Flexible Working: Manual for Mums
Updated: Dec 6, 2020
By law, you have the right to make a flexible working request if you’ve worked for your employer for at least 26 weeks and you’re classed as an employee (rules are different in the Northern Ireland). Some employers will allow you to make a request even if you do not have the legal right – check your workplace’s policy.
When I was going back to work after my first mat leave, the idea of flexible working in any shape or form did not occur to me. I worked as an energy projects lawyer with Norton Rose Fulbright in London. My projects were all over EMEA, involved multiple investors, lenders and governments, in various timezones and with different weekdays/weekends schedules, with lots of meetings and documentation, and was quite full-on. I remember just feeling puzzled about how I would manage my demanding job and my new role as a mum.
It was my office roommate who returned from mat leave a couple of months before me on a flexible schedule who encouraged me to consider this idea. I can't even remember if the HR or return to work coaching offered by my employer mentioned flexible working as an option; it really only sank in when another mum like me showed me that it is a possibility. I soon met a new female partner in the office who worked flexibly since her two girls were born and she became my big supporter and inspiration.
Stepping into the mindset that I have a choice completely changed my approach to restarting work and made me feel in control.
My (male) boss (with a stay-at-home wife) was sceptical about the idea, but to his credit, agreed to give it a go and was cooperating.
I negotiated a 70% schedule, alternating 3- and 4-day weeks, with 3 office days per week. Wednesday was my alternate day – one week it would be a day off and the next week I would work from home. I did not work on Fridays to have time for myself and to pursue my coaching practice. That gave me two days a week when I saved time on the commute to do some exercise or run errands. Also, my husband was doing drop-offs, and I was on the pick-up duty, except for one day a week. So I changed my contractual work hours to leave at 5pm sharp except for that one day when I knew I could stay later for work or socialising. (Remember those days?) Because I started the application late, I used my holidays to take Fridays off until the flex work was approved.
During the 18 months that I worked on this schedule, I closed a project which was the largest deal of its kind in the UK and made the front page of the Financial Times, while respecting my flexible schedule and was promoted to a senior position. My originally sceptical boss praised me for how it worked out and (dare I say) was motivated to reflect on his own work-life balance.
I have since left law and became a coach, working even more flexibly around my kids’ school schedule. Looking back on my own experience and now my insights from coaching professional mums, I see flexible working as an essential tool for creating a work-life balance, especially when you have children. It is the future of the work culture.
Here is what helped me work successfully on a flexible schedule, and I want to bust a few myths for you:
1. Flexible working means part-time or remote working. There are many different ways to work flexibly. You can mix & match: reducing your hours, changing your start and finish time, having flexibility with your start and finish time (sometimes known as ‘flexitime’), doing your hours over fewer days (‘compressed hours’), working remotely, job share, agreeing core hours. You can ask for the change to be for: all working days, specific days or shifts only, specific weeks only, for example during school term time, or a limited time (for example for 6 months only while you are breastfeeding). You can make it a temporary or a permanent change to your contract.
2. The time ‘freed’ from work is the time to spend with the kids. For many women, this is the primary intention but not always a candid one. I invite you to see flex work as a tool for bringing in more balance in your life. Whether it is your first or second or third child, the arrival of a new baby changes the family dynamics and your experience of a balance. The balance might well mean spending more time with the small people you have created, or it can be about recharging your batteries in ways not possible when kids are around, exercise, meeting people, reading, creating time for other things in your life that bring you alive. Parenting is a very demanding job, and maintaining your balance makes you more patient and resourceful, it makes you a better parent. (Also see my musings on The Time Trap: Stop Thinking About Time in Minutes.)
3. Flex or part-time will affect my career. It’s proven that it does not. Good employers know that offering roles that fit flexibly around family life, opens the floodgates to a much wider pool of talent or retaining existing talent, You. Mums need to hear it more. Of course, employers differ, and some are more forward-looking than others. But what we tell ourselves is even more impactful. You need to be the first person to believe that flex work is a good thing and will not affect your career. To the contrary, it will create more work-life balance and make you more efficient and enthusiastic about work. (Read here about a recent study by Zurich, backed by the UK Government Behavioural Insights Team.)
4. My job is so demanding, I would not be able to finish my workload on a flex schedule, I will have to work in the evenings after bedtime. From my own experience, I know that having children has made me more efficient. I get more done with less time. Childcare driven boundaries around your working time make you laser focus on the task to leave on time. The trick here is to commit to finishing your job within the working hours you have. If at the start of the day you consider you have until the pick-up time to complete your tasks, you are more likely to achieve that and avoid logging back in in the evening. If, however, you always rely on the evening/night hours to continue working, you are more likely to make it a habit.
5. Reduced hours means doing 100% of the work for less pay. I never felt that way. One reason why it worked for me is that I carefully considered and respected my hard boundaries and was flexible with my flexibility. For example, my non-working Fridays were reserved for coaching, my husband and I have always been committed to dinners together as a family, and it was not an option for us to pay for extra childcare. During that epic project of mine, I had to step up and work evenings and some weekends, I then took time off in lieu later, but throughout I mostly respected those hard boundaries and that made me feel balanced. You might also like to read this article on Boundaries & Flexibility.
6. I fear my teammates, and especially those who do not have children, will feel they are picking up the slack. Reflect on how the workflow runs in your team and plan & trial how to deliver your work to avoid becoming a bottle-neck. Keep the conversation open with your team while you are all getting used to the new schedule. Kudos to the employers who promote flexible working culture, empathy and understanding. If it's not yet the case in your workplace, promote the positives of flexible working and you will become an inspiration. Reach out to other flex workers in your workplace for support, create a parents support group.
7. Flexible working is only for women. Actually, all employees have the legal right to request flexible working - not just parents and carers - and work-life balance is just as important to men. Not very spoken about, but many men want to be more present for their families (especially after discovering the positives of working remotely during the Covid pandemic). Talk to your partner about what might work best for your family, e.g. starting to work flexibly alongside your maternity leave or taking shared parental leave.
The Acas website has plenty of information on how to make a flexible work application. Here are some practical tips to add:
Start discussions with your line manager informally, in person. Use your keep-in-touch days (paid). If your line manager says yes, you can skip the formal application process.
Do have a written amendment to your employment contract.
Start the process at least 3 months before you plan to go back to work.
Don't just copy someone else's flex schedule. Make it work for you.
Try to be positive and think about benefits for the business. Consider the application with an employer’s hat on, think of it as a business proposal.
It’s a good idea to have a trial period.
There will certainly be days when kids are ill, and your flexible working plan will seem like it’s failing. Plan for those days – share care with your partner, work from home, get family support, emergency childcare. Breathe!
Get credit for organising your return to work and making flex work a success.
You might also like to read this article on Flexible Working: Dos and Don'ts.