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Summer 2007 Vol. 51, Number 2

Flexible work: Adjusting the when and where of your job
Elka Maria Torpey

Ellen Celarek’s top priority is her kids. So, when looking for a job, she makes family-friendly work a priority, too.

With flexibility in mind, Celarek, of Schaumburg, Illinois, found employment that lets her work at home part time, often during the hours of her choice. "My job fits perfectly with my schedule," she says. "I can take the kids
to the doctor or help out at school when I want."

Many people today are seeking flexibility at work. Parents, like Celarek, may want more time for family. Students hope to fit employment into a busy class schedule. And some people look for work after retirement. Whatever their situation, they’re not alone in wanting a job that’s a better match for their lives.

The following pages explain some options for gaining greater control over your worklife. The first section gives general advice on how to make a current job more flexible—or how to find a more flexible one. The next three sections identify options that will let you work less, work at home, or work alternative hours; each talks about specific arrangements, their pros and cons, and how to
get them. Sources for more information are provided at the end of the article.

Would you like to work fewer hours, set your own schedule, or work at home? Read here about some of the options for balancing your job with your life.

Get flexible:
Work on your terms

Everyone has preferences regarding flexibility and work. For some, the ideal flexibility might mean bringing an infant to work for onsite childcare. For others, it might mean choosing the types of tasks that they do. Still others might seek a career that lets them leave their job for a while, then return later without having to take a cut in pay or seniority.

Your own preferences for flexibility and the types of jobs you’ll consider may depend on personal needs, skills, educational background, and other factors. But whatever your circumstances, there are some general ways to enhance the flexibility of your work, either by making a current job more flexible or by changing to a more accommodating one.

Start with your current job

If you’re already working, ask your employer if your position can be adapted to fit your needs. Before talking to your boss, however, prepare to make a strong case for how flexibility benefits your employer as well as yourself.

Start by looking into flexible work options and your employer’s policies on their use. Find out if other employees have successfully used the arrangements that interest you. And for arrangements that involve cutting back on work hours, talk to the human resources department to learn how your benefits might be affected.

After gathering some facts, write up a formal proposal to present to your supervisor or whoever has the authority to agree to the change. A strong proposal explains how the arrangement will work and what its advantages are. It anticipates concerns that a supervisor or manager might have, such as coordinating staff meetings around a flexibly scheduled worker—and then presents solutions, such as an agreement to go to the office on days when meetings are held. (For a sample work-at-home proposal, see the box on the facing page.)

Lois Backon, of the Families and Work Institute in New York, suggests giving your supervisor specific options. "People like choices, managers like choices," she says. "They like to be presented with solutions that work for both the employee and employer." In addition, Backon suggests offering to try the arrangement as a pilot program or for a specified time and then meeting to discuss how it is going and whether it should continue.

Not all positions can accommodate flexible arrangements, and not all employers are willing to try them. But if your current job isn’t suited for flexibility, you might be able to find another one that is.

Get a different job

If you need to change jobs to meet your requirements, you’ll discover that looking for a flexible position is much like looking for any other type of position. The difference is that you make flexibility a priority, just as you might emphasize salary or location.

Michael Smyer, professor of psychology at Boston College’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in Boston, gives jobseekers looking for flexibility the same advice he gives to any jobseeker. "You have to answer three questions," says Smyer, also the co-chair of the school’s Center on Aging and Work. "First, what about work do you really like? Second, what are you good at? And third, who’s going to pay you to do this?" Later, address how to make the work flexible and which employers and types of jobs are likely to be adaptable.

Finding flexibility. Sometimes, a job search is easier if you start with what you know. This approach worked for Doris D’Errico of Youngstown, Ohio. Before retiring as a registered nurse, D’Errico asked her employer to rehire her in a more flexible position. Now, as a per diem nurse, she works for the same hospital but has greater control over the days she works. And her job matches the lifestyle she wanted in retirement. "I can basically work at my pleasure," she says. "The best part is that I’m retired, but I can still remain active in work I’m familiar with."

Other times, you might want to consider a new line of work or a new employer. Celarek, for example, worked in the travel industry before starting a family. When her job no longer accommodated her desired schedule, she left it and eventually switched to a field—and an employer—that did.

Flex-friendly workplaces. Some employers are known for allowing flexibility. The Federal Government is one employer that lets many of its workers participate in flexible work options. Rankings of the best workplaces, such as those for working parents or for information technology workers, can help you identify other employers who excel at offering flexibility.

But many employers not found on rankings also provide the possibility for flexible work. Employer recruitment materials, including Web site career sections, often indicate when employees are eligible for certain flexible arrangements. Another way to determine an employer’s flex-friendliness is to inquire directly. You might, for example, ask during an interview about the organization’s work-life benefits.

Remember, however, that employers seek candidates who are qualified for the job and whose main focus is work—not flexibility. For this reason, experts caution that jobseekers wait until after they’re offered a job to ask a prospective employer if they can work at home or for other flexible benefits. And keep in mind that many employers require new employees to complete a probationary period before they are eligible for flexible scheduling or part-time work.

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Last Updated: February 15, 2007