The HR Juggler

How to Make Flexible Working Work for You

Posted on: January 10, 2011

When my daughters were born, it transformed my view of working parents into a new-found, complete awe and admiration. How did they manage to turn up at work on time looking presentable and professional, do their roles capably and well, whilst still looking after their little ones outside of work hours? What was their secret and more importantly, where could I learn?! On returning to work after my maternity leave, I also remember berating my husband on several occasions that he did not and could not “understand the luxury of a full-time role”….by which I meant a job where he could leave at a time of his own choosing, not dictated by the demands of dropping off, picking up and putting to bed. Even if it was getting home at 8pm and later, which it often was, and dictated by client demands and overwhelming workload.  Poor Mr C… 🙂

I’ve worked part-time for three years now and learnt a lot along the way, some through my own experience and some things through friends and colleagues who have been happy to share. For anyone in the early days of trying to figure out how to make it work for them, or perhaps just trying to get an insight into how all those superwomen (and supermen) do it, then I hope this helps shed some light.

There are a few caveats to this post; firstly that I am lucky enough to be able to work part-time in a challenging role and that my Company is very supportive of flexible workers. Secondly, I choose to work part-time. And thirdly, I am female (obviously!) and have young children, which I am sure puts a spin of sorts onto it. 

My tips for making flexible working work for you are as follows –

1 – Set boundaries

You’ll need to make your own rules for how you deal with work on the days and times that you are not there, and being consistent about it will help you and others understand how the arrangement will work more quickly. You may choose to set an out-of-office on your email and phone and not look at work related stuff at all. I have to admit that I don’t do this – I tend to read emails even when I am not meant to be working, but I don’t respond unless they are truly urgent. At the end of the day, make the ‘rules’ that suit you, your family and your work and stick to them. You will almost certainly want to review and reassess these along the way….and that’s a good thing.

2 – Accept that there may be limitations

I have found a huge number of advantages in working flexibly, but inevitably there are also likely to be limitations. For example, part-time and flexible working is not usually conducive to managing large numbers of people. I managed a team of 7 whilst working a 3 day week for a short period of time…suffice to say it didn’t make any of us very happy and things had to change!  

You may find you are not in the same pole position you once were for promotions or for doing international travel…not because these options are unavailable to you, but because they would tip the juggling act of work and home out of kilter. And moving to a different external role whilst retaining the flexible arrangements you have in place would be difficult. So sometimes you may feel you are in conflict with your own personal ambition, and to be honest, there is every chance that this may be so temporarily. A friend of mine who felt this very deeply, was reassured by the advice of an older colleague who likened it to a dimmer switch – the ambition is still there and can be allowed to shine more at a later date of your choosing.

3 – Be here, now

Time is almost always of the essence when you work part-time and personally I never experienced the need for self-discipline and intense productivity so keenly when I worked full-time. It’s really important though to be in the moment; don’t spend your time at work thinking and worrying about the issues going on at home and vice versa. Be where you are and focus on that.

 As far as possible, live your working and home life without the burden of self-inflicted guilt. Chances are the childcare arrangements you have put in place will be the best you can possibly arrange and afford, so it is more likely to be you suffering and adjusting than them.  Kids are hugely adaptable, thank goodness!

4 – If you don’t ask, you won’t get

Many companies are prepared to be very flexible with employees and if you don’t ask for the arrangement that will really suit you, you’ll never know whether or not it is possible. I have just changed from a 3-day week to a 4-day week, but working the fourth day as two half days on a Monday and Friday, term-time only. Its early days but it really seems to work for me as I can take my children to and from school and they don’t really notice my increased hours. The trade-off of course, is that I am also flexible and will go in on those days if ever required to.

5 – Don’t apologise!

People rarely remember individual part-time or flexible arrangements; it goes with the territory.  I don’t take it personally when people forget and arrange meetings when I am not working, but I do try to avoid apologising for it or offering to compensate for my absence by dialling in from home.  The more you are able to embrace and accept your own part-time and flexible arrangements, the easier it will be for others to do so too. It took me rather a long time to realise that the person who had most issue with my part-time hours was myself!!

Do you work flexibly or know someone who does? Have you got tips you would like to share or any comments on the above? I’d love to hear from you!

8 Responses to "How to Make Flexible Working Work for You"

Great post. Sums up how I try and manage my part-time working.

On Boundaries: I have a client who I have been working with for 18 months. I always have Wednesdays off with the kids and they call me almost every Wednesday. Or at 6pm when it’s the most manic in our house as I try to “herd the cats” through tea-time & bath time . I remind them everytime….but still.

Secondly, “be here, now”. I think it works both ways. When you’re at home with the kids, really be with them. Forget about work. Remember that they’re only small once.

Great post,

I have worked flexible hours for the last few years and have found that it works very well as long as you are prepared to work hard. My role is as busy as my clients make me so sometimes when I am not in the office I will be found working into the night at home. However this is my preference so I have time with my children.

I agree not to apologise and try and make yourself in two places at once I started with this attitude and it didnt benefit anyone.


Thanks for commenting both of you

Karen – I totally understand the irritation of your client always forgetting and ringing you at awkward times or when you’re off. It is amazing though, how no amount of gentle reminders ever sink in! You’re totally right about focussing on the children when you are at home too, I can’t believe how quickly mine have grown up.

Jane – I’m still giggling today after reading your blog last night! I’m with you on the preference of working late and finishing things off. I think until people have worked part-time they don’t always realise why it is we do that, but when I was working 3 days a week, that was definitely my mode of operating. I’m hoping it may change a little now!

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kevin Ball and Alison Chisnell. Alison Chisnell said: New Post: How to Make Flexible Working Work for You #hr #hrblogs […]

Alison, great observations which I’m sure would be truly useful, internally and externally. The bit about having a dimmer switch, particularly, struck a chord for me. I now must go and read Jane’s blog!

From a guy’s perspective, my company has been very supportive of flexible working too. I worked adjusted hours so I start at 8 every day and have half day on Fridays. This works out great for me as it means my weekend starts earlier and I can pick up the kids from nursery.

The limitations thing is interesting. Our agency has a very social culture. Drinks, beer o’clock, parties, lots of social activity. I’ve learned to accept that I don’t have to be part of all those because I choose not to. I don’t feel guilty for it. There is a perception though that if you don’t take part, you’re not fitting in. I get round that by being social in work hours, and that seems to be doing just as dandy a job as getting drunk 🙂

The flipside of that is my own expectations. I know Friday’s are half day which means I don’t do training on those days otherwise I leave little time to do day to day stuff, so I manage my workload accordingly.

Thanks for commenting.

Kay, glad you read Jane’s blog post, for anyone else curious, the post that made me laugh was I also really like the analogy of the dimmer switch, helps you remember if you are making trade-offs they won’t be forever.

Sukh, it is great to have your perspective on things too. I defintiely know where you are coming from on the more limited socialising aspect, good to know that you have found a work-around. I think although there are certainly adjustments to be made, once you (we!) are able to make them with confidence, that’s really half the battle in adjusting to the ‘different’ arrangments.

I also wanted to make the point that in searching for the ‘secret’ of all these amazing working parents, one quickly discovers when one becomes one, that there isn’t a secret at all and we all just do our best at muddling along! And that is plenty good enough usually, too 🙂

Hi Alison, great post, I too am a working mum, and after my son was born I chose to go back part time. It took a while to adjust and your tips all struck a cord with me! Better organisation and time management was definately a must. Managing people’s expectations another must. Regards people forgetting I’m not there and booking meetings, I keep my public Outlook diary up to date and block out the times I’m not there.

4 months ago I started a new job, finally going back to full time hours, but I wanted to condense them so that I get one afternoon off a week to pick up my son from school and so keep in touch with what is a major part of his life. I was surprised at how difficult this made the recruitment process and my ability to find another job. One prospective employer withdrew an already made offer of an interview and flatly said no before even seeing me. One agent told me not to tell a prospective employer, adding it was ‘unlikely’ I would be successful and would be looked at unfavourably in comparison to other people. For wanting one afternoon off! It goes against my moral code not to be honest and I didn’t believe him, so I carried on being upfront and not getting anywhere. Then, sadly, I found myself following his advice and not mentioning it until 2nd interview stage; lo and behold I had 2 offers in the same week. I had to get my foot in the door and sell myself before telling them, to avoid being dismissed out of hand. Sad isn’t it?

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