Even though the majority of families today want and need some form of flexibility given the multiple demands they juggle, only about a quarter of all employers in this country offer formal flexible work programs.
But this does not mean you must abandon your desire to pursue a flexible work schedule. It simply means that the onus is on you, not your employer, to initiate a conversation about your needs. In many cases, the decision is left to your manager to make on a case-by-case basis -- regardless of whether or not there is a formal program in place.
Assess what you truly need and be creative in your thinking. Flexible work arrangements come in all shapes and sizes -- there isn't one specific mold to fit every need or lifestyle. Some people might want to work from home one day a week, while others would prefer a compressed schedule. Determine what you really need and why.
Be a strong performer on the job. Flex time is an accommodation, not an entitlement. Slackers and clock-watchers won't get the benefit of the doubt. Good workers and solid, reliable producers are more likely to have requests approved. So your first step is asking yourself if your performance is truly outstanding. If it's not, focus on improving it before asking for a special accommodation.
Here are several scenarios to consider:
Condensed workweek. If your standard week is 40 hours -- typically broken into five days, eight hours per day -- could you perform your position in four days at 10 hours per day? Even if this isn't possible every single week, you might persuade your boss to consider it even just once or twice a month, which would give you a free weekday to tend to personal and family needs.
Telecommuting. Instead of reporting for duty to your employer's offices five days a week, can your position be performed from your home one or two days a week? This would require you to have -- or your employer to provide -- whatever equipment and supplies are needed for your job, including dedicated phone line, computer, high speed Internet access and so forth. This eliminates a commute and typically leads to increased productivity among already-motivated employees.
If you're easily distracted or you don't have dedicated space at home to work from, this might not be a viable option. Many employers won't allow this type of arrangement if you're using it in lieu of baby-sitting services. They want to ensure that you're putting in your full hours even from home.
Vacation by the hour. Even though it's more difficult to keep track of time used, some employers are starting to allow workers to use their allotted vacation time by the hour instead of by the day. This enables working parents to attend school functions or doctor's appointments without missing a full day of work. The benefit to employers is better productivity -- more work gets done if an employee is present for part of the day than not at all. In other cases, employers sometimes allow staffers to convert unused sick days into vacation days.
Alternative work schedule. The federal government and many private employers allow some employees to select arrival and departure times that suit their personal needs within the working day. For example, some people might want to avoid a heavy commute, while others may benefit from seeing their kids off to school in the morning. These employees are still putting in the same number of hours in the office as their peers, but they're not necessarily the traditional 9 to 5 hours.
Access to concierge services. Many employers recognize that life happens while we're at work, and they're offering benefits that help the rank and file to better manage career and home simultaneously. Among the concierge services offered: dinner-to-go via their on-site cafeterias to help parents who work a bit later avoid the rat race of getting home to cook for their families; help with dog walking, routine car maintenance, a fill-in at home who can wait for the cable guy to show up; and other tasks that would normally take you away from work during the week or away from kids on the weekend.
Part-time work. Some women would gladly accept reduced pay and benefits to receive a reduced work schedule. Many companies will honor this arrangement for high achievers because it's more cost-effective than losing them altogether. Some employers recognize that you already have the knowledge and training, which would enable you to achieve the same (or better) results on a part-time basis as someone else could on a full-time basis without the same training.
Job sharing. This is perhaps the most difficult of all scenarios to secure because it requires the moon and the stars to align in ways that aren't always realistic. Even though some job-sharing relationships work successfully, the jury is out on the overall effectiveness of such arrangements.
Fixed overtime. Often employees are happy with their core hours, but the real killer comes when they're asked to perform overtime, especially with little to no notice. The ability to determine how much -- if any -- overtime you're expected to perform is another form of flexibility.
Spontaneous requests. Sometimes life can't be planned. Doctors appointments must be made, an elderly parent needs your attention, a child's teacher wants to see you, and so on -- all with little to no notice. While employees must usually request time off well in advance, a boss who is willing to work with you on last-minute requests is also extending a form of flexibility. There's great peace of mind in knowing you can ask for an hour or two off the day before you need it, not just weeks or months ahead of time.
Once you've figured out what would make your life feel more balanced, consider these steps:
1) Reality check. Can your desired plan really work with your job responsibilities? If you're going to ask about working from home one day a week, how will your work get done when you're not in the office? How will people reach you? Do you have the necessary setup at home to handle the work properly?
2) Research. Research other departments within your company. If someone else has had success with flexible work arrangements, it could help to persuade your boss to give it a shot too. The same is true for other employers in your area and in your industry. Those precedents can be very powerful in your favor.
3) Consider power in numbers, where appropriate. If other co-workers would benefit from a similar arrangement, join forces. There's often great leverage in numbers if you work together on a proposal that benefits the department and the company. With 16 employees at a Texas company, for example, a combination of long commutes, a craving for more time to pursue personal hobbies, and the demands of family life led them to dream of a compressed workweek with three-day weekends. That became the group's goal, and everyone was determined to work toward it.
4) Play devil's advocate. Anticipate the reasons why a boss might say no, and offer counterarguments. Before you present the proposal, figure out what the opposition might be -- and address it in the proposal. If you think the boss will be worried that you won't be available for key meetings that might pop up, explain how you'd be willing to alter your schedule as needed to accommodate such needs. If you're worried the boss will say, "If I do it for you, I must do it for everyone," then remind him or her that a) not everyone wants to work at home -- many are thrilled to get out every day and b) not every job can be done from home. The boss can offer other forms of flex to other staffers.
5) Be positive. Show enthusiasm for your job and be clear about how flex time will improve your ability to do it. Be positive about your work. Don't say, "The commute is killing me, so I must work from home." Instead, explain how working from home will give you more time to devote to work and less stress because you aren't sitting in a car for four hours a day. Be willing to compromise.
6) Suggest a trial. Suggest a trial period and benchmarks to measure the success of your plan. Explain how you think the proposal should be measured by you and by your employer. You both must be satisfied for this to work. It's often easier for the boss to say yes to a temporary arrangement than to feel threatened by saying yes to something that may be indefinite.
7) Put it all in writing. Write a formal proposal that presents the benefits from your and your boss's perspectives. This is a serious change from the norm that you're proposing; don't ask for it casually. A written document is also great if your boss has to ask his boss about your request. You'd rather have your words passed up the chain of command. Many people I've worked with have learned this the hard way; their verbal, spur-of-the-moment requests were rejected because it was easy for the boss to say no.
8) Be patient. Even though we all love instant gratification, don't expect an immediate answer. If your request is turned down, ask for feedback on why the idea was not accepted. Ask to establish a time frame for revisiting this -- and then be ready to go back with gusto. If you're rejected, ask if there are any particular concerns the boss has and see if you can help alleviate them. Work to see if there are compromises that can be reached. Ask for a time frame for revisiting the conversation.
Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor on "Good Morning America" and the CEO of Women for Hire. Join her free network at network.womenforhire.com.