Negotiating for Flexibility at Work: Why Bosses Say “No” to Flexible Work Arrangements (and what you can do about it).

Part 1 of a Series: They’re Bad at Evaluating Performance

Let’s face it, despite some prominent examples of companies with progressive cultures when it comes to work-family balance (see this list for examples), most company cultures and supervisors are not particularly supportive, especially of dads trying to balance work and family.  Most companies demand long work hours and promote “face time” or “time at the office” as proxy measures for performance and dedication to the company (see this article for an excellent discussion).

“So, Peter, what’s happening? Ummm, I’m gonna have to ask you to come in this weekend… That’s great. okay?”

It is brave to stand out and make a case for a time and place flexibility for your work.   However, that’s not to say that it is impossible, and, depending on your situation, it may be well worth it despite the risks.

Like any request or negotiation, the key is to see the situation from the other person’s side and then communicate so that you dispel most of their concerns and show them how they benefit from the arrangement (a la Fisher & Ury’s “Getting to Yes” or Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People”).  The first step is anticipating why your supervisor may say no and proactively address these concerns (actually, the pre-first step is to make yourself extremely valuable through your job performance before you ask for any special arrangement. You need to build up credibility and trust to have any leverage here)

Here’s one major reason why supervisors may resist more flexible work arrangements, along with some ideas of how to address it (future posts in this series will address additional concerns, see below).

#1.  They may believe they’ll lose the ability to monitor and assess your performance

Aside from certain jobs in which one has to deal directly with clients for a certain time period (counselors, tutors, receptionists, etc), most professional jobs don’t need to be performed exclusively, or even mostly, at the office.  But most of us still have to be at the office most of the time during traditional working hours.

One of the reasons for this is that most supervisors are very bad at evaluating employee performance (there’s tons of research and anecdotal evidence to back this up, but that goes well beyond what can be discussed in a single blog post).  As a result, they use such indicators as “face time” or “chair time” as a measure of performance.  This, of course, is silly, as “face time” is often gamed- productive people finish and go home, political opportunists stay late while being less productive (and probably spending time on facebook or fantasy football).

The solution is “Managing Up”- the subtle art of making your supervisor a better manager (see this excellent article).  If I were to make a request for the ability to work about 1/3 of my hours from home, I’d lay out an entire performance evaluation system for my supervisor.  It would go something like this:

  • We will set performance goals, and the objective measures we’ll use to determine whether I am meeting or exceeding those goals
  • We will meet formally every three months to discuss my performance against those goals
  • I will provide bi-weekly progress reports on how I am meeting those goals
  • I will provide a weekly time log for the hours I work outside the office
  • I will provide all my contact information to you, my coworkers, and my clients, so they can always reach me
  • I agree that emergency situations may mean a temporary pause in the flexible work arrangement
  • I agree that, after the first three-month trial period, we may need to re-assess the situation

This way, you address one of your supervisor’s major concerns right off the bat.  Many managers are risk-averse and dislike change.  You have to make it easier for them to say yes.

Other reasons managers may resist flexible work arrangements include: fairness concerns, they don’t want everyone to start requesting stuff, a perceived loss of control, fear of what their managers may think, not being aware of the financial benefits of flexible work arrangements, believing that “family stuff” is not a man’s issue, and the belief that they paid their dues and made sacrifices so you should too.  We’ll get to these over the next few weeks (this book contains a lot of good advice on these topics, as well).  Anything you’d add to this list?

What do you think about managing up? Requesting flexibility? Any success or horror stories?  Let’s discuss in the comments section.

This article was republished at the Good Men Project online men’s magazine.  Follow this link to the article.

17 thoughts on “Negotiating for Flexibility at Work: Why Bosses Say “No” to Flexible Work Arrangements (and what you can do about it).

  1. I find that another BIG issue when it comes to flexibility is imposed by the individual who is seeking it. That’s right – have a look in the mirror before you lay blame on the boss or the corporate culture. It’s been my experience that most men who have worked hard to build the reputation of being a hard worker have a substantial amount of difficulty dealing with the inevitable by-products of working more flexibly. I’ll give a personal example. In my second year working at a huge multinational company, I had gotten a reputation as being a workhorse: long hours, plenty of overtime – I was the guy that would work until he dropped to get the job done. After my son was born, I wanted to spend more time at home and be an active part of family life. So, I decided I would leave the office at 5:30 two days a week, spend time with my son (dinner, bath, bedtime stories), and then log back in at 8pm to finish my work day. My total hours remained the same, but I DID feel a little sheepish about leaving the office at 5:45. What would other people think? Did they know that I would be logging in later to finish my 12 hour day? Was my “workhorse” reputation going to suffer? I found myself yearning to justify and explain myself, despite the fact that no one had said one word to me about my new schedule. 8 years later, I don’t think twice about what others think – I know that my contributions to the firm are as significant as they have ever been, regardless of where and when I’m physically doing the work. But I continue to see scores of young dads – and moms – struggle with this self-imposed guilt year in and year out. My advice? Take it slow and work your way up to a new schedule. And be open when discussing it with others – you’ll be happy you did.

  2. Dan- that is a fantastic comment, one worth exploring in detail in another post. (also- DING DING DING- you are the 2000th page view on this blog!!!)

    Gandhi would agree “Be the change you wish to see”

    Research on self-evaluations and self-set work goals also back up your point that employees are often more demanding of themselves than supervisors are.

    I was planning on writing about my experience with entrepreneurs, who (in general) are FAR more demanding and inflexible with managing their own time than any other boss would be. Perhaps the same is true for lots of us in traditional organizations.

    Finally, isn’t it a sad commentary on society that leaving work at 5:45 is considered leaving EARLY!!!!

  3. Scott, your last bullet point about a trial period is often the key to overcoming the fear of loss of control that managers have. If the manager knows there’s a back door for “no” later on, they are less likely to give an immediate knee-jerk no to the flex request. That gives the employee time to prove themselves with the performance goals, so a no won’t be necessary in three months. Working from home for part of the week does wonders for work-life integration. I wrote why dads in particular benefit here:

    • Thanks for this comment. I think you are right. Managers fear “losing control” by granting flexibility, but will often find workplace flexibility has very little downside once they give it a try. I really like your post, as well! I hope you come back and we follow each other’s blogs.

  4. Great post Scott. I think your plan for requesting a flexible schedule is right on the money. It shows a proactive mindset that is intended to dispel fears about providing flexibility. I also liked your point that one must show great performance BEFORE asking for a more flexible schedule.
    In my view and experience, an organization’s culture is usually the biggest factor in enabling or inhibiting flexibility. When I worked for a large pharmaceutical company, it offered flexible schedules for some employees, but there seemed to be a maximum (though unstated) number of people who would qualify for such consideration. And, as you alluded to, most of these employees were women with children. In fact, I heard a manager say that certain positions, such as product manager, simply could NOT allow flexible schedules and thus those jobs should be filled by either single people or those without kids. Since the job of product manager was highly coveted, I found this a disturbing commentary on the company’s view of work and family.

    • Hi Mark- Welcome to the blog, and thanks for your great comment! That is an interesting example you bring up about the pharma company. I’m a big believer in appropriate flexibility for all, so that individuals can make informal arrangements to balance what they need to. In other words, moving away from “family issues” (and all the mommy and daddy trackiness that this implies) and towards flexibility for all.

Leave a Comment