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  5. Negotiating flexible working hours

How to negotiate flexible work arrangements

Working parents have many skills. The most obvious one is juggling. Managing a family and a career is not an easy balance, and flexibility is widely acknowledged to be the key. But what does it mean? Basically, any working arrangement that doesn’t require you to be in your workplace during core business hours, five days a week, is classified as flexible.

It may mean a job done in three days instead of five. It may mean you work from home one day a week and in the office four days. It may mean you’re contracted to work a set number of hours from home each week, in any configuration you choose.

For many working parents, an arrangement like any of those above would be Nirvana, allowing them the work life balance they can only dream of. But it is possible to negotiate such a situation for yourself. In fact, new government legislation means that you have the right to request flexible work arrangements if you are a parent or carer with children under five years of age, or under school age.

Note the wording. The right to request flexible work arrangements. It doesn’t mean your employer has to agree to your request, but he or she must consider it closely and respond in writing within 21 days with a yes or no answer.

“there are many reasons why you might receive a ‘no’ to flexible hours,” says Kate Sykes, director of careermums.com.au, a candidate board and careers centre or working parents. “They might be to do with the structure of your role, the business’s plans for the future. To give yourself the best possible chance to get the flexible work arrangements you want, it’s important to be prepared.”

Where do I start?

First of all, get your facts on flexibility straight. Be aware of any employment laws that deal with your situation. Visit www.fairwork.gov.au, which covers the national employment standards and check out the section on the right to request flexible work arrangements.

Next, ask your manager or employer for a flexible work policy. If they don’t have one, your request might encourage them to get one.

“then take a look at your job role right now and responsibly consider whether it can really be done within the hours or days that you want to do it in,” says Sykes. “It’s important to be rational and reasonable. It sends the wrong message to your employer if you just walk in and expect them to make it happen. Instead, you have to build a business plan and show them how it might work.”

To construct your business proposal, you need to ask yourself some questions. Here are some to get you started:
*Why do you need to work flexibly?
*What type of flexible work arrangement are you proposing – job share, part-time, work from home?
*What will the impact be on your job responsibilities and tasks?
*What will the impact be on customers and colleagues?
(For more questions, visit careermums.com.au/negotiatingflexibility)

“Think about all the issues your employer might bring up, and then walk them through it,” says Sykes. “It’s also a good idea to suggest a three-month trial period, to show your employer that you’re flexible too.”

What are employers looking for

Kylie Warry, a Rehabilitation Manager, and her business partner Vanessa Bell run Workable Solutions, a Sydney-based company providing Injury Prevention and Rehabilition services. They are both working mums and employ most of
their workforce on flexible hours contracts.

“It’s important to have a plan when negotiation flexible work arrangements,” says Warry. “Make it easier for your employer, who is probably thinking ‘why should we change when this is working fine for me?’.”

She also recommends that you have a strong idea of strengths and skills. “It never hurts to remind your boss how fabulous you are – and why they need you,” she says. “You need to have an honest look at yourself. If you can’t
see it yourself, ask a colleague to help you.”
Remember, too, that this is business. “An employer will ensure that their needs are taken care of – it’s up to you to make sure that your needs are covered to.”

In other words, nobody will hand you flexible work arrangements unless you put your hand up and ask for them.

When should I ask about flexibility?

Sykes suggests you at least raise the issue before you go on maternity leave. You may decide later that it’s not what you want to do, but at least the lines of communication will be open. “You need to start the conversation,” she says. “Let them know that you may want to consider different ways of returning to your job. Talk about it while you’re still in the workplace, so that you don’t have that last-minute angst when you’re on leave with the baby.”

She also recommends talking to other men and women who are working flexibly about how they went about organising their arrangements.

The cost of flexible work arrangements

Unless you negotiate an arrangement in which you work your standard 40 hours in fewer days, chances are that you will take a pay cut to work flexibly. “It comes back to simple maths,” says Sykes. “If you decide you only want to work three days a week and you’re on $100,000, then your wage is cut by $40,000. I strongly encourage that people know exactly where their finances are at before they begin.”

Factor in that if you’re not working, you’re not paying childcare on those days, nor incurring other regular costs such as transport and bought lunches. It’s also worth enquiring about how a change in your income may affect any Family Assistance payments.

Remember, too, that flexible now doesn’t have to mean flexible forever. “Keep a diary note of how things are going for the first 3-6 months,” suggests Sykes. “It will help you and your manager monitor the arrangement.”