Today, the Juggle has an article about how women can ask for flex time: http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2011/04/17/ask-the-juggle-how-to-get-flex-time/ The title is slightly misleading in that the article is actually more about when a person should inquire about flex time - during the interview process or waiting until the offer is in hand - but as someone who faced this very question exactly one year ago - and who needs to renegotiate her own "flex time" in just a few weeks, the timing couldn't be better.
Asking for flex time at work is a stressful thing. Sure, many employers have written policies allowing for four-day work weeks or telecommuting, but in my experience, written policy bears no resemblance to the real working world. Sure, you're allowed to move to a four day work week, but the minute someone figures out that you are not there every Friday or Monday or whatever, you are immediately labeled as "not a team player" and the better cases with the higher dollar values start going to other associates.
Despite the negative connotation, I went to a four day work week while I was at my last job. I knew that working a reduced schedule would result in some career setback, but I was willing to take the penalty to have a little more time with my kids and to recooperate from the year of Sweet Pea's sickness. For three months, I worked a four day week. And for three months, I did everything in my power to hide that I worked a four day week. Even partners that I worked directly under did not know until I had my goodbye party on a Thursday that I was not working a full schedule. In other words, I had work/life balance on paper, but not in practice.
Some of my reasons for taking my current job included finding a firm that would allow me true work/life balance. But in order to figure out if this firm would allow real work/life balance, I had to treat the interview process in a way that no recruiter would recommend. I needed to talk about my family and what I needed in a job. In my interview, I talked about my kids. I talked about my commute. I talked about how I found the lower billable hour requirement refreshing. I talked about how I understood the need to work late for pressing projects, but how I needed flexibility to go to school plays and soccer games.
But I did not talk about a four day work week until after I had an offer.
There's something about the four day work week that is slightly scary to employers. They worry about how you'll handle things - like what if there's an emergency on a Friday? Are you going to make yourself available or are you going to steafastly hold on to your day off? How will you handle your work load the rest of the week? What is there is a court appearance? Will you be there? If they give you a four day work week, will everyone else ask for one too? The concerns of the employer are all understandable. Giving a new employee a non-tradtional work schedule is a bit of a risk. But it is one they should be willing to take.
Women who ask for a non-traditional schedule from the get-go are taking a risk too. They know they are asking the employer to do something slightly unsettling. But the request itself shows that the woman has really thought about the job and how she will manage it with her other obligations. It shows that she has considered the impact of the job on her family and is realistic about the competing demands. It also shows that she wants to be dedicated to her employer, and make sure that all expectations are clear. She knows she's taking a risk. In my opinion, it's one that employers should reward.