The changing shape of our workplaces means that flexible working options are a hot topic, and are often now presented much more as a perk that’s worth shouting about. Gone are the days when you were lucky to be able to work from home for just one day a week; now there’s a wide array of options available for people who have parental or caregiver responsibilities, or any other desire to shift or downsize their hours.

However, many of these employment options are still somewhat experimental, and if they’re not supported correctly, they can easily end up creating a situation that’s worse than if the privilege didn’t exist in the first place.

A blessing, or a curse?

While employers are much more open and welcoming to flexible working arrangements than ever before, you have to be wary of some hidden hurdles when it comes to your workload. For instance, when I was working a 4½ day week in one role (with a regular half-day off to help support childcare), I didn’t get the sense that there were any special contingencies in-place for my being absent for half a day every week. In essence, I was just being asked to squeeze a five-day week into a slightly smaller box.

I also felt extremely guilty during my half-day off, if there was critical work happening, or if somebody was trying to schedule a meeting with me. This was mostly in my head (and I’d configured my calendar to show myself as out-of-office during that half-day) but nevertheless it created this weird feeling that I was slacking, even though I was simply working to my agreed contracted hours.

If you’re considering accepting a long-term flexible working arrangement, it’s critical that you understand whether there is support in-place for you to allow this arrangement to be beneficial to both you and the organisation, to avoid such pitfalls. (I’ve certainly seen successes in this area - I was able to secure a regular early finish for one of my team, to help them give their children full attention at the end of the school day, in exchange for regularly starting earlier.)

What to ask your current (or prospective) employer

If your organisation is presenting a new flexible working package to you, or you’re interviewing with those who are, there are some tactful ways in which you can explore how these options would realistically fit into day-to-day operations. You could ask questions such as:

  • How many people within the company are taking advantage of some form of flexible working policy? (Are you able to share some anonymised examples of specific flexible patterns you’re supporting?)
  • When did you (the interviewer/HR representative) last need to take advantage of a flexible working arrangement, and how straightforward was it?
  • Are there sufficient backup plans in place that I’d be able to flex hours at a moment’s notice if there was an emergency?
  • If people are required to work overtime, are they encouraged to take time off in lieu?
  • What does your company do to ensure that time off is really time off? (Work-life balance)

If you’re on the hunt for a new role, it’s naturally sensible to ask these questions up-front during the interview process. However, be sure to frame your questioning with contextual comments about what you can offer to the company - you don’t want to be perceived as somebody who’s exploring the opportunity to do as little work as possible. (Case in point: During my recent job search, it was critical to find an employer who would be able to support me in the situation where, for instance, my son was randomly sent home from nursery at some point during the day. I made it clear during my questioning that this had only occurred a handful of times during the previous year, and that we have other backup childcare options that we can exercise in an emergency.)

If everything sounds good, then congratulations - you may just have found yourself a new working pattern which better supports your personal life!

Key takeaways 📝

  • It’s easy for a company to lay out their flexible working policy; it’s often harder to enact.
  • Make sure that you don’t end up covering for work outside of your contracted pattern.
  • Ask questions about flexibility during the interview process, but do it subtly.