How to advocate for a flexible work arrangement

In an excerpt from her new book, ‘Workparent,’ author and coach Daisy Dowling discusses how to succeed as a parent while keeping to your principles and personal needs.

How to advocate for a flexible work arrangement
[Photo: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels]

Maybe these past 15 months of remote work have convinced you that you never want to go back to a five-days-in-person schedule (or in person, at all). Or maybe you’re an extrovert who’s eager to go back to the office, but you want a different workload and less-crazy hours than you’ve worked before. Whichever the case, you’ve managed to move past that vague feeling of wanting more freedom and more control, and you’ve landed on a clear ask: on the specific flexible work arrangement (FWA) that will work best for you, your career, and your family as we enter the “new normal.”


Now come the all-important next steps: securing organizational approval, getting your boss fully on board, and making sure that the key members of your work parent “village” are ready to do their part to support your new arrangement. Here’s how to handle each one effectively—and get your new FWA up and running.

While at work

If you’re seeking a more formal arrangement and you work in a large organization where FWAs are already common, this is likely to be a fairly straightforward process. Chances are, there’s a set of guidelines for putting your flex setup in place or even a sample-form contract to use for making the request. Once you know the drill, sit down with your manager to talk about your “ask,” making it clear you’re doing so within approved organizational bounds. Be gracious, positive, and appreciative, but know that if you’re in good standing (e.g., haven’t been issued any kind of performance warning), chances are decent you’ll get the green light.

If you’re planning to use self-directed or informal flexibility, or are seeking a very small-scale accommodation (e.g., leaving two hours early and only on Wednesdays), try having a this-is-no-big-deal, FYI-type conversation with your manager: “Chris, my plan is simply to duck out for doctor’s appointments and other kid-related reasons where needed, making up the work later in the day. I’ll keep the team posted, always be reachable on cell—but my hunch is that no one, including you, will notice.” If you’re seen as diligent and reliable, your manager is unlikely to squawk.


If, however, you work in an environment that’s less flex-friendly, or if there’s no formal policy or other official “permissioning” of flex work, or if you’re making a big ask (like moving from five days per week to two), or if you’re the first person in your organization to seek a formal FWA and may be setting a new precedent post-pandemic, then you’re probably going to need to go into sell mode.

As you enter those conversations with your manager or with HR, you’ll ensure the best possible outcomes by emphasizing four key factors:

  1. You plan to use the arrangement responsibly.
  2. There will be minimal if any impact on the team and the business.
  3. The FWA creates benefits for your boss and organization, not just for you.
  4. Any “making it work” details remain squarely on your shoulders.

As the conversation unfolds, try preempting any skepticism or reluctance by saying things like:

  • “Of course, the responsibility is 100% on me to ensure that the work gets done and in a timely way.”
  • “Yes, there would be a change in my hours—but not in project ownership, or our budget, or the team’s overall staffing.”
  •  “This arrangement will make it possible for me to continue practicing law, and let you keep a trained patent attorney on the team for the long term. It may be useful in our recruitment efforts also—so many people are looking to switch roles now, and other current and aspiring parents we’re seeking to hire will likely take note.”
  • “Sure, I’ll need a better-quality, higher-speed print setup at home, but that’s on me and easy to do.”

If you sense discomfort, or get real pushback, tell your boss and/or the skeptical HR manager the following:

You understand that this is an only-if-it-really works situation.
You communicate your understanding by using a statement like, “We could try this for two months, and if it doesn’t work, either of us could pull the plug.”

There appears to be clear precedent.
“I agree, it does feel like a big leap, but several of our [colleagues in department X, at competitor organizations, etc.] have done this successfully already. And the wheels stayed on the bus during the pandemic, when so many of us had to change our hours and location, so there’s clear proof that this kind of arrangement can work.”


You’re in no rush.
“I know it’s a lot to process, and I’m not pushing for an answer today. Please take your time, and when you’ve thought this through, we can regroup.”

Throughout any conversation, and at every phase of the negotiation—as hard as it may be to do so—remember to avoid getting dramatic or shrill. Remaining in a respectful, friendly, collaborative frame is just more likely to be effective. And stay away from hostage-taking: “Do this for me or I quit” is an option you should use only once, only at the tail end of an otherwise failed negotiation, and only if you’re prepared to follow through (e.g., because you have another job offer).

If you don’t get what you want, or find yourself getting hot under the collar at any point, though, remember: You’re an employee—not an indentured servant. Your boss and your organization make their choices, and you’re free to make your own.


While at home

Your boss is an essential partner in making any FWA work, of course—but you also need the support and understanding of the “bosses” in the home sphere: your partner, family, and caregivers. Play it forward: If your partner thinks working from home means available to handle errands and home-repair projects, or if your mother-in-law sees your second-shift evenings as good times to pop by for a visit, there’s going to be a lot of friction.

Before your FWA begins, have a direct conversation about your new schedule and approach with each key member of your at-home village—just as you may already have done with your boss and colleagues. To help make things clear and to reinforce the idea that this is a real, official, no-joke arrangement, put your timetable on a piece of paper, with “work time” and “nonwork time” clearly marked off. Explain to your spouse/partner/family what you’ll need in order to make the arrangement successful—whether that’s to be left alone while in your home office, to have their help in doing day-care pickup, or to have dedicated use of the home laptop on Thursdays. Be direct, and refer—nicely—to consequences: “A condensed workweek will give me a lot more time with Mateo, which is a benefit for our whole family. If I can’t make it work, though, I’ll need to go back to the old way.”

Be sure to offer a preemptive thank-you as well: Flexibility may mean leaning on their time and patience in new ways, and feeling needed and appreciated will motivate them to help.


Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Adapted from Workparent: The Complete Guide to Succeeding on the Job, Staying True to Yourself, and Raising Happy Kids by Daisy Dowling. Copyright 2021 Daisy Dowling. All rights reserved.

Daisy Dowling is the founder and CEO of Workparent, an executive coaching and training firm dedicated to helping working parents lead more successful and satisfying lives. She is a full-time working parent to two young children.