day, the average number of days people would prefer to work remotely is 3.1. Flexible work arrangements can also reduce absences and company turnover which contributes to overall better production, according to a 2010 report from the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. It should also be noted that six of Forbes’ top female executives worked at companies ranked as most friendly to working moms by Working Mother.

However, according to some people in certain industries just asking is considered a sign of weakness. Roy Cohen, author of The Wall Street Professional’s Survival Guide: Success Secrets of a Career Coach:

“On Wall Street and at top law firms, asking for a flexible work schedule is  often a career “killer”…it can be the kiss of death. Even at firms like Goldman Sachs, which has historically been viewed as a desirable “mommy” friendly environment, when cuts are made women with “alternative” schedules  are often the most vulnerable. In addition, when it comes to determining  annual bonuses, the numbers are often based on visibility and time seen on  – and in – the job. In large part, it is due to the fact that women with  flex schedules are not present to engage in political jockeying. So…there  is truth to the statement: out of sight out of mind.”[tagbox tag="flexible work schedule"]

Andrea Ballard, HR Expert, said:

“Some of my clients in male-dominated fields (like software technology) have said a request for flexibility would definitely hurt their career. They said that when your co-workers are a group of 25 year old males who work almost around the clock there is not as much room for understanding.”

The flexibility stigma is alive and well, according to Cynthia Calvert, co-author of Flex Success: The
Lawyer’s Guide to Balanced Hours:

Women and men who work part-time or who telecommute often find that others view them as not as committed to their jobs, and also often find that they don’t get good assignments or are passed over for promotion.

But Calvert said some companies are starting to recognize the benefits of a flexible work schedule. In the last decade, flexible work has become much more acceptable and its impact on careers is lessening, she said.  More companies are taking steps to make flexibility part of their culture and there are an increasing number of employees who have worked flexible schedules successfully and are role models. Ballard noted that requesting flexibility is not just a women’s issue anymore. Research shows more men have work-family issues these days and are requesting flexibility, she said. And the millennial generation entering the workforce highly values their personal time outside the office. “They won’t see flexibly workplaces as a ‘perk’ – it will be a requirement for employment for them.”

But what is really the kiss of death is asking for a flexible schedule without having a strategy. Ballard said:

Asking for a flexible schedule without doing your homework and having a proposal could hurt a women’s career. The same would be true if you asked for a promotion without any pre-planning; it will simply show you aren’t serious and you lack adequate preparation. But in fields like accounting and law, where companies are determined to retain the best and the brightest, asking for a flexible schedule can show your commitment to the profession. You want to stay with the company, rather than walk away. Presenting a well-thought through proposal of how you will make the schedule work shows that you are serious and determined to make it work.

Elizabeth Lions, author of Recession Proof Yourself and an Executive Coach, said:

“It comes down to how much your boss trusts you. If there is a high level of trust and the leadership believes in performance vs clock performance, then you’ll be okay. Some leaders believe if you are physically there you are working, but if you aren’t, you aren’t working. This is clock watching performance. You can do crappy work for eight hours – but it doesn’t matter. They think if you are present, you are working. Other leaders are very goal focused, meaning if you get your work done, they don’t care if you do it in four hours or eight.”

She added that how long you have been at the company can also be a factor. If you have been with the company for five years, and need some flexibility and have been a strong performer, often an employer will grant this so not to lose the employee, she said.

Steve Lagerud, the director of professional opportunities at DePauw University  and workplace consultant had these tips for people looking into asking for a flexible strategy:

  •  Be clear about what flexible looks like. Make the suggestions behavioral, tangible, and realistic.
  • Engage your employer in the process of creating a flexible schedule.
  • Communicate with your work team what you are thinking about, how it will impact them and their work with you, and get feedback on how work will be done with a new schedule.
  • Suggest a trial run. Give enough time for it to succeed or to determine that it is not going to meet the needs of the employer and employee.
  • Keep the bottom line front and center. The end result should be better for the employee, employer, client or customer, and other employees.

He also had tips for employers on this subject:

  • Be clear about the deliverable work product you need from an employee.
  • Determine how the flexible schedule will impact other members of the work team.
  • Quantify how much time must be spent on site to make the schedule work.
  • Consider the overall culture of your workplace to determine of flexibility is a way of being or a special exception.
  • Communicate clearly with all the people involved to implement the new schedule.

Photo: Austin Adams/Shutterstock.com

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