First, some good news: Job flexibility is more widespread than you think. Now for the bad news: Most employers don’t shout their flex-time offerings from the rooftops, so many employees don’t take advantage of them. But because your company’s policies might not be clearly spelled out, you may be able to build some more flexibility into your schedule on your own, then ask permission—or forgiveness—later.
Flextime’s Many (Hidden) Forms
Whether you admit it or not, work-life balance is probably pretty important to you. Employers know it’s important, too. Just take a look at the careers websites of major employers. You’ll often see photos of smiling employees, mission statements, and descriptions of what the company’s workplace culture is like.
But what’s typically missing is actual detail about the policies that make that culture what it is. No prospective hire can just hop on over to an employer’s website and find out whether they’d be able to leave at 4:30 p.m. two days a week to go to yoga class, or even at a consistent hour that lets them pick their kid up before daycare closes.
That doesn’t mean those options don’t exist. According to HR professionals surveyed by the Society for Human Resources Management, 56% of employers offered some type of flexible working arrangement in 2016. But when we crowdsource information about work-life balance and job flexibility on Fairygodboss, the employer review platform for women that I cofounded, employees more commonly say that their companies have flexible work cultures or that they’ve struck informal arrangements with their managers.
After all, job flexibility takes many forms. There are part-time jobs, remote roles, and formally compressed workweeks (where you put in 40 hours between Monday and Thursday), not to mention all those times you might just ask your boss, “Hey, could I work from home tomorrow?”
And indeed, if you want a more flexible schedule, you certainly can ask for it. But many people worry about the stigma of doing so. Some even argue that employers should offer flexibility to everyone in order to preempt that fear. Instead, you might be able to take matters into your own hands. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before determining whether that’s the right move.
What’s The Worst That Can Happen?
There’s an old adage that it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask permission. This is something I often hear women in our community suggest to each other when it comes to taking an afternoon off or leaving the office early. On Fairygodboss, one user recently advised other women thinking of working at Vistaprint, the custom printing company, to take that approach:
My two pieces of advice:
1. Don’t apologize for having responsibilities outside of work. Get your work done, be flexible (sometimes work at night or a few hours on a weekend to get your work done), but don’t apologize when you have to leave at 5 to pick up your kid.
2. Don’t overexplain! “I need to leave because my kids are xyz . . . ” Just do it, your work will show your dedication and you will be recognized for it.
Of course, this isn’t always a realistic option for many rank-and-file employees, especially those who work on an hourly shift basis. Plus, this advice might be better for ducking out early occasionally than for working part-time or at home on a weekly basis.
But even then, you may have more leeway than you think. If what you’re looking for day-to-day is simply the flexibility to leave early to run an errand, then it may actually be overkill to have a conversation with your boss beforehand. Try walking out the door early or coming in later, and see what happens first. Then chat about it later if you need to.
Is Your Boss The Ultimate Decision Maker?
When it comes to flex time, your boss may or may not have the final say. Sometimes there’s a departmental or company-wide policy that you can take advantage of without your manager having to make a judgment call. But the difference between an official and unofficial policy here is really important—even if you have an understanding manager who grants your request to work from home on Fridays.
I’ve heard of many scenarios where someone is happy to be granted a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” type of flexibility that isn’t officially sanctioned. While that works fine for a while, those agreements tend to be vulnerable if your boss leaves or gets promoted. In fact, many women tell us at Fairygodboss that they start looking for a new job when their managers change and they suddenly lose their flexibility.
Will Merely Asking Hurt You?
Sometimes just inquiring about flexibility can be a risk, whether or not you actually get it. If you’re worried that might be the case—unfair as it may be—how can you get the information you need without the negative consequences?
You may reach a point where you need quite a lot of flexibility and fear your current employer might not be able to offer it to you. In these cases, your first stop should always be the HR department, where you can ask somebody about the general policies in place. It’s also smart to talk to other colleagues on-on-one whom you’ve seen work flexibly. This way you may be able to protect yourself from any fallout if your boss turns down your request and questions your commitment to your work.
No matter what, keep in mind that flexible work can take many forms. While it’s still a sensitive topic in some workplaces, you might have more leeway to tailor how—and determine whom—you ask, depending on what arrangement you want. Or possibly just skip the conversation altogether.
Georgene Huang is CEO and cofounder of Fairygodboss, a leading career community featuring anonymous job reviews for women, by women. She’s obsessed with understanding how to improve the workplace for women.