Work flexibility can seem like a fairytale—with a happy ending for only a lucky few. It really does exist in large scale ways at some big, progressive companies. It can also be found in smaller-scale, sometimes under-the-radar ways at many companies of every other size.
This is a note I received from one woman who feels that flexibility is elusive at best:
“…I’m based in PA and I’m a marketing professional and married mom of two daughters…I’m in the middle of leaving a company due to a lack of flexibility after only having been here for 8 months. I have always remained at all of my past employers for at least five years. This is after a successful 16-year career in marketing, including making it to the VP level at a high-growth start up that went public. As an intelligent professional with an Ivy League degree, I would hope that I would be valued for smarts just as much as face time. Sadly, the world doesn’t work that way and I have seen many a mediocre employee get by on face time alone.
Do you offer guidance to women like me who are planning to take a partial break from the workforce to perhaps do some consulting work on the side, but would like to find a way to stay in? You mention several companies that are flexible and progressive. I worked for one, but then senior leadership changed and progressive leaders were replaced with veterans with an antiquated mentality. I was a VP at this company, went to 4 days a week after the birth of a second daughter after trying full-time post-maternity leave, and my commitment was questioned almost daily. I was also denied a raise for being “part-time,” even though I was a senior leader. True flexibility and progressive thinking seems to be missing or fleeting, even at some smaller companies—where can I find it in Pennsylvania?
For women who are running up against similar flexibility roadblocks, keep these five tips in mind:
CONSULT LISTS OF FLEXIBLE COMPANIES THROUGHOUT THE U.S. OR IN YOUR LOCAL AREA: There is no master list of companies that offer flexibility in any state or nationwide. Those featured on the Working Mother “100 Best Companies” list are a good start—you can be sure that these companies have at least one significant initiative that helps working mothers (and probably fathers, too). Then there is the FlexJobs “Flexible Fortune 500 Jobs – Best Companies List” which has some overlap with the Working Mother list. On a day-to-day basis FlexJobs also lists flexible jobs at thousands of companies nationwide.
The Fairygodboss Work-Life Balance Guide is a crowd-sourced database that gives women insider perspectives on employers who have part-time or telecommuting jobs, compressed workweeks, allowances for some work-from-home days, or flexible workday start and end times. Women who review their jobs on the Fairygodboss site rate their employer’s flexibility culture and policies, and half the employers are rated as somewhat or very flexible. Encouragingly, fewer than 10% of women consider their employers very inflexible.
GET THE INSIDER’S PERSPECTIVE ON FLEXIBILITY: While all the resources in #1 are valuable, they are. not exhaustive. Finding a flexible job requires networking with as many company insiders as possible. Connect with influential people in your local business community to learn which companies are pushing the envelope on flexible work—company wide…not just for a few employees.
Whether you’re looking for flexibility within or outside of your current company, you need to dig in and research where flexibility exists and where it is actually working. Within your own company talk to other employees to find out which departments offer these opportunities and how they were granted—as well as best practices that could work for you and your team. Via personal connections and Linkedin get insider opinions on the real flexible opportunities at your target companies and others that should be on your radar. Get as granular as possible: there are often certain departments and managers that are greater flexibility advocates.
CONTACT COMPANIES THAT “BROKER” FLEXIBILITY: There are many firms nationwide that act as consultants or employment agencies in the flexible workspace. On my 9 Lives for Women site you’ll find The FlexWork for Women Alliance, a group of progressive companies focused on helping women find challenging, interesting, lucrative, resume-worthy flexible work.
KNOW YOUR BEST FLEXIBILITY PROSPECTS: Big companies are too often mired in bureaucracy and rarely offer across-the-board flexibility. You are more likely to find a more widespread flexibility culture in smaller companies of up to 100 employees. In these companies the HR department is small and less dominant—and company management is more likely to have a “just get the work done” attitude. Smaller companies also tend to have more contract work as their smaller workforces expand and contract.
MAKE A BUSINESS CASE FOR A NON-TRADITIONAL WORK STRUCTURE: Flexibility that has the tenacity to last through corporate leadership changes and management mood swings is the result of a professional proposal that is presented to and negotiated with your boss (and renegotiated when senior leadership changes). If you catch your boss on the right day with a simple “can I work from home on Fridays” ask, you might get lucky—but this random “ask and accept” is on a shaky foundation. You need to create a proposal that works both ways and covers the proposed schedule, daily communications, scheduled check-in meetings, team management, progress reports and more—so that your boss signs off on the complete arrangement. You also need to nail down in writing how the flexibility will affect your eligibility for raises and promotions so that your “contract” of sorts will fly through any corporate regime.
Though we are moving to a much more self-directed workplace, flexibility is far from mandatory in the U.S. That does not mean it’s not possible today: it takes some work to find—and keep—flexible work.
How to find and keep flexible work—at your current company or elsewhere—is a major focus of my upcoming book, “Ambition Redefined: Why the Corner Office Doesn’t Work for Every Woman & What to Do Instead” (Nicholas Brealey, Hachette Business Group, October 2018).
Photo Credit: Stuart Miles/www.freedigitalphotos.net